Organizers looking to keep F1, Grand Prix in Indianapolis

Updated: June 14, 2007, 6:41 PM ET
Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Indianapolis still wants the U.S. Grand Prix, and Formula One drivers believe their series belongs in America.

Now it's up to Tony George and Bernie Ecclestone to keep it that way.

Speedway president Joie Chitwood told The Associated Press on Wednesday that George, whose family owns the track, plans to meet with the F1 boss meet this week in a bid to work out a long-term deal for the U.S. Grand Prix.

"The hope is, from the dialogue we'll have at the event, that we'll have a result whether it's here or not," Chitwood said. "I think both parties would like to have some closure so we can let the fans know what's happening."

Sunday's race will be the eighth on Indianapolis' 2.6-mile, 13-turn road course.

It's also the third straight year organizers have been peppered with questions about F1's future at the track.

The event was marred in 2005 when 14 of the 20 drivers pulled off the track just before the start over concerns about the safety of the Michelin tires used by seven teams. Afterward, George refused to wave the checkered flag or join Michael Schumacher in the winner's circle, and Chitwood later called it a setback for F1. Chitwood also remained silent when asked whether speedway officials would honor the final year on its original contract.

The F1 teams did come back, with the full European flavor Chitwood has come to appreciate.

But not without fallout.

Michelin, which is no longer with the series, refunded money to fans and bought 20,000 tickets to last year's race. Ecclestone caused more controversy last summer by suggesting it didn't matter whether F1 raced in America. Negotiations to extend the deal dragged into August before the two sides agreed to a one-year deal.

Chitwood wants a more permanent solution this time.

"I think uncertainty is tough for everybody and more importantly for the fans, from a business standpoint," he said. "I think now is the time for discussion of a longer-term agreement."

One complication may be Chitwood's pursuit of a motorcycle race. He has been talking to the MotoGP series, which he likens to F1 because of its technology, and the World Super Bike circuit, which Chitwood said is more like NASCAR and IndyCar because of its engine restrictions.

Chitwood's preference would be to have motorcycles on the track by the summer of 2008, but that could be tricky if the track continues to host three major races between late May and late July. Indianapolis is the world's only venue to hold races for the F1, IndyCar and NASCAR series.

"We'd have to talk with city officials and see what weekends are open, that sort of thing," Chitwood said. "We'd have to see what makes sense, but that's so far down the road right now."

Instead, Chitwood wants to focus on keeping F1 at Indy.

Two German drivers, Ralf Schumacher and Nick Heidfeld, both said Wednesday the series needs to compete on a U.S. course.

"I think it's important for F1 because it's labeled as the world championship," said Heidfeld, who finished second in Montreal last week. "America is a big country and has a lot of history with auto racing, so I think it is important to race here."

Although Ralf Schumacher, brother of the five-time U.S. Grand Prix champ, has struggled at Indianapolis and is no fan of the track, he believes an American race could expand F1's fan base.

"Hopefully, it will catch on here," he said.

Chitwood would not say how many tickets the track has sold for Sunday's race, citing the speedway's long-standing policy of not announcing attendance figures. But he said he was pleased with this year's sales and believes they will increase if fans know what to expect.

That's why the coming talks between George and Ecclestone are so important.

"We don't want to continue doing one-year contracts," Chitwood said. "I can tell you that Tony and Bernie had a phone conversation last week and they plan to have one here this week. We're hoping to discuss the future of the event, but nothing's been resolved yet."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press