Schedule snag, media leaks lead to suspension of merger talks

Updated: February 8, 2008, 7:38 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

Officials from the Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series confirmed Friday morning that negotiations have recently taken place geared toward folding elements of the Champ Car World Series into the IRL IndyCar Series.

But the ongoing saga of American open-wheel-racing unification took another turn shortly after lunch when Champ Car issued a statement claiming that those talks have stalled.

"Unfortunately, leaks and media reports about a possible unification of Champ Car and the Indy Racing League [IRL] have significantly hampered discussions," said series co-principals Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven. "Over the past three years, we have fielded and offered several proposals regarding unification of the two premier U.S.-based open-wheel racing series, but we have been unable to reach an acceptable solution. Discussions currently are at a standstill, and we therefore are proceeding with plans to continue as Champ Car."

Kalkhoven reiterated those sentiments in an interview with ESPN.com.

"If people really want to see unification, the best thing to do is to leave it alone," he said. "It frustrates me because the parties are operating in good faith, and external influences prevent the transaction from taking place.

"You cannot do a business transaction in the public eye," Kalkhoven added. "When you do a normal business merger, the principals agree to the transaction, then you make an announcement, and then you take it to the stakeholders for comment. When there is a leak like this, everyone and their opinions gets involved and it becomes a complete stalemate. This has happened several times before. It's not helping the process."

In the latest proposal, several Champ Car races, including the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, would reportedly be added to the existing 16-race IndyCar Series schedule, and Champ Car teams committing to run the full slate would receive assistance from the IRL in obtaining Dallara chassis and Honda engines.

Sources at Champ Car and the IRL familiar with the negotiations revealed that the chief hang-up centers around the IndyCar Series race scheduled for April 19 at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan. The preference of the merged series is to honor Champ Car's contract to run the 34th annual Long Beach Grand Prix that weekend.

Motegi has offered to delay its event one week, to the weekend of April 26-27, but that is impossible because the IRL is scheduled to race in conjunction with the NASCAR Truck Series at Kansas Speedway that weekend.

That means the Japanese race would have to move to the autumn, which brings up additional issues: the IRL is adamant that its championship end on American soil, and Chicagoland Speedway's contract stipulates that it hosts the IRL finale, set for September 7. Moving Japan to late September or early October (possibly pairing it with another Champ Car-based event at Surfers Paradise, Australia) would require designating it as a non-championship race. Officials from Honda, which owns and operates the Motegi oval, may balk at that.

"As long as Honda won't move Motegi, there won't be a merger," Kalkhoven told The Associated Press Friday. "It's certainly a major hurdle, but not the only one.

"There are significant advantages in doing [the merger], but I believe there are also significant advantages in not doing it. At this moment in time, there are no discussions until they move Motegi.''

IRL vice-president of public relations John Griffin was more optimistic about the negotiations with Kalkhoven and Champ Car co-owner Gerald Forsythe.

"This thing is moving forward, but there's still some work to be done. I don't know how long it's going to take." he told the AP. "We are looking to add some teams and some races. [Retired Honda racing boss] Robert Clarke and Tony are going to head to Japan to talk to the Japanese about coming off their date."

In addition, Honda may view ceding the April 20 weekend to Long Beach as a loss of face because of rival manufacturer Toyota's longtime sponsorship of America's most successful street race. Honda is the sole engine supplier for the IndyCar Series and wields considerable clout within the series.

Griffin confirmed that series founder Tony George, along with key administrators Brian Barnhart and Terry Angstadt, will fly to Japan with Honda Performance Development executive Robert Clarke this weekend in an effort to convince Japanese Honda officials to grant some flexibility to the Motegi event in the interest of helping the overall growth of American open-wheel racing under the IndyCar Series umbrella.

IndyCar Series insiders believe that if Motegi agrees to change its date, the merger talks will quickly resume and official announcement of an open-wheel merger could come as early as the middle of next week.

That's assuming that additional leaks do not materialize that could hold up the process yet again. Champ Car and the IRL have come close to reaching a merger agreement several times before, as recently as last summer. Each time, the talks have broken down when they have become public knowledge.

"We've been working on this for some time and everything was going pretty well behind the scenes," Kalkhoven said. "There is no such thing as the right time; there is only the time of opportunity, which you have to take when it comes."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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