Champ Car's future keeps getting brighter

Originally Published: August 17, 2005
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- After 20 months under its current owners, if the Champ Car World Series hasn't completely turned the corner yet, it is certainly past the apex and hard on the throttle.

By revealing its 2006 race schedule on Aug. 13, Champ Car is two to four months ahead of where it has been for the last few years when the series was in survival mode. People talk in terms of "when" and not "if" when assessing the future of Champ Car in August 2005, which is a big turnabout from recent summers.

Aside from its 15-race slate for 2006, which includes the addition of a revamped Houston Grand Prix, Champ Car announced a management succession plan that will see Sports Car Club of America president and CEO Steve Johnson take over Sept. 19 from Dick Eidswick as Champ Car's de facto leader. Eidswick, a turnaround specialist with a long association with Champ Car co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven, will remain in the background as CEO and chairman of the board.

Johnson joined the SCCA in 2000 after a stint with the National Hot Rod Association and he guided the non-profit group through a period of sustained growth. Now boasting nearly 70,000 members, the SCCA stages more than 2,000 professional and amateur-level road racing events every year.

Last year, Johnson held his own on a panel of racing luminaries at the annual SAE Motorsport Conference that included FIA president Max Mosley, NASCAR president Mike Helton and IndyCar Series founder Tony George. He said the opportunity to take the reigns at Champ Car at a time when the series appears poised to take off was too good to pass up.

The results they are getting aren't by accident. Champ Car's business model realizes that fans want entertainment, not just racing.
Steve Johnson

"Kevin is so passionate about the product that I was sold from day one and I'm not an easy sell," Johnson remarked. "I've followed very closely what has happened in the series since he and his partners [Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi] took over after the CART bankruptcy. After they shared their vision, I realized it was an incredible opportunity for me. They aren't distracted by what NASCAR is doing or what the IRL is doing. They're totally focused on the Champ Car World Series and where it's going."

This summer, Champ Car has averaged more than 150,000 fans for its races in July and August, including popular new events in San Jose, Calif., and Edmonton.

"The results they are getting aren't by accident," Johnson said. "Champ Car's business model realizes that fans want entertainment, not just racing. The races at Edmonton and San Jose were great examples from that standpoint because those are events that people were talking about at the water cooler on Monday morning, telling their friends, 'You need to be there next year.'"

However, Johnson realizes that Champ Car's outlook isn't completely rosy and said one of his first priorities is to put additional cars on the grid in 2006.

"So many things are going right, but the main thing that needs to happen is we need to work with our teams to help them out financially in terms of finding sponsors," said Johnson. "We need to have the right number of cars out there. But when you're averaging 150,000 fans for a weekend, that adds to the return on investment for sponsors, teams and partners. So we need to work harder on the marketing and sponsorship side. We want to offer value and keep sponsors wanting to stay for the long term."

Since he quietly arrived in American open-wheel racing as a Champ Car team owner in early 2003, Kalkhoven has demonstrated two things: He's not afraid to think big and he's a man of his word. Not only has Kalkhoven saved a historic form of open-wheel racing from execution, he and his partners have laid the groundwork to restore the popularity Champ Car racing enjoyed in the 1980s and '90s before America turned into NASCAR Nation.

"The fan base is developing very rapidly," said Kalkhoven. "I think it's obvious that if we bring racing close to urban centers, whether it's a permanent track like Montreal or Portland or a street course, if you turn it into a three-day festival, the fans and the families will come. You don't have to stand out in some mud-ridden field to watch cars come by.

"The winning formula we've got is this urban approach, allowing the fan base to grow, which will in turn complete the prosperity of the city, the promoters, and our own race series."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE