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Champ vs. Indy comparisons reveal much

Officials from the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series discourage comparison between the two forms of American open-wheel motorsport. Maybe that's progress, given that they wouldn't even acknowledge each other's existence just a year or two ago.

Still, after both groups staged their first open tests of the 2007 season within a week and about a hundred miles of each other in Florida, it's hard not to play "spot the differences." Seventeen solid car-driver combinations took part in IndyCar Series action at Daytona International Speedway, and 14 of the new Panoz Champ Cars turned out at Sebring International Raceway a few days earlier. However, only seven drivers have been confirmed for the Champ Cars.

The most startling aspect when observing the IndyCar scene a week after attending the Sebring Champ Car test was the difference in the level of presentation. Because the Champ Car teams have received their new cars only in the last six weeks, it's understandable that many of them were still unpainted. But at Daytona, the carryover Dallara/Honda IndyCars were all impressively turned out, and most of the drivers were already in their 2007-spec race suits.

In short, the IRL could kick off the IndyCar season tomorrow if it needed to, although it will have to wait until March 24. Meanwhile, given the current state of flux, it is somewhat sobering to think that the Champ Car season starts just two weeks later than that because the series has a lot of work to do in the next 60 days.

Yet it's not all doom and gloom for the Champ Car set, as this comparison between the two open-wheel leagues in 13 key areas confirms.

Chassis
Newer is almost always better, and it doesn't get any newer than Champ Car's self-termed "Future of Racing" -- the Panoz DP01. Hyperbole aside, the car has been fast in early testing and the problems encountered in testing should be corrected by the April 8 Las Vegas opener. Spare-parts supply will be the crucial issue for Panoz until midseason. Meanwhile, the Dallara that has served the IndyCar Series since 2003 is a quantum leap ahead of its predecessor and beats the Panoz Champ Car in terms of craftsmanship. But heading into the car's fifth season of action, it's time for an update.

Advantage: Champ Car

Engine
Honda dominated the IndyCar Series to the extent that it drove out its competition, and Cosworth was the last engine manufacturer on the Champ Car island after CART imploded in 2002. Forced into spec-supplier mode, Cosworth created an affordable and reliable package that provided the business model for today's Honda IndyCar program. In 2006, Honda proved its capability as an evenhanded supplier as opposed to a fierce competitor, but it provided the marketing clout former Champ Car partner Ford never did.

Advantage: IndyCar

Tires
This couldn't be more of a wash -- Bridgestone (Champ Car) and Firestone (IndyCar) are part of the same company.

Advantage: Draw

Car count
Champ Car bosses talked a lot of smack this past summer about 22- or 24-car fields, but it looks as if they will be hard-pressed to find 18 funded cars. The situation isn't much better in the IndyCar Series, where between 18 and 20 is likely to be the norm.

Advantage: Draw

Sponsorship
The two series might have a similar number of cars, but when you talk about the number of sponsored cars, the balance shifts dramatically in favor of the IndyCar Series. Every car at the Daytona test was smartly turned out, and only Buddy Rice's Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry lacked a title sponsor. Meanwhile, only a handful of cars in the Champ Car series enjoy any kind of meaningful outside backing.

Advantage: IndyCar

Race attendance
Here's where the pendulum swings back to Champ Car's side. Most of Champ Car's street races enjoy a solid fan base, led by Long Beach and Surfers Paradise. Most important, those events draw a crowd for all three days of a race weekend. Qualifying-day crowds at most IndyCar oval races number in the hundreds, and it's an image problem that won't go away for the IRL.

Advantage: Champ Car

Driver star quality

The IndyCar Series has at least eight drivers -- yes, including Danica Patrick -- who should be household names in the United States. In Champ Car, the number is more like three, although it easily could double in the next year.

Advantage: IndyCar

Safety
Since 1996, four drivers have been killed in Champ Cars (including IRL driver Scott Brayton) while two have perished in the normally aspirated IndyCar formula that came on board in 1997. However, in that time period, significantly more drivers suffered serious injuries in the IndyCar Series, particularly concussions and spinal fractures. Credit where credit is due: The IndyCar Series' safety record is vastly improved since 2003, when the current Dallara chassis was phased in and the level of professionalism in the series was greater. But an oval crash is always going to be a big one, and the IndyCar Series is based on ovals.

Advantage: Champ Car

Venues
One reason Champ Car enjoys an attendance advantage is that most of its events are held in urban areas easily accessible to fans. The ovals that dominate the IndyCar schedule are generally 20 to 40 miles outside major cities; that's apparently too far to travel for those casual race fans who equate oval racing with NASCAR. The IndyCars race on some of America's nicest ovals, but Joliet, Ill., and Jackson, Mich., don't stack up with cosmopolitan cities such as Portland, Ore., and Toronto.

Advantage: Champ Car

Race management
Neither series has had a major technical scandal in the past five years, and under Tony Cotman, Champ Car's race operations are vastly improved since 2004. On the IRL side, some question whether league president Brian Barnhart needs to drop his chief steward responsibilities because of a conflict of interest.

Advantage: Draw

PR/Marketing
At a time when Champ Car needs to be increasing its PR staff, it is making cutbacks instead. Meanwhile, the IndyCar Series spends far more on marketing (the latest guru is Kiss founder Gene Simmons) but it has surprisingly little impact.
Advantage: IndyCar

Television package
The IndyCar Series has seven races on ABC, along with five each on ESPN and ESPN2. Champ Car's six network races are spread among ABC (3), NBC (2) and CBS (1), and one of its cable races is banished to ESPN Classic. Plus, Champ Car is paying for its airtime while the IndyCar Series is still getting paid.

Advantage: IndyCar

International impact
The IndyCar Series has a following in Japan because of the Honda business link and a race at Twin Ring Motegi. But oval racing has zero impact outside the United States. For better or worse, Champ Car continues to hammer away on an international strategy, though only Surfers Paradise and Toronto have a successful long-term track record. The series is still respected around the world, however.

Advantage: Champ Car

Conclusion
If you were keeping score at home, the IndyCar Series came out ahead in five areas (engine, sponsorship, driver star quality, PR/marketing and television), Champ Car was best in five categories (chassis, attendance, safety, venues and international impact), and there were three draws. But then maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that there is no winner in the American open-wheel racing war. Other than NASCAR, of course.

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