Champ Car turnaround looking strong, steady

Just a couple or three years ago, Champ Car's season-ending banquet had the gloomy feeling of the series' Last Supper. But this year's edition, held at the downtown Indianapolis Marriott hotel Saturday, was firmly and optimistically focused on the future.

"If we can't have open-wheel unification, at least we can have a common broadcast partner."
-- Kevin Kalkhoven

"Tonight is going to be short and sweet," series co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven promised in his opening remarks. "No hammer -- we don't need one."

True to his word, Kalkhoven & Co. delivered a banquet that lasted about as long as a good 500-mile race, clocking in at a little less than three hours. But then, anyone who has followed Champ Car since Kalkhoven took over the reeling racing series in early 2004 knows he is a follow-through kind of guy.

The fact that Champ Car is still very much alive and headed into 2007 on an upswing has surprised motorsports pundits around the world -- not to mention the management of the famous racetrack that sits at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road in Indianapolis.

Champ Car might always play second fiddle to the Indianapolis 500 (and the Indy Racing League built around it) locally, but the series has remained relevant on an international level. And with a new spec chassis, new venues and a new long-term television package in place for the future, the Champ Car World Series looks as though it is solidly on the comeback trail domestically.

"We faced many challenges over the last three years, and it has been a difficult journey," Kalkhoven said. "I believe 2007 will be a transitional year -- not just for Champ Car but for open-wheel racing around the world."

Three years ago, IRL founder Tony George famously said he brings his hammer to work every day, ostensibly to put the final nail in CART's coffin. But while George's series now struggles for car count and an overall identity (Ovals? Americans? Or "CART Lite"?), the rebuilding of Champ Car under Kalkhoven's leadership has been slow but steady.

For the past few weeks, Kalkhoven promised exciting news about his series' future television partner, and he didn't disappoint. Initial details about the surprising new five-year deal with the ESPN family were revealed last week.

It's a homecoming of sorts because the Champ Car series has a long history with ESPN and ABC. The first race ever broadcast live by the fledgling ESPN network was the Champ Car (or more specifically, PPG IndyCar World Series) event from Milwaukee in 1981, and ABC/ESPN regularly televised Champ Car races up through 2001. ABC has broadcast the Indianapolis 500 since the mid-1960s.

Although specifics about where individual races will be broadcast have not been released, ESPN's first Champ Car race will be the April 22 Grand Prix of Houston. At least 11 events will be carried by ESPN and its partners in 2007, with the remainder already contractually assigned to CBS and NBC. The ESPN group takes over on a full-time basis in 2008.

"If we can't have open-wheel unification, at least we can have a common broadcast partner," Kalkhoven quipped.

News of the ESPN package began to break in the Champ Car paddock at the season-ending race in Mexico City to mixed reviews. Naysayers believe Champ Car is doomed to No. 3 status at best in ESPN's motorsports hierarchy behind NASCAR and the IRL, but others believe even that is better than being buried on SPEED Channel or Spike, Champ Car's most recent cable outlets.

Not only do the ESPN networks reach a greater number of households, it's easy for any sports bar or restaurant to put ESPN or ESPN2 on the TV. Those channels are also almost always part of American hotel television lineups.

"For motor racing fans, it's a very good thing," Kalkhoven said. "Now American open-wheel racing is at a place where fans can find it. SPEED Channel has become so NASCAR-centric that we were just a speed bump in their day.

"ESPN also offers a total package for sports fans, with the Web site and the magazine," he added. "I'm actually very pleased by the whole deal."

Perhaps more important, the ESPN announcement means there are now at least four major business entities that have an interest in seeing the IRL and Champ Car merge into a unified open-wheel series -- Honda, Ford, and Bridgestone/Firestone being the others. Even if NASCAR remains king, it's in ESPN's best interest to have American open-wheel racing fulfill its potential.

And the potential is there. Before the open-wheel split of 1996 caused by the formation of the IRL, ESPN's Champ Car broadcasts regularly drew ratings in the 2.0-3.0 bracket -- almost as good as NASCAR in those days. But both series have been happy to pull 1.0 ratings in recent years.

Although Champ Car's horizon continues to brighten, the series still faces serious issues. There is an almost embarrassing lack of sponsorship and prize money in the series, a key factor in why A.J. Allmendinger defected to NASCAR. Series champion Sebastien Bourdais won only $757,500 in prize money in 2006, a figure that would put him No. 113 in earnings on the PGA Tour (where Tiger Woods tallied nearly $10 million) or No. 22 in men's tennis.

Even factoring in his $500,000 champion's bonus (down from $1 million as recently as 2004), Bourdais' winning tally of $1.26 million is embarrassing compared with the $3.84 million IRL champion Sam Hornish took home. In all, seven IRL drivers topped the $1 million mark in earnings this year.

More than any other individual, Bourdais is a victim of the declining American open-wheel scene. Ten years ago, the Frenchman's performances in Champ Car easily would have secured him a top-line Formula One ride, but these days, he is effectively ignored in the F1 paddock.

So he'll be back to try for his fourth consecutive Champ Car title in 2007 -- which by itself is good news for the series and for American racing fans.

"Has anybody done it four times?" Bourdais asked during his speech at the banquet. "That's going to be the challenge for 2007, and I'll be back in the McDonald's car trying to make real history happen."

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