Unification talks going on

Updated: March 24, 2006, 9:34 PM ET
Associated Press

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- The rift that has scarred the popularity and prestige of American open-wheel racing for more than a decade may finally be on the mend, with the heads of the rival IRL and Champ Car World Series confirming Friday that they are talking about unification.

Indy Racing League founder Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven, co-owner of the Champ Car World Series, have recently struck up a friendship that has led to the informal talks.

Replying to recent published reports about so-called merger talks, George acknowledged that he and Kalkhoven have been talking "fairly frequently" since running into each other at a ski resort in December.

"I think (an agreement) is certainly possible, but I think we're a long way from there at this point," George said.

"I think everyone would like to see it happen sooner rather than later: our partners, our sponsors, our teams, fans and, I think, likewise on the other side, I'm sure there are those that feel the same way. But it's nothing you can hurry along."

George, speaking at a press conference at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the IRL IndyCar series opens Sunday with the Toyota Indy 300, added, "There's always the temptation to start charging ahead but, so far, I've tried to keep focused on really trying to understand what all we both have to consider in discussions we've had on unification."

Several previous attempts to get the two sides together have failed because of egos and the differing philosophies of the series. Asked if it can get done this time, Kalkhoven said, "We're talking and that's a good thing. The best thing would be if everyone else just goes away and leave us alone."

George first said that, even if a deal does get done, it could not happen by 2007. Later, though, he said, "I supposed if all the stars, moons and planets aligned, it could be possible. But what are the chances of that?"

Asked if he now believes it is important to have only one open-wheel series, George said, "I, for a long time, have been one of those who believed it certainly would be nice if open-wheel racing were unified."

Kalkhoven said he too has enjoyed the conversations with George, but cautioned that "No one is saying we want to do this at all costs.

"The issue is, everyone would agree, that it's a very, very good thing to do," Kalkhoven told the Associated Press in a telephone interview earlier Friday. "It's not about getting an agreement to merge. It's about what we will have in year one, year two and year three.

"The worst thing that could happen would be to merge and then have another split."

George, whose family owns and operates the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced the formation of the IRL in 1995 as an all-oval alternative to the established Championship Auto Racing Teams series that raced on ovals and road and street circuits. The IRL began competition in 1996.

The addition of a second series frustrated and split a fan base already shrinking after the retirement of longtime stars like Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser in the early 90s.

To make matters worse, most of the top drivers and teams from CART moved to the IRL over the next several years.

Coinciding with the tremendous growth of NASCAR over the last 11 years, both open-wheel series have struggled trying to fill seats at races, stop the decline of their TV ratings and find big-money sponsorships.

CART declared bankruptcy and Kalkhoven and two partners and fellow CART team owners, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi, bought the assets and formed Champ Car in 2004. Kalkhoven has led the revamped series, which opens its 2006 season April 9 at Long Beach, Calif., to a strong comeback, with successful events, new stars and a better TV package, while the IRL is now an established series with highly competitive racing.

But both series continue to struggle to attract new fans and remain in NASCAR's very large shadow.

George said many problems face a possible merger, including how to combine the series, which engines and chassis to use and what a unified schedule would be.

"There's reason to be hopeful, but I would caution everyone from getting their hopes set too high," George said. "I think, if it comes together, great. ... If we have a bunch of big, hairy issues, then it will be a problem."

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index