After 12 years of conflict, IRL and Champ Car merge

Indy Car racing has finally gotten together.

The Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series signed a deal Friday to unify the two American open-wheel circuits, bringing them under the umbrella of the IRL.

"I'm glad that they were able to get it done," said A.J. Foyt, the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. "It'll eliminate the confusion for the race fans and the sponsors because there'll be just one type of car and one type of motor and everyone will be running together. May the best team win."

After 12 years of bitter rivalry that confused fans, promoted apathy and nearly buried the sport, Champ Car agreed to cease operations, giving the surviving IRL the opportunity to rebuild open-wheel's lost prestige.

The deal, which has been in the works for about two weeks, was announced Friday in Indianapolis, where both series have their headquarters.

A statement was released, saying, "Owners of Champ Car and the Indy Racing League completed an agreement in principle Friday that will unify the sport for 2008.

"Gerald Forsythe, co-owner of Champ Car, signed an agreement in principle in Chicago, joining his partner Kevin Kalkhoven and Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George who had signed late Thursday in Indianapolis."

IRL spokesman John Griffin said details will be forthcoming in a news conference next week.

"I think it's great," said Dario Franchitti, who won the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship before heading for NASCAR.

"There's a part of me that thinks I wish it had happened five years ago. For my friends in the IRL, my friends in the Champ Car series, I think it's fantastic because they'll all get to race together in one series. From that point, I'm really happy and as a race fan I'm happy. It's been a long time coming."

Earlier in the day, it appeared talks might be stalled when Kalkhoven left without comment.

Bobby Rahal, who won three championships in what was then the CART series, and is now co-owner of an IRL team, welcomed news of the agreement.

"This is a great day for open-wheel racing," said Rahal, whose 19-year-old son, Graham, is a Champ Car driver. "I applaud all of those that made this possible, but want to especially recognize all of those that made sacrifices and concessions to secure the future of open-wheel racing.

"I truly believe that this is the first step toward restoring open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500 to not only where it once was, but beyond."

Over the years, numerous attempts to merge the series failed, mostly over who would retain control. This time, though, all the hurdles were cleared as George worked together with Kalkhoven and Forsythe to reach an agreement.

The latest talks began after George offered any Champ Car team that moved to the IRL in 2008 free Honda engine lease programs, free Dallara chassis and the same $1.2 million incentive program offered to its own teams.

At least six Champ Car teams, with up to 10 cars, were believed ready to make the move in time to race in the IRL's season-opener March 29 at Homestead, Fla. That could give the IRL's IndyCar Series a field of up to 26 cars, a considerable improvement over the numbers of entries in both series in recent years.

One of the Champ Car teams planning to make the move to the IRL is Walker Racing, headed by Derrick Walker, who has fielded teams in both series.

"It's back to the future," Walker said. "It's been a long road, but it has finally come together. From a fan and sports business point of view, one open-wheel racing series in the United States has long been recognized as what fans and sponsors want to have."

The agreement also is expected to add up to three Champ Car events to the IRL's original 16-race schedule for 2008. That could include the races at Long Beach, Calif.; Surfers Paradise in Australia and Edmonton, Alberta.

The rest of the Champ Car schedule, which was to have begun April 20 in Long Beach, was canceled, omitting races in Houston; Monterey, Calif.; Cleveland; Mont Tremblant, Quebec; Toronto; Portland, Ore.; Road America; Mexico City; Zolder, Belgium; and Jerez, Spain.

IRL officials said earlier this week several of those tracks, as well as several new venues, could be given consideration for addition to the 2009 IndyCar schedule.

In the early 1990s, Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), which later became Champ Car, had become a destination for drivers from Europe and South America and was a strong, thriving series constantly adding more road and street races to its schedule at the expense of the traditional oval tracks.

George announced in the fall of 1994 his intention to start the IRL as a series that would give young American drivers a chance to get to the Indianapolis 500 and to move open-wheel racing back toward its grassroots oval tracks.

The IRL began competition in 1996, with CART going its own way until it declared bankruptcy in January 2004. George made the high bid for CART's assets, but the judge awarded them to Kalkhoven, Forsythe and Gentilozzi because George intended to close down the rival series, leaving many people without jobs.

Since then, the two series have gone head to head for drivers, teams, fans, sponsors and TV ratings, generally losing out on all counts, particularly in light of the growing popularity of NASCAR, which has seen an influx of open-wheel stars since 2006.