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Wednesday, December 17
Merger in open wheel's future?
By Robin Miller
Special to ESPN.com
They're all smart guys who've made gobs of money in the real world but, of course, history has shown us that means absolutely nothing when it comes to motorsports. Think John Menard.
That's why anybody with a business degree, or even a calculator, is trying to understand why Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi are spending millions of dollars to keep the CART Champ Car series out of the grave.
It looks like a cod-lock loser since they must pay to be on television, are scrambling to field enough cars and have no title sponsor or national media following to speak of. Oh, by the way, it was such an expensive proposition in 2003 that CART spent $100 million and turned out the lights.
So why would this seemingly intelligent trio that comprises Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) dig so deeply into their pockets? Ego? Delusion? Old football injury?
"We think it's a better product," said Gentilozzi. "It's (Champ Car) at the lowest tide it could be right now and with a good business plan we could make it flush again. Will our business lose money in 2004? We're braced for a deficit in '04 and we know what we have to do to change it.
"We know how to make money and we have a plan that takes us in that direction."
Gentilozzi didn't share that plan with the national teleconference Wednesday but he pretty much laid out a bottom line the night before. He knows open wheel can only heal if it's under one roof again and this is the chance to rescue some excellent venues, keep road racing alive and end a war that's decimated open wheel racing in this country.
"I've said that repeatedly to Tony (George) and I told him it's never going to be easier than it is now," said the owner of RocketSports, whose team built early IRL engines at his shop at Lansing, Mich.
"He's not going to find three guys with less ego than Gerry, Kevin and myself and we don't need to be the big dog."
George, who founded the all-oval series in 1996, had a contentious relationship with many of CART's old guard (many of whom are now in the IRL) but Gentilozzi considers the Indianapolis Motor Speedway president his friend and says they've met once in the past couple months and talked on the phone a few times.
"I aven't been in open wheel very long and I don't pretend to have Roger Penske's knowledge or experience," continued the longtime Trans-Am driver who now co-owns that series. "But everyone takes this thing way too personally and we've got to stop fighting.
"This isn't about egos or territory. This is about what fans will pay to see because, last time I checked, this is a business that works off admissions."
The assets purchased by OWRS include seven profitable events at Long Beach, Calif., Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Mexico City, Monterrey, Mexico and Surfer's Paradise, Australia, that draw big crowds. Cleveland made a bit of a comeback this season and Elkhart Lake remains the truest test of road racing in North America. St. Petersburg showed great potential in its debut.
They're all worth saving, plus Milwaukee, which the IRL is already going to for the first time in 2004.
Putting those 10 with the IRL's best tracks (Texas, Kentucky, Kansas City, Chicago, Phoenix, Fontana, Motegi and Indy) might be the kind of mix that would reinvigorate fans, manufacturers, drivers and sponsors.
"Let's go by the theory that open wheel racing will be unified again," said Gentilozzi, who does most of the talking for OWRS. "We need a 20-race season with 10 great road courses or street circuits and 10 great ovals.
"I look at it as 14-6, heavy on road courses, and naturally Tony looks at it as 3-17 but if we had that balanced diversity we could get back to the heyday of what open wheel used to be."
Of course, this is all Gentilozzi's hope. Bobby Rahal, Barry Green and Derrick Walker worked with George on a merger back in 1998 but it didn't happen.
But the longer this open wheel chasm exists, the further NASCAR pulls away and the tougher it is to get people interested in Indy or Champ Cars.
"Look what's happened since the split," said Gentilozzi. "The Champ Car series was effectively competing for the leadership position in North America and the split diminished its ability to compete (with NASCAR).
"This used to be a successful business and it can be again if we're cost efficient and effective."
And the future for open wheel?
"We'll have bludgeoned each other by then and we'll be together," replied Gentilozzi. "We need to be and we all know that."
Robin Miller covers open wheel racing for ESPN and ESPN.com.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories