Brant James
Thursday February 28th, 2008

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- It didn't have the metaphorical perfection of the driving of the golden spike to link the transcontinental railroad or the significance of a treaty ending some long gone war.

But there Tony George and Kevin Kalkhoven stood before a collection of 22 open-wheel drivers, grinning and grinning some more as shutters clicked, gripping hands for the photo-op on Wednesday that officially ended the Great Open-Wheel War.

George and Kalkhoven, the Champ Car co-owner whose series agreed to have its teams and most valued assets melded into the once-rival circuit, knew much ground had been lost in 30 years of squabbling within the sport and 12 years of outward venom since George founded the IRL and broke away from what was then known as CART.

NASCAR drove through the wreckage and was an easy lap ahead now. So everyone spoke of small gains.

"It's going to take some time,'' George said. "But it all starts here today.''

Everyone spoke of determination.

"This is not some magic bullet,'' Kalkhoven said. "It's going to take an awful lot of hard work.''

And everyone spoke of modest expectations.

"This is the time we've been waiting for, for open-wheel racing to come back,'' said driver Helio Castroneves. "We are not competing against NASCAR. We're just a different type of racing. Now we just have good things to show to everyone.''

But regaining that lost status was clearly an objective for a sport that collectively weak and divided could only ponder holding onto memories. But is it up to the job of reclaiming its legacy?

"I do think so. At least I hope so,'' said former Champ Car driver Graham Rahal, who at 19 will soon be a new young marketing tool for the IRL. "I think that the way we look at it now is we're not going to be a challenger to NASCAR right away, but certainly I think over time we can get back to that position."

Peter DeLorenzo, an auto industry analyst and editor of autoextremist.com, said the IRL can establish a new beachhead with fans and ever-important sponsors, especially as NASCAR has "started to spiral downward a little bit." But he noted the IRL should temper expectations.

"I think (the IRL) definitely can get a toehold,'' he said. "Will they ever recover from the 12 years of rancor and discord that basically handed the platform of American racing and the mainstream media to NASCAR? No. There's no chance. I think basically all they can hope for is a focused presentation of their type of racing and a gradual return from a lot of their fans that drifted away during the twelve years.''

DeLorenzo said NASCAR's ebb after 20 seasons of explosive growth may allow the new IRL a chance to succeed, if not with fans, in corporate board rooms. That will be just as important for a series that has struggled to find sponsorship in competition with the higher-profile NASCAR series. The cost of sponsoring a high-level Sprint Cup team is over $20-million, with perhaps twice that required to properly "activate'' or promote a brand. NASCAR has recently lost high-profile sponsors such as Tide, with other stalwarts such as Interstate Batteries routinely selling their races to recoup their investment.

"Part of the reason for that is a lot of corporate America is getting tired of the money involved to get involved with a top NASCAR team,'' DeLorenzo said. "You have lowering TV numbers, empty seats and I think corporate America is starting to drift away from NASCAR. So yes, I would think the IRL will get a closer look now.''

Zak Brown, CEO of Just Marketing International, which the IRL retained as a consultant six months ago, said several companies have expressed an interest in the unified series and he anticipates announcing a crucial title sponsorship this season. Brown said he is targeting financial institutions and electronics companies in the Fortune 1000 -- mentioning Bank of America, Panasonic and Sony -- for what he expects would be a $10 million deal. IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt said the series is "on the 10-yard line,'' in attaining a presenting sponsor.

"It's very important because the title sponsor helps build the racing series and its profile (much like Winston did for NASCAR),'' Brown said. "It's a must we get one.''

Eric Wright, vice president of research and development for Joyce Julius & Associates, which tracks sponsor value with a system that quantifies television exposure, said it's difficult to compare the merit of sponsoring NASCAR teams versus the IRL because open-wheel sponsorships often cost half as much. And although NASCAR dwarfs the IRL in exposure, ratings, purses and most tangible categories over a season, Wright emphasized the value of the Indianapolis 500.

"Indy is still a great event,'' he said. "It's in the top tier of U.S. motorsports without a doubt. I think sometimes that gets lost on people. It may not be No. 1 any longer but it's still up there. I always hesitate to pile on Indy because Indy itself is still a pretty fantastic opportunity for sponsors.''

Especially if a dynamic, boundary-crossing driver is involved. And the IRL currently has one of the best in the world in terms of marketing in Danica Patrick. Whereas Joyce Julius calculates that Kevin Harvick's sponsors recouped $8.9 million worth of advertising value for his on-camera exposure in winning the 2007 Daytona 500 and Dario Franchitti just $3.6 million, Patrick generated $8.1 million for finishing eighth.

"She's off the chart,'' Wright said. "She is a unique personality and she's usually the storyline one way or another.''

Now the IRL has to find a way to parlay her popularity and that of two-time Indy 500 and Dancing with the Stars winner Castroneves into broader appeal.

"I think Danica Patrick personally needs to win this year because she's been right on the cusp,'' DeLorenzo said. "But I think it's absolutely crucial for the series. She and Marco Andretti and maybe Graham Rahal are the future stars. ... Selfishly, I'm sure the IRL has their fingers crossed that she wins, because that would do a lot for the series. Will it be an instant fix? Not a chance.''

Eddie Gossage is concerned about the allure of instant fixes. As track president at Texas Motor Speedway, he's responsible for filling seats in what was the land of A.J. Foyt but is now Labonte territory. He does well, averaging the IRL's largest crowds aside from the Indianapolis 500. He has an affinity for open-wheel racing and says nothing is quite as exciting as watching the cars on a high-banked speedway such as his. But therein lies a concern: with the IRL debuting on non-ovals in 2005 on the streets of St. Petersburg, adding four more non-ovals since and in reunification acquiring Long Beach, Edmonton and Surfers Paradise, Australia, Gossage is concerned the series could follow the formula he feels doomed CART.

"Do we really want to follow the model that caused CART and Champ Car to go out of business?'' he posed. "Temporary street courses, taking a paycheck from a promoter that has no future and won't be here in three years, foreign drivers? Or do we stand back and look at it, the slow nickel versus the fast dime?"

Gossage's thinking is contrary to the movement inside the IRL even before the amalgamation and the success in St. Petersburg. The thought: do something NASCAR could not by bringing racing into intimate urban environments. As recently as last year, the league had discussed informally the prospect of racing on Governors Island in New York Harbor. George envisions a 20-race series with only about half ovals.

Though he stressed "there's a certain charm that international flavor brings,'' and doesn't want to sound xenophobic, Gossage said the IRL must not become "CART II.''

But above all, he said, there must be humility.

"Be humble. Be loyal,'' he said. "IndyCar racing, through its 'heydays' never acted humble toward the fans. Give them a reason to come back to see you.''

To that end, George and Kalkhoven used the word "fan" no less than 15 times in their news conference on Wednesday.

An offseason in which IRL drivers won dancing trophies on national television and posed for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (Patrick) has given the series one of its biggest boosts in years even before reunification, Gossage said.

So now the league must sell itself on the track. Two-hour races often decided by fractions of second at speeds in excess of 200 mph would seemingly do that. At least they do at Texas Motor Speedway. Gossage said therein lies the formula.

"I'm not suggesting it try to be NASCAR,'' he said. "There's a unique nature of open-wheel racing -- open cockpit, open-wheel, speed, that makes it so cool. There's no way you can look at an IndyCar and think about anything but it being fast, man. And that's what it needs to sell itself as.''

But it'll never get to sell itself in the same market as NASCAR, Gossage said. Though chairman Brian France has espoused motorsports prosperity across regimens, he's against his top series competing on the same weekend at a common venue with the IRL. Trucks, yes, Sprint Cup no. A head-to-head comparison is apparently not in the long-range plan.

"Not going to happen,'' Gossage said.

Maybe catching back up to NASCAR won't either. But on this day, there was finally an excuse to hope.

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