Historic deal nears finish line

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A deal to put the rival IndyCar Series and Champ Car Series into one unified body is as close as it's ever been since the war in open wheel racing began 13 years ago.

Gerry Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven of Champ Car are close to reaching an agreement with Indy Racing League founder Tony George to join forces, but the one hurdle that needs to be cleared is getting officials at Twin-Ring Motegi in Japan to move that race date from April to later in the season so that the Long Beach Grand Prix can be added to the IndyCar schedule.

This story was first reported by SpeedTV.com and PA-SportsTicker on Thursday night.

Reached by PA-SportsTicker on Thursday, IndyCar vice president of public relations John Griffin remained hopeful that a resolution could be reached.

"Meetings have and will continue to be ongoing but there are no set dates for a formal announcement," Griffin said from Indianapolis. "There's still some work to be done."

George and Robert Clarke, a retired Honda racing executive, will meet with Honda officials in Japan on Monday to personally negotiate the move in the Japan race date, which is vital because that facility is owned by Honda, the sole engine supplier of IndyCar.

"It's as close as it's ever been to being together, but we don't know if we can get across the goal line," George told Robin Miller of SpeedTV.com on Thursday evening. "But no one is giving up yet."

Under terms of the agreement, any Champ Car team that agrees to compete on the full IndyCar schedule will get free Dallara chassis and Honda engines to assist in the transition from Champ Car, which uses a completely different engine/car formula. They would also qualify for the TEAMS incentive program, which pays $1.2 million per car for full-time series participation in place of prize money.

In addition to adding the Long Beach Grand Prix to the schedule, IndyCar is expected to add two more races off the Champ Car schedule, including Edmonton and Surfer's Paradise Australia.

Champ Car would cease to exist and IndyCar would run the series.

Such a deal was greeted as tremendous news by Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, who promotes the second biggest race on the IndyCar schedule after the one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"Reports that open-wheel racing is close to unification is the best thing to happen to the sport since Rick Mears, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr. and Danny Sullivan were battling each other in front of huge crowds 20 years ago," Gossage said. "I hope this deal can be wrapped up and we can all focus on stabilizing the schedule, teams and sponsors, and ramp up the promotion.

"This has the potential to be the biggest, most important motorsports story of the year because it is so important to the fans," he added. "From a promoter's perspective, it will provide our fans with a larger field, which could lead to even more exciting races and drama, an opportunity for future stars to emerge for the fans to root for and embrace, and, most importantly, reunite all open-wheel fans and give them one series to follow."

The combined series could have as many as 24 cars participating for the full season. The IndyCar Series would be the sanctioning body for the combined series with the 92nd Indianapolis 500 as the centerpiece event.

The Long Beach Grand Prix is set as Champ Car's season opener on April 20, and the Motegi race in Japan is April 19 on the IndyCar schedule. Long Beach officials say they cannot change their date because of contracts with the Long Beach Convention Center, around which the street circuit is set up.

"As long as Honda won't move Motegi, there won't be a merger," Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven told The Associated Press on Friday. "It's certainly a major hurdle, but not the only one. I believe there are significant advantages in doing [the merger], but I believe there are also significant advantages in not doing it. At this moment in time, there are no discussions until they move Motegi."

This would end one of the longest divisions in open wheel history.

George announced plans on March 20, 1994, for a new IndyCar Series that would have the Indianapolis 500 as its showcase event. He was met with bitter resistance from the CART series, which was the primary open-wheel racing series in North America.

Most of the cars that competed in the Indy 500 from 1979 to '95 were CART teams, but when the Indy Racing League opened for business in 1996, CART held steadfast to its opposition to the IRL and chose to hold its own race against the Indy 500. That race was called the US500 and was held at Michigan International Speedway.

On that monumental day, only two CART teams decided to race at Indy -- Galles Racing and Walker Racing. The rest of that year's Indy field was comprised of teams that were part of the IRL.

A young driver named Tony Stewart started on the pole at Indy after his teammate, pole-winner Scott Brayton, was killed in a crash in practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the week before the race.

Buddy Lazier won a dramatic Indy 500 that day while Jimmy Vasser won the US500 at Michigan. A crowd estimated at 400,000 fans was at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and another 110,000 fans filled Michigan International Speedway meaning over a half-million spectators attended an IndyCar race that day.

Since then, however, crowds dropped dramatically for virtually all open-wheel races involving the two series.

Longtime racing star Mario Andretti, the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner who won IndyCar national titles in both USAC and CART, has made many attempts to bring the sides together in the past.

"It's the only solution we have to save the sport we love so much," Andretti said. "The bottom line is that this is desperately needed. There are no losers in a situation like this, starting with the fans."

An effort to bring fans back to IndyCar racing may be difficult, however.

IndyCar racing was the dominant form of motorsports in the United States for most of the 20th Century, but as NASCAR skyrocketed in popularity, IndyCar suffered. It now lags far behind in terms of sponsorship support, attendance, television ratings and public awareness.

Stewart would go on to win the IRL title in 1997, but would leave the series after the 1998 season to compete fulltime in NASCAR beginning in 1999. Stewart would go on to win NASCAR Cup titles in 2002 and 2005.

Since then, three-time IndyCar champion Sam HornishJr. and last year's Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti have both left that series for NASCAR.

George tried to purchase CART's assets in bankruptcy court but was thwarted when a U.S. District Court Judge in Indianapolis accepted a smaller offer from Kalkhoven, Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi.

The three men created the Champ Car Series, which included many of the old CART teams. But some of the best teams from CART, including Team Penske, Target/Chip Ganassi and the old Team Green, which became Andretti Green Racing, would leave for the IRL. Other team owners, such as Bobby Rahal and Adrian Fernandez, would follow.

Kalkhoven, a wealthy Australian businessman, would keep Champ Car afloat before he started talking to George about reconciliation in January 2006. Initial efforts for unification would fail, but George quietly worked behind the scenes to finally convince the Champ Car hierarchy to come to a resolution.

After many failed attempts, it appears perseverance is close to paying off, which would bring the Champ Car teams over to the IndyCar Series.

"Both sides want this to happen very much and we're working on it," Kalkhoven said.