Unified IndyCar makes public debut

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It was a day for welcoming back old friends and making new ones as the unified version of the IndyCar Series made its first official public appearance Wednesday at Homestead Miami Speedway.

And as Indy Racing League founder and CEO Tony George shook hands with Champ Car principal owner Kevin Kalkhoven, drivers from both series served as a proper backdrop to show that, for the first time since 1978, the long-fractured sport is one entity again.

The symbolism is of no small significance to George, who remembered the importance of reunification on Oct. 27, 2007 -- the 30th anniversary of his grandfather Tony Hulman's death. That was the day George began to wonder if the two open-wheel racing series could ever become one again.

Hulman was the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from extinction when he purchased the historic track from Eddie Rickenbacker in 1945. The revived Indianapolis 500 continued in 1946 after a four-year layoff because of World War II.

Hulman died in November 1977, ushering in a tumultuous time for the sport. Most of the leaders of the sanctioning body, the United States Auto Club, were killed in a plane crash in 1978. A group of IndyCar team owners formed CART in 1979 and an uneasy alliance had been fostered ever since, culminating with the birth of the Indy Racing League, which began competition on Jan. 27, 1996.

Since that time, there have been two open-wheel series fighting for control of the sport. But over time, George's IndyCar Series had gained a commercial foothold, mostly on the strength of its showcase event, the Indianapolis 500.

"It was last fall, on the anniversary of my grandfather's death, that I was thinking to myself it really had been 30 years since the sport of open-wheel racing had been truly unified," George recalled. "Last month, when the calendar turned over to 2008, I was wondering if it was possible this could ever happen?

"Lo and behold, I got a phone call that just made me feel really warm. I felt like this was perhaps going to be the best year of my 48 to have a chance to do something that's very important to me and very close to me, and that is to help bring about the unification of open-wheel racing."

The man on the other end of the phone was Kalkhoven, who had remained in contact with George over the past four years although their rival series were fighting for popularity in a sport that was shrinking and not growing.

"There wasn't one particular thing. It was just the realization that open-wheel racing in the United States just wasn't going anywhere," Kalkhoven said of the reasons to join forces. "Tony held out an olive branch, and [Champ Car co-owner] Gerry Forsythe and I decided it was the right thing to do."

And by finally doing the right thing, IndyCar racing has a golden opportunity to become important again.

In a world in which NASCAR has taken control of the motorsports consciousness, IndyCar racing can now take the first step toward regaining its relevance.

At its finest, IndyCar racing is an art form. Few images in sport approach the beauty of those sleek racing machines roaring down the frontstretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in wheel-to-wheel competition.

By comparison, NASCAR appeals to the masses because it looks like a street fight -- with big, bulky cars muscling each other out of the way, often with physical contact.

NASCAR benefited dramatically over the ongoing battle of attrition between CART and George's newer Indy Racing League. But while NASCAR's audience is widespread, there are many around the IndyCar series who realize their appeal lies with a different crowd.

"This is the time that we're waiting for, for open-wheel racing to come back the way it used to be," said two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who may be just as famous for winning Dancing with the Stars last November. "We're not competing against NASCAR. We're just a different type of racing. "Hey, some people might like it, some people don't like it. I do feel that now we just have good things to show everybody."

Among the drivers there is a universal sense that, finally, they are one group ready to go to battle on the race track. And it's an opportunity to provide clarity to a restructed sport, one which no longer needs to explain which series its drivers are in.

"That's a long time coming and I'm sure everybody says the same bloody thing," said 2003 IndyCar champion Scott Dixon. "It's great for everyone, probably more so for the drivers. More competition, more cars in the field. When you talk about IndyCar or single-seater racing, you don't have to explain which one you are in. It's a clear view for everybody, especially for the fans. It will be easier to zone in on that and try to make it bigger and stronger."

Now that the two sides will equal one great whole, IndyCar can become a "destination series" and can take steps to have aspiring race drivers make a career in this form of racing rather than have its top stars bolt for NASCAR. That's what happened to the past two Indy 500 winners and IndyCar champions, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dario Franchitti.

Dixon thinks that trend may start to change over time.

"I think this has always been a destination series," Dixon said. "I think just because of the last season with a couple of guys jumping, in their career it is what they had reached. I don't think you take anything away from IndyCar or the series or anything like that. I think this will definitely make it stronger.

"Dario accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. The guy was in IndyCar racing for about 10 years. It's not like he is a guy who hasn't been in it very long and jumped ship rather quickly. I'm sure he is disappointed that the year he decides to try to leave there is unification, but I think he made a good choice for himself and his career."

Dixon started his big-time racing career in CART before moving to the IRL when team owner Chip Ganassi brought his team over in 2003. The New Zealand driver isn't much for politics but knew it was obvious that IndyCar would ultimately win out.

"They just needed to be together," Dixon said. "Definitely in the last three or more years, it was obvious that if it came into any direction it would be here. This was the stronger series, had a better following and had the Indianapolis 500 as the marquee event. I don't think that was a shock."

Tony Kanaan is the 2004 IndyCar champion and another former CART driver in the series. In fact, the group of Champ Car drivers coming over is completely new, even to him.

"I'm one of the few," Kanaan quipped. "Only a couple of us have really been on both sides so I guess I'm getting old. There are only three guys that I raced against and that's Paul Tracy, Oriol Servia and Bruno Junqueira. Those are the three guys that I've raced against. Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson and those guys I've only seen them race. I'm really looking forward to racing against them.

"I remember when I made the switch, how hard it was for me, and when I was here how hard we fought to have this thing back together. I'm relieved. I think we still have a lot of work to do but I'm extremely relieved we have this back together."

Kanaan expects all the newcomers to be welcomed warmly. They will bond together with the IndyCar contingent and that's when the real fun begins to build the sport back and return it to glory.

"We don't have any discrimination," Kanaan said. "We are all race car drivers, we all love racing, we all want to win. Although it was a big hate between both series for a while, it's time to forget about it. We always welcome anybody and I think we always will.

"We are all reunited now, so there is no reason to give anybody a hard time. We have a long road ahead of us. We need to build up to the standards that we were in the past. I have to say, you can ask anybody how hard and competitive this series is. This will be a place where drivers will want to come here.

"Open-wheel has been reborn in a sense of having one series. Before you had two options, now you have only one. You're going to have to race against the best because now we have a pretty crowded field."

Young Marco Andretti now gets to tests his skills against the likes of Graham Rahal -- the next chapter in a battle which started when grandfather Mario and father Marco used to race against Rahal's father, Bobby.

"It's awesome," Marco Andretti said. "For the drivers and for everybody they have to be happy it worked out. Now as a driver it's the best of the best, everybody under one roof. It's great for sponsors and for publicity. I'm real happy.

"You want to know as a driver when you beat these guys you have beat the best of the best. We're welcoming every one of them. It will be a big challenge for them because of their lack of oval experience. I've gone through it and a lot of guys have gone through it. It will be a character builder for the first couple of races but they are race car drivers so they will be fine.

"My initial reaction I had a smile on my face. That's how I feel. If you ask me they never should have split. Maybe one year it's going to take a little bit but after a couple of years we will start to rebuild everything again. I don't see why one day we can't be back to where we were again. It's the right way -- it's the only way -- if you ask me. I'm so happy it was now instead of later."

Andretti wants corporate America to see the value in IndyCar racing and view it as a viable alternative in motorsports.

"That's what we want," he said. "Now if I'm a sponsor I have another series to look at. Now it's obvious. It might take a bit but I think we are going to get there.

"Once we get sponsors, we'll get the money back up, we'll get the prize money back up. I don't see why it can't be what it once was. If it is, we might be seeing NASCAR drivers come back."