Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Robin Millers Champ Car Two Years In

Written by: Robin Miller Mexico City, Mexico – 11/8/2005

When a venture capitalist from Australia and a Chicago business maven out-bid Tony George for the assets to CART in January of 2004, three questions were immediately recycled throughout the racing fraternity.

1) Why didn't Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe simply let George have it so open wheel racing could be back under one roof?
2) Why would two very successful multi-millionaires buy a decomposing corpse?
3) Would this folly last one or two years before last rites were administered?

Well, Sunday afternoon the checkered flag fell on Champ Car's second season and now we pretty much know the answers to all three of those questions.

Sure, Champ Car is nowhere close to its heydays of the '90s but it's a dang sight healthier than anyone could have imagined two years ago.

Kalkhoven and Forsythe have not only kept the pilot light burning, they've stoked the series with new venues, invested in some traditional tracks, resuscitated Formula Atlantics and laid out a sensible economic plan for the future.

In the past 12 months:
a) They staged new races at San Jose and Edmonton, added Houston for 2006 and are working on Philadelphia.
b) Purchased the Long Beach Grand Prix and Molson at Toronto.
c) Rebooted the Atlantics with a much cheaper chassis/engine ($175,000), added more horsepower and $2 million to the '06 titlist towards a Champ Car ride in '07.
d) Reduced the car costs 35 percent for the new '07 Panoz car ($205,000 less electronics and $300,000 for a roller).
e) Left little doubt they're better equipped to deal with the real world than George. "If you'd have told me we'd have all this two years ago, I would have looked to the heavens and said: "Please God, make this dream come true,'" said Kalkhoven, who started out as a car owner in 2003 before jumping into the deep end. "I think we're a year ahead of where Gerry and I expected to be last January.

"But I think the key is that our owners have bonded together very well."

As mentioned, the car count needs to be increased by at least four, the television ratings still suck, there's no money flowing directly to the teams, American attendance is far from healthy across the board, a title sponsor is desperately needed and so are young American drivers.

"I don't think we'll have any new teams next year because there are so few Lolas around but I think 2007 will be a different story," continued Kalkhoven. "We will have new teams in 2007, I'm sure of it.

"We'll have more national TV races next year and do some special shows to promote our drivers. Our Atlantic package should help our American driver situation and we've had people working diligently on a title sponsor for the past six months.

"Are we satisfied with everything? Of course not. But we've got a plan and its working."

Despite the highly successful and competitive debut at Edmonton, Champ Car's real coup in '05 was keeping Long Beach, Toronto and Montreal on its schedule and off the Indy Racing League's. Kalkhoven claims he doesn't pay any attention to the rival circuit but he and his partner have been forced to defend their castle at least three or four times.

Even though the IRL/IMS spin doctors deny any attempts at making a pitch for Long Beach, Toronto and Montreal, George told potential and current sponsors that the IRL would be at Long Beach in 2006. Michael Andretti guaranteed his new favorite series would be running Toronto in '06 and the IRL that it was going to slide into Montreal next year.

And Kalkhoven and Forsythe can say Long Beach and Toronto were good investments, but they were also must-saves. "Some are good business decisions and some are strategic business decisions," said Kalkhoven, who sounds like he's still contemplating litigation against the Montreal promoter and possibly the IRL for tortious interference with a contract.

"Yes, we definitely needed to keep Long Beach and Toronto and having the ability to control our assets is part of our strategy."
Keeping ovals (Milwaukee and Las Vegas) sounds more like a habit than a need.

"We'll evaluate them after next year but we're not going to do them if they're not successful," said Kalkhoven. "But why bother racing in front of 10 people? There's already a series that does that."

With no chance of unification, it appears that Champ Car and IRL will continue fighting each other for American and international recognition, as well as survival. Two years ago, the IRL had most of CART's big teams, both of its Japanese engine manufacturers and that big hammer Tony George says he brings to work every day.

But today the landscape has changed dramatically. Champ Car has the affordable series, the better American venues (except Indianapolis), a pretty slick business plan for the future and two guys who ain't broke or afraid.

"When Gerry and I took over we wanted to eliminate this concept that open wheel racing is over or dead, because it's not. Our strategy of a three-day festival is working and we've got some exciting things in the pipeline. Gerry and I also plan to be around for quite a while."

Then Kalkhoven grinned and said: "I've got a hammer too."

WickerBill sez;

Robin; Although I don't agree with all of your conclusions most are right on!

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