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IRL officially confirms unification

The unification was hailed as historic while being cautioned as a monumental amount of work during a press conference today that officially declared an end to the 12-year split that has dogged American open-wheel racing.

Tony George, CEO of the Indy Racing League, and Kevin Kalkhoven, former co-owner of the Champ Car World Series, unveiled the details of the long-awaited agreement that will bring several former Champ Car teams and drivers into the IRL IndyCar Series this season.

George, Kalkhoven and former Champ Car partner Gerald Forsythe reached the agreement on Friday following weeks of negotiations.

"This is about looking forward," George said. "It really has been 30 years since the sport of open-wheel racing has been unified. There were periods of years where we worked closely together and better together, but by and large there were periods of years where we weren't so good at that."

However, when asked if anything was written in stone about the length of the agreement, George said only, "It will outlast you and me, OK?

"There are no guarantees other than a guarantee that we'll do our very best to keep this together," he said.

Kalkhoven said negotiations have been on and off for the past four years, but unifying the two series into one doesn't necessarily end the story.

"It's been a long, hard road to get here, but here we are," he said. "The winners today are the fans, the teams, the drivers and the potential we have to grow the sport over the next few years. I've said many times that, in itself, unification isn't some sort of magic bullet to be able to get us forward. It's going to take an awful lot of hard work."

As expected, the series will be forced to race twice on the same weekend in April. Former Champ Car teams at Long Beach on April 20 and IRL regulars at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 19.

The Long Beach race will be billed as a Champ Car send-off, with teams using their Panoz DP01 chassis for the final time. Both races will count towards the IRL standings.

As many as nine former Champ Car teams and a dozen drivers could join the IRL later in the season, but the task at hand is to get enough Dallara chassis and Honda engines to those teams to make it to the season opener on March 29 at Homestead. Current IRL teams have been summoned to sell spare chassis to the IRL, which will then begin the process of distributing them.

Kalkhoven and Forsythe accepted George's offer of two new or used chassis per team, one basic engine lease per team, and $1.2 million per team from the IndyCar TEAM fund to join the IRL. All nine former Champ Car teams attended a meeting Monday at Homestead with Brian Barnhart, the IRL's director of race operations.

"The interest level is clearly high at this point in time," Barnhart said. "You could see anywhere from eight to 12 cars on the grid beginning with the Homestead event. That's absolutely the best-case scenario we could be looking for."

The press conference began with a photo of drivers from both sides on the same stage, including former Champ Car drivers Justin Wilson, Will Power, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Oriol Servia, Robert Doornbos, Nelson Philippe, Alex Tagliani and Bruno Junqueira. Joining them were IndyCar regulars Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti and Vitor Meira.

"For years all of us have heard potential sponsors say, 'Which series are you in? Do you race at Indy?'" said Mike Griffin, co-owner of Panther Racing. "Now we have one series and one TV show. We're all on the same page."

George said the IRL expects to add two other former Champ Car races, at Edmonton, Alberta, and Surfers Paradise, Australia, to the 2008 schedule, but dates haven't been finalised. Unconfirmed reports place the Surfers Paradise race in late October, possibly as a non-points event.

All three races, Long Beach, Edmonton and Surfers Paradise, are expected to be part of the 2009 season. The Motegi contract with the IRL ends with the 2008 race, so a conflict with Long Beach's traditional April date isn't expected.

Specifics weren't offered on future car configurations or whether the series will return to turbocharged engines from the current naturally aspirated format. The IRL's current engine/chassis generation ends after the 2009 season.

"We're going to be looking at all the available options that are coming from a number of technologies," George said. "Turbochargers may or may not be a part of that. Ethanol may or may not be a part of that. I don't know."

IRL officials are considering special test sessions next month at Homestead and Sebring for the former Champ Car teams before the March 29 opener. While most teams and drivers were present Wednesday, because of short notice they didn't participate in a test session that followed the press conference, nor will they participate in Thursday's session at Homestead or next week's sessions at Sebring.

George and Kalkhoven also indicated that teams on both sides might form specific alliances in order to shorten the learning process for the newcomers.

Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing already has begun working closely with Rahal Letterman Racing, while Kalkhoven's KV Racing is aligning itself with Chip Ganassi Racing.

The series is likely to retain its oval bias. George said he envisions a 20-race schedule, with close to or more than half of those being on oval tracks. However, he also indicated he has spoken with Mike Lanigan, who promotes street races in Cleveland and Houston.

"It's important to me to have a variety of ovals on the schedule," George said. "But international opportunities are out there. We need to look at building a schedule that makes sense from every perspective."

Also included in the unification are assurances that the IRL is attempting to add the three former Champ Car races to its ABC/ESPN television lineup. All other races are televised live, except Motegi, which is tape-delayed.

The IRL will also purchase various non-tangible assets such as intellectual property and historical records from Champ Car, along with the Champ Car medical transporter.

While today's announcement was short on fresh news and specifics, it was long on congratulations. The chasm that has damaged single-seater racing in North America for more than a decade had officially ended, and the participants were, above all, relieved.

"Having one series is for the best, not only for the drivers and the teams, but for the fans," Castroneves said. "It's about time."

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