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George cautiously hopeful of merger

Tony George confirmed today that he is actively pursuing unification between the two American open-wheel racing series, the IRL IndyCar and Champ Car World Series

Saying "open-wheel racing needs to be unified," George confirmed a report in Wednesday's Los Angeles Times that he is in preliminary stages of negotiations with Champ Car principal Kevin Kalkhoven to merge the two sanctioning bodies into one.

"Is there reason to be optimistic? It's certainly possible, but we're a long way from there at this point," said George, founder of the Indy Racing League.

"Everybody would like to see it happen sooner rather than later, but it's not something you can hurry along. It's not something we can resolve in a few weeks or a couple of months. It's certainly going to take some time."

George's comments - and his quotes in Wednesday's LA Times story - are believed to be the first time in which he has acknowledged that the two series need to end their decade-old feud. He said a merger could happen as early as the 2008 season, although he didn't entirely rule out next season.

"I suppose if all the stars and moons and planets aligned, it would be possible, but what are the chances of that? I don't know," George said.

"There is reason to be hopeful, but I would caution everyone from getting their hopes set too high. If it comes together, great. That would be wonderful."

George repeatedly tempered his comments Friday with caution. "I don't think we can solve the big problems in a short period of time," he said.

George has been urged by Honda, now the sole engine manufacturer in the IRL IndyCar Series, to seek a resolution to the bitter dispute that has left open-wheel racing fractured into two groups since 1996, when George, whose family owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, formed the IRL during a battle with CART team owners.

"As I've told both sides, we would like to be the lubricant that helps this all come together," said Robert Clarke, president of Honda Performance Development.

"We definitely don't want to be any kind of a roadblock. ... Unifying the series, to us, is extremely important. It's important that they understand where Honda positions itself in all of this."

George spoke Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where the IndyCar Series is preparing for its season opener Sunday.

The LA Times report quoted George as saying, "I'm one of many people who believe that open-wheel racing would be better served by a unified IRL and Champ Car."

Kalkhoven, whose series will open the season April 9th at Long Beach, was quoted as saying, "We've had fruitful discussions. We all agree it would be better to have a united series. We are both trying to find the right solution."

The primary issues facing George and Kalkhoven involve equipment and venues.

The IRL uses naturally aspirated engines, while Champ Car uses turbocharged engines. The IRL races primarily on ovals in the U.S.; a large portion of Champ Car's schedule involves foreign street and road courses.

"There are a lot of people who have a lot of ideas about what a schedule should look like, and what chassis we should run and what the engines should be," George said Friday.

"All of that stuff is open, as far as I'm concerned. We just need to be very careful in how we plan a transition."

The news of the talks between the two leaders was met positively in the Homestead paddock.

"It's what everybody has been hoping for for a long time," said Scott Dixon, who moved from Champ Car to the IRL in 2003 and won the championship in his first season.

"Coming from that side, all of us miss the road racing. If it happens, it will be huge for North American single-seater racing. It just needs to happen, one way or another."

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