Champ struggling, but still alive

PORTLAND, Ore. – At the start of the year it looked likePortland’s annual Champ Car race might be history.

A trio of team owners rescued the struggling CART series, andthe Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland returns to the city nextmonth.

Now the main question is whether the drivers will be back in2005.

The June 18-20 event at Portland International Raceway has notitle sponsor and no contract with the city and the racing seriesfor beyond this year.

Kevin Kalkhoven, co-owner of the Champ Car World Series, whichreplaced CART, said he hopes the Portland race will continue. Itbegan in 1984.

“We’ve been here for 21 years – we really want to be here formany more years to come,” he said during a visit to Portland onThursday.

However, Kalkhoven said, the new Champ Car owners have notexplored a long-term agreement with the city, instead taking await-and-see stance some three months into taking over CART.

“Give us a little time,” he said.

CART held its first race in 1979 and had considerable successthrough the 1980s and ’90s. The rival Indy Racing League, betterknown as the IRL, came along in 1996 and the two series ultimatelycompeted for sponsors, audiences and even drivers.

At the end of last season CART declared bankruptcy. But teamowners Paul Gentilozzi, Gerald Forsythe and Kalkhoven steppedforward and formed Open Wheel Racing Series LLC, which boughtCART’s assets in February and kept the series alive.

Although there was uncertainty – popular driver-owner AdrianFernandez left for the IRL in March, followed shortly thereafter byteam owner and former CART champion driver Bobby Rahal – the ChampCar World Series fielded 18 cars and drew 70,000 fans to its firstevent of the season, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach inSouthern California.

Joe D’Alessandro, chairman of the Portland Oregon VisitorAssociation, said the race is expected to pump $9 million into thelocal economy. It will also showcase the city internationally ontelevision.

Last year’s race, sponsored by the sporting goods chainG.I. Joe’s, was won by Fernandez on the twists and turns of the1.969-mile road course just north of downtown.

Earlier this month, Champ Car president Dick Eidswick suggestedthat the series wanted to see the support in Portland this Junebefore entering any long-term commitment. Because no title sponsorhas stepped forward, the Champ Car World Series is spending some $3million to bring the race to the city.

“We’re going to do our part,” he told The Oregonian. “What we’reasking Portland to do is have the businesses do their part bysupporting this race, coming to this race, sponsoring it and doingwhatever it takes to make it a successful, marquee event.”

The IRL also has expressed an interest in running at PortlandInternational Raceway in late July or August of 2005, as it addsselect road and street course races to its schedule.

Kalkhoven said the IRL’s interest has nothing to do with whetherthe Champ Car series returns to PIR. He expects next year’sschedule to be firmed up by September.

“The IRL can do whatever they want to do,” he said.