INDIANAPOLIS – Derrick Walker isn’t buying Champ Car’s company line.
He’s parked his car, withdrawn from testing and focused his attention on running in the rival Indy Racing League this year even though Champ Car officials say they will race this season.
Walker, a Champ Car owner who has also competed in the IRL, told The Associated Press on Tuesday he believes Champ Car is finished.
“It has all the makings of the end of Champ Car,” he said in a telephone interview. “How it’s going to be done, I don’t know. But I think Champ Car is going to shut down.”
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Walker was so concerned about the series’ future that he instructed the team to return to Indianapolis without ever testing his car in Sebring, Fla., earlier this month.
The comments come amid rampant speculation about what the future may hold for Champ Car, one of America’s top two open-wheel series.
Over the past week, there has been talk of the rival series nearing agreement on unification. IRL founder Tony George, who started his series in 1996, returned Tuesday from a trip to Japan that many believe is a precursor to any possible merger.
“Discussions are ongoing, but the reality is that it’s not helped by all these leaks and all these stories,” said Kevin Kalkhoven, co-owner of the Champ Car series.
George has offered to make free Dallara chassis and Honda engines, along with the $1.2 million in incentives it is paying each of its own teams to race in the IndyCar Series in 2008, available to Champ Car teams that join his league.
Whether that will happen is still unclear.
“Our executive team got back from Japan earlier today and we continue to work and see what we can accomplish here in the immediate future,” league spokesman John Griffin said Tuesday night.
The sticking point has been the head-to-head scheduling of the Long Beach race, Champ Car’s season opener April 20, and the IRL’s April 19 event at the Honda-owned Motegi track in Japan. Long Beach officials have said they cannot change their date because of contracts with the city’s convention center, around which the street circuit is set up.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether George had received permission from track officials to move the Japan race.
Another possible wrinkle emerged Tuesday when published reports said Champ Car may file for bankruptcy within days, something league executive vice president David Higdon discounted.
“We’ve been hearing those rumors since Friday, and as we’ve continued to say our doors are open and people are working,” Higdon said. “We’re proceeding with our plans and will keep operating as Champ Car.”
Champ Car’s predecessor, CART, also filed for bankruptcy before the three-man team of Kalkhoven, Paul Gentilozzi and Gerald Forsythe bought the defunct series’ assets in 2004 and re-established it as Champ Car.
Walker, however, acknowledged he has had some sponsors default on payments from last season and that he had to contact the league office to get last year’s prize money.
“That’s news to me,” Kalkhoven said.
But Walker said he’s not alone.
“The only thing I know for sure is that about a month ago there were several teams that had never been paid prize money,” he said. “Whether that was resolved, I don’t know.”
Plus, Walker said he’s heard little from league officials and more about the departures of employees.
The combination was enough to make Walker reassess his team’s plans, and refocus the team’s efforts on racing in the IRL this season.
“We are working toward that 100 percent until someone can show me that Champ Car is really going,” Walker said. “That’s part of my frustration. My truck was on its way to the Sebring test and I turned it around and brought it back because we had not had anyone in Champ Car tell me what was going on. So we put it all in the corner, left it alone and put our energy in IRL 101.”
A merger this close to the IRL’s season-opener, March 29 in Homestead, Fla., may not be the saving grace many owners hope for, either.
Walker said that with less than two months to prepare, Champ Car teams would have to learn quickly about IRL cars and that some teams could suffer financial losses, too.
“They’ve been running these cars for five years and it costs about $1.3 million to show up with a driver, a spare car and show up for the races, so that’s money we’ve got to find,” Walker said. “I guess I’m praying there will be a merger, but sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.”
Whatever the potential stumbling blocks, Kalkhoven insists there is one certainty.
“There will still be racing this year,” he said.