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Published: 7/28/2006

Herta is hoping for open merger

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

BROOKLYN, Mich. - Bryan Herta knows the stakes involved in the decade-long squabble between two open-wheel racing factions - the Indy Racing League and the Champ Car World Series.

Herta, the defending champion of the Firestone Indy 400 which will take place here Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, has competed in both of the feuding series. The 36-year-old veteran of more than 120 races in the IRL's IndyCar Series and in CART, the predecessor of Champ Car, wants the fences mended and the open-wheeled racing world put back in order.

"I can't put it in strong enough terms," Herta said about the need for a merger, a truce, a marriage, or a kiss-and-make-up session. "A merger of some kind is a crucial step in getting the sport back to where it was."

Herta and most of his cohorts in the racing ranks yearn for those days when the field was full, the stands were packed, and the best open-wheeled racers in the land competed on the same tracks on the same weekends.

"We've definitely lost some of that along the way," he said. "Everyone would like to see more fans, more races, and the sport back in the high profile it had before this whole thing started. It is still a great product - great racing - but it's lost some of its luster due to things that have happened out away from the track."

The split 10 years ago came about when Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George formed the IRL under the pretense that it would be a lower-cost alternative to CART, which he felt had become dominated by several wealthy, multi-car teams, and thereby too closely resembled Formula One racing. George also stated his intention to create more opportunities for American drivers in his series.

The first significant salvo in the dispute was fired here at MIS, where CART staged the U.S. 500 at the same time the IRL was running the 1996 Indy 500 on George's infamous track. The two series have charted differing courses since then, and only recently when it was learned that George and Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven had been holding informal discussions, has talk of a union seemed legitimate.

Herta, who competed in CART from 1994-2003, driving for the likes of A.J. Foyt Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Bobby Rahal's Team Rahal, is crossing his fingers, holding his breath, and praying that one super-series emerges soon.

"I don't know what they've discussed, but the fact that they appear to be talking is a very positive sign," Herta said. "Everyone who competes in this sport and loves this sport has to be cheering for some kind of resolution. I just hope that something gets worked out for the long-term health of the sport, and not a short-term kind of thing."

Herta, whose victory at MIS last year was his first and only win of 2005, said there is little anyone in either series can do until the two big bosses achieve an accord. He said the drivers and their crews can just continue to race and put on the best performance possible, while hoping the back-room meetings unify the fractured sport.

"I don't get a vote," Herta said. "I have a steering wheel and gas pedal. That's all I have to worry about."

The native of Warren, Mich., who now makes his home in California, started from the pole here last year, and led seven times for 159 of the 200 laps while dominating the event. He has more experience on the two-mile MIS oval than any other driver in the race, having started 10 races here since his debut in 1995.

"It always feels good to come back to some place where you have won, and this is especially enjoyable since I'm from Michigan and I still feel a connection with this area," Herta said. "It's definitely the best way to come back to the track, as the winner. My focus is still 100 percent on getting back into the winner's circle."

Herta has four wins in his IndyCar/CART career, and has been in the top 10 in the IndyCar Series points race in each of the last two seasons. He is currently 10th in this year's points race, 141 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr.

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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