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Formula still not working for Indy

George says track can do without an F1 race after Ecclestone says circuit doesn't need U.S. race.

July 01, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

The chief executive of Indianapolis Motor Speedway says he hopes Formula One returns to his track next year but would have no regrets if the international racing series carries out its threat to move elsewhere.

Tony George, whose family owns the famed speedway, is negotiating with Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone about extending their contract, which expired after the most recent U.S. Grand Prix two weeks ago, won by rookie sensation Lewis Hamilton.

Indy is the only American stop for Formula One. The speedway overhauled its facility and built a road course within its 2.5-mile oval track eight years ago to accommodate Formula One races.

George and Ecclestone set a July 12 deadline to decide whether to renew their pact, and "all I can do is put it at 50-50 at this point," George said last week. "It's a matter of dialogue with Bernie and myself to try and bring it to a conclusion," adding that the two have spoken only briefly in recent days.

Ecclestone has said Formula One does not need the U.S. market, a stance he reiterated while attending the race two weeks ago. He has also suggested the series could move Indy's race to another U.S. city or to another country.

"That's Bernie," George said. "Do I think he wants to be here? Absolutely. He wants to be here because the [car] factories, teams, sponsors, they want to be here."

Still, "as much as we want it to be part of our calendar, if it doesn't come back it's been a good run," George said. "I don't regret it. Whether or not they find another venue in the United States to run at, I don't know. I think it's unlikely that they know."

The speedway drew more than 200,000 spectators for its inaugural U.S. Grand Prix in 2000, but in recent years about 100,000 have attended. The event also was marred in 2005 when 14 of the 20 drivers pulled off the track just before the start in a tire-safety dispute, angering many fans.

For the track, this year's race financially "was OK, it wasn't a bust," George said. The Grand Prix race has been profitable for the track over the eight years as a whole, but "it would not be financially worthwhile to do it" another eight years under the current contract terms, he said, declining to elaborate.

Some observers have speculated that Ecclestone is demanding too high a price for Indy to keep the race, anywhere from $10 million to $30 million a year. George declined comment on the price but said it's not the only issue.

"What the event really needs is a title sponsor with the ability to promote the event and the Formula One world championship across the country and around the world," he said.

George was in Pasadena on Thursday at the Art Center College of Design.He has invited its students to develop ideas for the future of his track and the IndyCar Series, whose premier race is the Indianapolis 500.

But the series' future really hinges on whether it reunites with the Champ Car World Series, the other leading U.S. open-wheel racing circuit, many observers say. The two split more than a decade ago and both have suffered since then in terms of attendance and television viewership.

George and Champ Car principal Kevin Kalkhoven discussed a possible merger last year, but now "we're not talking," George said. "I can't remember when the last time I talked to him was."

He added: "It's something I'm always willing and able to discuss, but it appears as though we don't have much to discuss."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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