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The Way It Is/ Let's hope politics won't damage the careers of two of the sport's great talents

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
A week after the Indianapolis 500, the cultural dissonance of American open-wheel racing continued to play itself out as Champ Car raced at the Milwaukee Mile and the IRL was at Watkins Glen. Champ Car struggled with too few cars and too little depth of field on a beautiful spring weekend in Wisconsin while the IRL contended with similar problems amid a miserably rainy weekend in upstate New York. Put the two together and you might have a pretty compelling show, but left as they are the product on both counts is dubiously second-rate.

At Milwaukee, Sebastien Bourdais scored his fourth straight win, demonstrating that his mastery of Champ Car racing now embraces the fearsome one-mile ovals. Starting from the pole, Bourdais was the man to beat all day as he won convincingly despite losing a lap at one point because of a cut tire.

At the Glen, Marco Andretti once again shocked his more experienced competitors by forcing some of the IRL regulars to face the fact that they've grown stale and slow as road racers. The kid put many of them to shame until he was knocked out of the race by one of the sport's most notoriously neurotic drivers who has an unfortunate history of colliding with three generations of Andrettis.

Looking first of all at Bourdais, it should now be clear to anyone with half a brain that he is one of the world's fastest, smartest drivers. In a proper world we would have seen 'Seabass' battling to win at Indianapolis over the past four years as Newman/Haas showed the world they are every bit a match for Penske, Ganassi and Andretti-Green. By now, Sebastien might well be a two or three-time Indy 500 winner and his sublime all-round skills would have been irrefutably recognized so that Flavio Briatore and the gang who play the Formula 1 power game would have been compelled to offer him the top-line F1 drive that he so richly deserves. And yet, because Bourdais is frank and to the point, not a man to play Briatore-style politics or refrain from speaking his mind, he is politically incorrect in F1 circles.

The fact that Bourdais has not been given his F1 chance is a disgusting endictment of F1's corrupt culture and duplicitous insularity. I challenge any one of F1's top teams--Ferrari, Renault, McLaren-Mercedes, or Williams--to give Bourdais a proper test. I have no doubt that Sebastien is a much more complete driver than Juan Montoya and every bit the match of Alonso and Schumacher. What's their problem in giving the brilliant Frenchman a chance?

I'll be at the Canadian GP in a few weeks and I look forward to hearing the likes of Jean Todt, Briatore, Ron Dennis and Frank Williams explain why Bourdais is not qualified to drive one of their cars. I hope their explanations are thorough enough and believable enough for me to refrain from calling them a load of tossers.

Then of course, there's the case of nineteen-year old Marco Andretti. His grandfather, father and uncle have been telling me for years that Marco is the real deal and after his great performances at Indianapolis last month and again on Sunday at Watkins Glen--where some of the IRL regulars showed that they've managed to forget some things about road racing--Marco has demonstrated that his raw talent will be wasted in the dysfunctional world of American open-wheel racing.

Next year, Marco must race in Europe in GP2, or even F1. His father and grandfather know this is where Marco's heart and destiny lays and the race fans of America know it too. In fact, it would be a great thing for America's flagging standing in international motor sport to see both Marco and Graham Rahal racing in Europe next year, a pair of third generation American racers who I'm sure will perform like few Americans have in recent decades.

Meanwhile, Kevin Kalkhoven continues to put the best possible face on his hopes for the future of American open-wheel racing despite, if not a breakdown, some serious stalling in the Champ Car/IRL unification talks. Regarding the state of his discussions with Tony George and the IRL, Kalkhoven commented: "I think they are best described as, slow but well-intentioned." In fact, Kalkhoven was echoing the words used by George in a text message he sent to Kalkhoven last week so perhaps there is reason for some longterm hope, after all.

But again, it appears that George will always demand control and that the persistent medalling by various NASCAR/ISC types seems all but guaranteed to keep the two open-wheel parties from coming together. Kalkhoven says he continues to believe the Champ Car series can be successful on its own without unification with the IRL.

"I believe it can succeed, but I will say it will not achieve the success it should unless there is integration," Kalkhoven said in Milwaukee. "As I look at our potential schedule for next year I see that the series itself will be at economic break-even. I see a new car and I see three or four teams wanting to come up from Atlantic, bringing with them new sponsors and new drivers. And I see a number of cities wanting us. So would it succeed? Yes. Would it achieve its full potential? No."

Kalkhoven noted that ticket sales in both Toronto and Edmonton are up substantially over last year. "Toronto is way up over last year by fifteen percent and Edmonton is doing even better," Kalkhoven said.

But the issue which has occupied most of Kalkhoven's time in recent weeks is the move by ISC lobbyists to introduce legislation in Arizona to effectively ban street racing in the state. Dale Jensen, a co-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team and the NBA's Phoenix Suns, has proposed a Champ Car street race in the city for November of 2007 but Phoenix Int'l Raceway president Bryan Sperber has publicly spoken out against having a street race in Phoenix and ISC has hired a gaggle of lobbyists in an attempt to introduce legislation in the Arizona state legislature to prevent Champ Car from organizing a race in the city.

NASCAR officials have denied any involvement in all this but Sperber has been a very vocal opponent of the idea of the street race, calling it a 'stupid, mickey-mouse, dinky-toy race.' Champ Car's general counsel Matt Breeden has sent a letter to Brian France and Jimmy France asking NASCAR and ISC to desist and both Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe say they will go to court to fight any move to ban street racing in Arizona, or anywhere else in the United States.

"Two prominent Arizona citizens, well-connected because of the Diamondbacks and the Suns, want to do a major redevelopment of an area of downtown Phoenix," Kalkhoven said. "They want to turn it into a sports and entertainment area and as part of that they want to brand it. They decided the best way to brand it was to use the Long Beach example of a festival which would get it national and international exposure on television and would be a very fast way of getting a name out rather than just letting it slowly develop of its own accord.

"So what started out as something that would have zero taxpayer involvement and be a net contributor to the revenue base of Phoenix and would develop this area of Phoenix, eventually morphed into something that would ban motorsports in Arizona unless it was held at a NASCAR property. Now how on earth does that happen?

"They took something that was essentially good for the people and the revenue base of Phoenix and converted it into something that would have banned all forms of motorsport that were not under their control whether it was go-karting or tractor pulling. How do you do that? How does anyone have the arrogance to move from something that is positive for a community and turn it into something that is fundamentally extremely negative for an entire state?

"I am not going to allow the arrogance of people like this to remove choice for the motorsports enthusiast of the United States," Kalkhoven concluded. "I will fight it every inch of the way because I think taking something that was essentially good and putting it into a monopolistic situation that removes choice for the motorsports enthusiast is a dangerous precedent."

Kalkhoven's partner Jerry Forsythe backed him up completely. "We will do whatever it takes to stop these people from trying to monopolize motor racing," Forsythe said. "We will fight them in court. We will not back down."

Has the France family finally met their match?

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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