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The Way It Is/ San Jose points the way to changing times

by Gordon Kirby
illustrated by Paul Webb
Champ Car's second year in the streets of San Jose was supposed to focus on the unveiling of the new Panoz Champ car and on the smoothed, improved track. In fact, there was plenty of excitement surrounding the debut of the 2007 Panoz Champ car and the work that went into turning last year's notoriously bumpy track into a much more workable venue also received lavish praise from the drivers and local media.

But in the end, the wrestling match halfway through the race between Paul Tracy and Alex Tagliani stole the headlines. The boxing match was front page in the Canadian newspapers, got Champ Car on ESPN's Sports Center, and even made Sports Illustrated. After the first few years of the CART/IRL split Sports Illustrated decided to ignore American open-wheel racing, but Champ Car made it into SI's pages this week. It's a useful lesson that controversy sells not only newspapers and magazines but also tickets to sporting events. It also helps boost TV ratings. Certainly, the Tracy-Tagliani imbroglio should help promoter Alan Labrosse sell tickets for the Montreal Champ Car race in three weeks.

Meanwhile, Sebastien Bourdais demonstrated that he is still the man to beat in Champ Car. Bourdais handily outqualified the field in San Jose, then won easily as he scored his first win in a month and half and fifth win of the year. After a four-race hiatus in which A.J. Allmendinger and Justin Wilson pulled themselves into the championship hunt, Bourdais and Newman/Haas reasserted themselves in San Jose. If either Wilson or Allmendinger is going to take the battle to Bourdais, they're going to have to put together a string of wins and show they can beat the Frenchman on a regular basis. But the fact is, it's going to be awfully difficult for either of them to prevent Bourdais from winning his third Champ Car title in a row.

Still, Wilson, Allmendinger and their respective RuSPORT and Forsythe teams will not fail for lack of trying. Both also have teammates in Cristiano da Matta (who finished a resurgent third in San Jose) and Paul Tracy who are capable of running at or near the front while Bourdais's teammate Bruno Junqueira has been caught in a downward spiral of bad luck and few results this year. Junqueira has been unable to provide Bourdais much back-up support by taking points from the likes of Wilson and Allmendinger. Suggestions are that Junqueira will lose his job at the end of the year if he's unable to produce some useful results and help Bourdais win a third title in a row.

Meanwhile, wrestling match aside, the launch of the Panoz DP01 on Friday evening remains the defining moment of Champ Car's second year in San Jose. The new car was beautifully presented and put many doubting minds to rest. The 2007 Panoz Champ car looks good in fact and theory and passed the initial inspections of the drivers who were all able to sit in the first car and check it out at close quarters during Friday night's debut.

The new Champ car and its component parts have been designed to be substantially cheaper than the current Lola B2/00. The Panoz also is designed to encourage closer racing and more overtaking. Following specifications laid down by Champ Car's technology director Scot Elkins and operations boss Tony Cotman, the new car produces the majority of its downforce from its underwing so that the car carries much smaller external wings than the existing Lola B2/00 Champ car. The theory is that this will make the Panoz less aerodynamically sensitive and more capable of racing in close quarters. For more information on the DP01, including commentary from veteran team owner Derrick Walker and drivers Tracy, Wilson and Allmendinger, read my Inside Track column posted this week on Champ Car's website.

Champ Car also hopes the new car will attract new teams into the Champ Car World Series and proof that this hope is justified was there in San Jose as Formula BMW and Atlantic team owner Bob Gelles announced that he will expand his ambitious operation next year to include a two-car Champ Car team. Gelles's announcement was good news, giving the unveiling of the new car more juice as other teams, including Jim Griffiths's Polestar Atlantic team and a couple of Grand Am teams are looking to make the move into Champ Car. All this means it's possible that Champ Car can pull together a field of twenty-four or more cars for next season. If so, it will be on the road to recovery.

For sure they've made a good choice in veteran chief mechanic Peter Parrott to run the Panoz test program and Roberto Moreno to be the primary test driver. Parrott was Rick Mears's chief mechanic at Penske for many years and more recently worked for Mo Nunn's team. Parrott wants to put together his own Champ Car team and is the perfect man to oversee the initial testing of the new car. Moreno meanwhile, has great experience in many types of cars--Indy and Champ cars, F1 cars, sports cars--and has been hailed by all as the ideal man for the job. Jimmy Vasser is also expected to do some Panoz testing, an equally smart idea.

The new car has also attracted the interest of Tony George and Brian Barnhardt who visited Elan Motorsports Technologies a few weeks ago to take a look at the Panoz. Barnhardt crawled all over the car and pronounced himself happy with what we saw and we can only hope that George and Barnhardt's trip to Georgia was a harbinger that a Champ Car/IRL merger might yet happen two or three years down the road.

Champ Car will announce its 2007 schedule later this month. It will include the new Las Vegas street race as the season-opener followed the next week by Long Beach and the next by Houston. Three street races in a row in major American cities will give the series its most powerful kick-off in years, although the teams are a little worried about running three, back-to-back races with a brand new car. There's also talk of a race in China sometime in the spring as well as both Assen in Holland and a Berlin street race in September. Either way, Champ Car is slowly growing its schedule and if the hoped-for Phoenix street race happens for '08 they will have six races in western American cities--Long Beach, Portland, Denver, San Jose, Las Vegas and Phoenix--a bigger western footprint than NASCAR!

Other news in San Jose included a raceday visit by Ryan Hunter-Reay who has kept himself busy racing a variety of different cars this year and hopes to be back in Champ Car next year. If the field does expand to as many as twenty-four cars in '07, it should be a no-brainer that Hunter-Reay will be on the grid. He's an extremely good driver and a proven Champ Car race-winner who deserves another bite of the apple.

Then of course, there's this year's rejuvenated Atlantic series which has developed into a battle between championship leader Simon Pagenaud--a protege of Bourdais--Graham Rahal and Andreas Wirth. American Jonathan Bomarito also has an outside chance of scooping the title. Young Rahal crashed in San Jose while racing hard in second place behind Raphael Matos who finally scored his first win of the year. With three races to go, Rahal trails talented Frenchman Pagenaud by twenty-six points.

Rahal has stood out as the most consistently competitive driver in this year's Atlantic series and it will be interesting to see if the cool, calm, third-generation racer can beat Pagenaud and Wirth to the championship. His father still plans for Graham to race in Europe next year but an agreement has been made for Graham to test a Newman/Haas Champ car at the end of this year. Graham has the talent and maturity, and thanks to his father, the financial and political wherewithal, to make it where ever he chooses. It would be great to see him race in Champ Car, but at the same time he may well be America's best Formula One prospect in many years.

Interesting, isn't it, that after years of hand-wringing about the state of American open-wheel racing, we have a bunch of interesting, hopeful things to talk about. Maybe there's more to racing than just NASCAR after all!

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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