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The Way It Is/ Champ Car's entertaining return to Road America. Long may it last!

by Gordon Kirby
I had dinner last Saturday night at Siebkens in downtown Elkhart Lake with my old friend John Szymanski who works these days for Ford Racing, overseeing the company's racing programs in NASCAR, NHRA, Champ Car and USAC for his boss Dan Davis. John is a Chicago native who worked for Carl Haas Auto for many years and attended his first race at Road America back in 1969.

"It's just great to be here," Szymanski reflected over drinks before dinner. "This place is what it's all about. The track is just fantastic, of course. There's no place else like it. And everything else about it too. The setting, the atmosphere, the brats, Siebkins. I go to a lot of different races these days, but this is the highlight of my year."

It is for many others as well, which is why so many people in the sport were happy to see the great Wisconsin road course back on the Champ Car schedule this year. Of course, late September at Elkhart Lake means that it's inevitable there will be some rain. Sure enough, there was plenty of rain to contend with over the first two days at Road America but plenty of hardy Wisconsin and Illinois race fans showed up, quite of few of them camping out. The crowd was much bigger than Champ Car's last appearance at the track two years ago and thankfully raceday was brilliantly sunny and cool producing a three-day crowd of more than 61,000.


Next year, Champ Car will race at Road America near the end of August in company with the American Le Mans Series--a perfect twin-bill at exactly the right time of year. My friend Szymanski and I drank a toast to a long, uninterrupted future for Champ Car at Elkhart Lake. Salut!

It turned out that both of last weekend's Champ Car and Atlantic races were fiercely-fought with unpredictable finishes. A.J. Allmendinger came through to score his fifth win of the year after pacesetter Sebastien Bourdais was held up on the in-lap for his final pitstop by Champ Car debutant Juan Caceros. Bourdais lost four or five seconds behind Uruguayan Caceros so that he left the pits on cold tires only a few car lengths in front of Allmendinger who pounced at turn five, cleanly outbraking the Frenchman for the lead.

A lap later Katherine Legge crashed heavily at one of the fastest parts of the track when her rear wing flap departed company with the main plane. Remarkably, Legge survived the awful-looking crash almost unscathed.

"I think everybody had the same idea," Bourdais commented. "When we saw the car there was only the tub left and it was rolled over. It was looking pretty bad."

The race was red-flagged while Legge was extricated from the wreckage and the mess was cleaned-up. It soon transpired that Legge was a 'code three', meaning she was conscious with no life-threatening injuries.

"Right away we were told she's alright," said winner Allmendinger. "As soon as I passed the accident I was on the radio asking if she was okay because it looked pretty bad. Ten minutes atfer I was out of the car they told me she had already walked into and out of the medical center."


Eventually, the race was restarted for a two-lap sprint to the checkered flag with Allmendinger driving perfectly to beat Newman/Haas teammates Bruno Junqueira and Bourdais across the line. "It was so hard to hold on during the last two laps," Allmendinger remarked. "More importantly, it was hard to think about what we were going to do for half an hour. I think the worst corners for us are probably the most important corners on the track and that was getting onto the front straightaway. I wasn't very good through there and through the carousel I wasn't very good either. Through those corners I tried to make sure I hit every mark possible and got back to the power as soon as possible to hold them off. This is such a long and tough racetrack to get around."

The result meant Bourdais remains a few points shy of wrapping-up his record-equalling third championship. With two races to go in Surfers Paradise and Mexico City, Bourdais leads Allmendinger by fifty-eight points, 338 to 280, with Justin Wilson third on 269 points and Paul Tracy ranked fourth with 183, just one ahead of Nelson Phillipe.

"As Sebastien said," Allmendinger observed, "it's going to be tough to catch him. Montreal killed us in respect to the points but you never know what's going to happen. If we can go out there and try to win the last two races and at least try to beat Sebastien for the most wins in the season, you never know what's going to happen. If you win the race, you're going to get the most points.

"All you can do is worry about yourself," A.J. added. "If we come up short in the championship and finish second it's still been a fantastic year, no matter what, because after four races this year when I was eighty points back and jobless, I didn't think I was going to be in contention for the championship."

Allmendinger's victory was Forsythe's third win at Road America, each coming twelve years apart. Hector Rebaque scored Forsythe's first Champ Car win in CART's first race at the track back in 1982, and Forsthe's second win came with Jacques Villeneuve in 1994.

Meanwhile, there was plenty of speculation last weekend about where Allmendinger will be racing next year. He's contemplating a big-money offer from Red Bull and Toyota to race in NASCAR and many sources suggested last weekend that his agent Julian Jakobi is close to wrapping-up the lucrative NASCAR deal. After winning at Road America, Allmendinger demurred when asked about his plans for next year.

"It was an awesome victory today," A.J. responded. "It was exciting and I look forward to my truck race in two weeks at Talladega, and I really look forward to going to Australia. That's my plan."

Then he added: "I still don't know where I'm going (next year)."

Team owner Forsythe said he believed he was going to settle the matter on Sunday evening. "I'm going to talk to him tonight and see what his temperature is," Forsythe commented. "We'll know tonight what he's doing."

Allmendinger was also asked about the differences between driving a Champ car and a stock car. "Everything you learned in Champ Car you throw it away and restart from the beginning when you go drive NASCAR," he said. "It's as different as it could be. A truck has almost got the same horsepower as a Champ car but it weighs probably 2,000 more pounds and it's got a lot more roll in it. I think that's probably the hardest thing for an open-wheel guy to go over and learn is how much roll a truck has and whether you get in the corner and you think the vehicle is getting loose, but it's really not. That's just kind of the nature of it. I think that's the most difficult thing for sure, to really find the right edge of it."

For his part, champion-elect Bourdais commented sarcastically about his apparently vanished hopes of getting a seat in F1. "It's not going to happen next season," Bourdais shrugged. "Maybe if we win ten championships, we'll get a shot."

In the championship-deciding Atlantic race Jonathan Bomarito scored his first win in the formula, beating Raphael Matos after a fierce duel with Andreas Wirth finishing third. Simon Pagenaud won the championship and the $2 million prize after title rival Graham Rahal suffered a rare engine failure in the early going. Not long after that Pagenaud also became a DNF after a collision with James Hinchcliffe, but with Rahal out Pagenaud was already guaranteed the Atlantic title.

This is Walker Racing's first championship after sixteen years in CART/Champ Car. Walker himself has won titles before as a crew chief and team manager with Penske but never with his own team. Congratulations all-round! Pagenaud was relieved to finally have this year's much sought after championship prize in his pocket.

"I can now think about Champ Car for 2007," Pagenaud observed. "If I hadn't won this championship I couldn't think about it. Yesterday, I wasn't sure about the future, but today, I can think about next year and focus on the next championship."

Pagenaud expressed his heartfelt thanks to Derrick Walker's team. "Walker Racing have done such a good job," Simon said. "They've been very close with me through the year. They explained to me how to live and race in the USA. That was really important. It's not that easy for a European guy to come here and try to win the championship without knowing any of the tracks. That was really difficult and the field was really competitive. But each time we put the car on the track, the car was good and I was able to be very focused on my driving. So again, I've got to thank everyone at Walker Racing."

Pagenaud does not yet know which team he will race for next year. "I don't know yet," he commented. "As I said, Derrick Walker has been really focused with me on the championship. He told me I need to stay focused. He said I needed a perfect year to do the best I can. We focused a lot. The future will take shape over the next few weeks. At the moment, I can't say anything about the future. I'm sure we'll be in Champ Car, that's the good part. But I don't know with which team. I'd like to stay with Team Australia. My heart is with Team Australia for sure."

Meanwhile winner Bomarito was delighted to finish the season on a high note. "It's a tremendous feeling," Bomarito remarked. "We've been working so hard all year to get here. The last few races didn't go as planned, to say the least, but we turned our luck around this weekend and what an awesome result. I'm so happy to be here and so happy for the team, the whole PR1 Motorsports crew."

Bomarito hopes to return to the Atlantic series next year with the PR1 team. "Ideally, I'll be back with PR1 next year but it's not finalized," he said. "I'd love to stay with the team. They're a class act. They're there for the right reasons. They're passionate. It's not about the money. They want to go out and win races.

"Atlantic is such a great, competitive series," Bomarito added. "I learned so much this year that hopefully next year we can make big progress again and get that $2 million dollars to move up to Champ Car like Simon's done. But next year's a little bit up in the air for me at this point."

Raphael Matos re-signed on Saturday of last weekend with Sierra-Sierra for 2007. "It's a great feeling knowing that you're driving next year for the same team. It's a great team and we're going to keep everybody," Matos said. "I'm just the happiest person in the world right now. I have a great team behind me and supporting me and hopefully next year we'll win the championship."

Andreas Wirth who finished third at Road America has plenty of work to do to put together his 2007 season. "My hope is Champ Car but that depends on putting sponsors together," Wirth said. "We will see. We're working on a few different things. If it's not Champ Car it's probably Atlantic. I want to stay in open-wheel racing. We'll just have to wait and see. I want to continue to race in America. I don't want to go to Europe."

And finally, Mackenzie Johnson won the karting title at the weekend's concurrent go-kart event on the purpose-built kart track located inside the carousel on Road America's backside. Teen-ager Johnson has won a Formula BMW ride for next year.

So the top young talents from the ladder system are finally being rewarded in the right away as Champ Car slowly but surely rebuilds its essential position in American and international motor racing. Its return to Road America for the longrun is a key component in that rebuilding.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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