Previous Columns

The Way It Is/ There may yet be more to American racing life than NASCAR

by Gordon Kirby
Sebastien Bourdais and Justin Wilson brought some excitement to the final laps of Champ Car's season-closer in Mexico City. Wilson qualified on the pole and led the most laps in Mexico, but Bourdais was able to get close enough to launch an attack after not changing tires on his last stop. Halfway through the race's last lap Bourdais ruthlessly muscled his way past Wilson as the pair collided heavily but without serious damage. Bourdais drove away to score his seventh win of the year while Wilson's second place moved him past former teammate A.J. Allmendinger into second in Champ Car's point standings.

In many ways, Wilson was the star of Champ Car's weekend in Mexico City. Despite a broken right wrist and rumors that Carl Russo is about to sell RuSPORT, most likely to Kevin Kalkhoven's partner Dan Petit, Wilson performed superbly as he beat Bourdais to the pole then led the majority of the race. Wilson has shown that in the right environment and with the right equipment he's capable of doing battle with Bourdais. Here's hoping the tall, gentlemanly Englishman is in that position next year.

At Phoenix on Sunday, Jimmie Johnson edged closer to winning his first NASCAR Nextel Cup title as he came through the field from a poor starting position to finish a strong second to Kevin Harvick who dominated the race but had to fend off a serious threat from Johnson at the end. Johnson's primary championship rival Matt Kenseth again had a disappointing race, finishing thirteenth so that he trails Johnson by sixty-three points going into next weekend's Homestead season finale. Johnson can clinch the title with twelfth place at Homestead if Kenseth were able to win the race.

Harvick's win was his fifth of the year in the Cup seriers and means he trails Johnson by ninety points, tied with Denny Hamlin who finished third at Phoenix after passing Jeff Gordon on the last lap. The only other driver with a remote mathematical chance of beating Johnson to the title is Dale Earnhardt Jr who finished ninth at Phoenix and is 115 points behind.

Meanwhile, Juan Montoya made his third NASCAR start in the Busch race at Phoenix on Saturday. Juan qualified Chip Ganassi's Texaco #42 eleventh but fell back early in the race, unhappy with the handling. Two-thirds of the way through the 200-mile race Ganassi's crew chief Donnie Wingo got Montoya up to fifth for a restart by not stopping when most of leaders came in for fuel and tires. But as his tires went off Juan fell back to fifteenth, then spun on another restart with just eleven laps to go. In the end, Juan finished twentieth ahead of another former open-wheel driver, P.J. Jones, while Matt Kenseth won the race from series champion Kevin Harvick and other Buschwackers Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards.

This year's Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish made his NASCAR and Busch debut in the race driving one of Roger Penske's cars and was running an unlapped thirty-first when he was taken out in the closing laps by a spinning competitor. Three-time IRL champion Hornish has been set on course by Penske for a steady transition to NASCAR over the next few years. Whether this move presages the eventual demise of Penske's IRL team is not yet clear, but it's a fair guess.

As we all know, without Kevin Kalkhoven and Jerry Forsythe's highly laudable investment and effort in trying to rebuild Champ Car, American open-wheel racing would be a dead duck today. Tony George's dystopian vision has deeply eroded the sport's foundation achieving exactly the opposite of its hoped-for effect, and the recent moves of Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger and now Hornish to NASCAR are further body blows to the public and media perceptions of open-wheel racing in the United States.

It's sad to see these fellows, race winners all in different types of formula cars in recent years, trailing around in the middle to the back of the NASCAR field. Sure it's early days in their stock car careers, but at this stage Montoya--the most tin-top experienced of this trio so far--must be beginning to wonder if he's made the right move. Juan is not by any means out to lunch. He's been running well, in the thick of things in fact, and he's getting plenty of experience. But he's surely learning that there are serious limits to what a driver can get out of a stock car and that to make the move from the midfield to the front is all about improving the team's cars and equipment.

A long road lays ahead for Montoya and Ganassi's team but Chip is fully committed to the program for the longterm and another important factor is that NASCAR want Juan to succeed. His presence has brought legitimacy to NASCAR's otherwise barely effective diversity program as well as luring previously unimagined international and Hispanic media coverage.

All this strikes a stark contrast to the days a quarter of a century ago when Rick Mears turned down an offer from Bernie Ecclestone to race a Brabham F1 car because he believed CART offered a bigger challenge than Formula One. In 1979, Mears scored his first of four Indy 500 wins and also won the first of his three CART championships. Ecclestone owned the Brabham F1 team at the time and he invited Rick to test one of his cars. Mears drove the Brabham twice, at Paul Ricard in France and the old Riverside road course in Southern California. He ran quicker than team leader Nelson Piquet at Riverside and Ecclestone offered Mears a contract. But after considerable thought Rick decided to continue in CART with Penske.

"The money in F1 was good, but it was road courses only, and I liked ovals," Mears recalls. "I could see CART getting strong and I liked the variety of CART with short ovals, long ovals, street circuits and permanent road circuits. I felt you had to be a more well-rounded driver to win the CART championship and I liked the Penske team and the association we had there. To me, CART was more competitive and more challenging. I thought Formula One would be fun, but it would be more fun to me to stay on CART. I could see CART was taking off so I made a decision not to do Formula One, and I didn't regret it one bit."

Twenty-six years later Sam Hornish, the heir to Mears's Penske open-wheel legacy, has three IRL titles to his credit and an Indy 500 win as well. But thanks to the wide-ranging effects of Tony George's dystopian vision, F1 is a galaxy away for Hornish. There's not a stroke of interest from anyone in F1 in this year's Indy winner. Instead he's droning around near the back of the NASCAR pack as he begins his apprenticeship toward being just another happy face helping make up the field and if he thinks it's going to be otherwise he should ask potential teammates Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman who have been conspicuous by their absences from the front of the field in most Cup races this year.

The big hope for the future of American open-wheel racing lays in Champ Car's attractive new Panoz DP01 ‘spec car'. After a thorough and successful test program at Sebring in August and September, the new Champ car is now in production at Elan Motorsports Technologies in Braselton, GA. Test driver Roberto Moreno was very happy with the feel of the car and liked the aero package when he ran the prototype at Sebring. Panoz's chief designer Simon Marshall says the DP01's test program went surprisingly well and Marshall said last week that no major components had to be reworked or redesigned.

"Mechanically, I can't think of any changes we had to make," Marshall reported. "We had absolutely no issues with the suspension and steering, and the engine and turbo did absolutely what they should without any problems. Nor were there any surprises on the aero performance. There were lots of details we've had to attend to, but no major issues."

The plan all along has been for Panoz to deliver the first batch of cars at the end of November with successive deliveries following through December and January so the teams can properly prepare for the first test session of the winter at Sebring at the end of January. As we all know, it's very difficult to deliver anything on time in racing's demanding environment, so the continuing healthy status of the DP01 program is a salute to the whole endeavor. Scot Elkins, Champ Car's technology director, was at the Panoz workshop in Braselton last week and was entirely satisfied with what he saw.

"Everything is progressing exactly as planned," Elkins commented. "We're fully prepared to deliver one car per team at the end of the month. The program is exactly on schedule with what we've laid out in the contract for Panoz to do. We feel pretty good about that. I'm very pleased and my confidence level is high right now. I'm pretty happy with where we're at. It's been a long process and to be on target feels pretty good."

Steve Makin is in charge of production at EMT. Makin and his production team have been flat-out over the past month and will continue to operate at maximum capacity over the next two or three months turning out the full fleet of thirty-five DP01s.

"We're at car numbers eight and nine at the moment," Makin said at the end of last week. "Our aim is to get ten cars out by the end of the month. My production plan is to achieve thirty-five by the end of January or thereabouts. There are no major issues. There are still one or two little modifications coming through, just fine-tuning. We've ramped-up into full production and we're getting it done."

American open-wheel racing badly needs a shot in the arm and everyone associated with the sport hopes the new Panoz DP01 will help provide the required jump-start.

Meantime, I'm told that at next weekend's Champ Car awards banquet the organization will announce a new, multi-year TV deal with ESPN, as well as two, new team ownerships with Paul Stoddart buying the CTE-HVM team and Dan Petit taking over RuSPORT, and confirm at least one if not both of its European races for next September. Against the financial odds and in spite of racing's powerful geopolitical forces, Kalkhoven and Forsythe may yet pull off Champ Car's revival.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

Top of Page