INDIANAPOLIS, August 10, 2004 - The chasm in American open wheel racing appears to be widening rather than decreasing, as vapid fans of the sport were hoping would not be the case.
The void between series has nothing to do with politics for once, but with the merits of competition in the 2004 season. After watching the eight races put on by the Champ Car World Series and ten by the Indy Racing League, I'm left with the thought that one group has winners and the other has whiners. You know which is which, don't you?
Case in point: the Grand Prix of Road America was held last weekend on Elkhart Lake's gorgeous 4.048-mile permanent road course, one of the most beautiful race tracks in the world. While some might claim the fan count was up from last year, that increase could be due to the weather, which was extraordinarily nice, for once.
Now, I think there are some very, very good drivers in Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford this season. FIA Formula 3000 champions Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira reside in the Newman-Haas Racing paddock, 2003 Champ Car titleholder Paul Tracy is the Forsythe lead driver, unheralded Mario Haberfeld wields Walker Racing's Reynard like a scythe most of the time.
Justin Wilson has come over from the dregs of F1's Jaguar Racing to another lightly funded team, Mi-Jack Conquest Racing and done an admirable, workmanlike job. The sole problem with his quest for Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year honors lies with start-up RuSPORT, which has the estimable A.J. Allmendinger as its pilot in 2004, paired with stellar veteran Michel Jourdain Jr.
Others I admire on the Champ Car grid include cagey Patrick Carpentier and volatile Alex Tagliani, both French-Canadians who have never quite made it to prime time. But that's it!
What I've seen from many of these drivers and their teams, however, makes me want to gag. There's so much whining going on in the Champ Car paddock it's a total turn-off for anyone who ever liked the series.
In some cases the bitching is deserved, such as when Tracy was penalized for being brake-checked by Junqueira and slammed into by protg Allmendinger, yet received a drive-through penalty for both situations last Sunday.
Hunh? Picking on PT has become a daily affair for Champ Car race control. I don't think PT has been in the right all of the time, but since Allmendinger apologized for his faux pas and Junqueira was two laps down and racing Tracy (?), this penalty appears undeserved. Paulie was simply trying to regain positions after a lousy pit stop.
Junqueira deserves a wrist-slap for comments made on-air from his cockpit after an altercation with teammate Bourdais at Turn 1 on the 14-corner course. "It's not fair," he wailed from the kitty litter. Earth to Bruno: racing is not fair, boy-o. Get over it and try to race cleanly with everyone and you might get more results tenable to your championship aspirations.
Champions don't whine - until they become champions. Just ask Paul Tracy about his personal lack of volatility last year and what it did for him: he finally won a title. This year he's back to his typical histrionics and floundering in the standings and on the track.
It's very sad to watch this once-proud series struggling to make race dates and to have equitable competition. In tinkering with rules on a daily basis, a la NASCAR the CCWS has not made itself better; it has made competition less evenhanded.
If Champ Car wishes to have really good racing, it needs to do away with arbitrary pit stops, be it a certain number of stops under green or pit windows; while push-to-pass is a nice innovation that continues to show off the extraordinary Ford-Cosworth XFE engine - only two failures since the spec engine came into use last year - it still is an artificial means of promoting competition.
While it really hurts to talk about the problems in Champ Car, it appears those difficulties manifest themselves in the paddock and on the track, more so than in any boardroom. Only a few cars have true sponsorship this season and the balance is coming out of owners' pockets. This is not healthy motorsports.
I am sure some Indy Racing League IndyCar Series teams have "phantom" backing like many in CCWS; it's not as prevalent. And with the League morphing to road racing next season to the cheers of most of its teams and drivers, not to mention suppliers and sponsors, the chasm grows wider between the two.
Take a look at the winners in IRL competition this year and you'll see the cast-offs from Champ Car. Indy Lights champion Tony Kanaan wasn't considered a winner and Buddy Rice, the 2000 Toyota Atlantic titleholder couldn't find a ride, even holding a contract at Team Rahal. Dario Franchitti was written off after his motorbike accident last year and the bitter bunch in Champ Car vowed he'd never return to IRL competition in 2004.
Even Sam Hornish Jr., who tried to come up the proverbial ladder to Champ Car racing through karts, F2000 and Toyota Atlantic could not get arrested, much less noticed by those team owners. He, like Kanaan, Rice, Franchitti, Bryan Herta and Alex Barron among others have found success and fame in the League.
If the Champ Car World Series doesn't make the bell in 2005, there will be room for some of its stars in the IRL, but certainly not all of them. Tracy has declared he'll not go, understandable after his victory in the 2002 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was never acknowledged.
Mexican Jourdain Jr. could have had the second 2004 Rahal Letterman Racing seat but rejected it to stay in Champ Car and race in his home country. Will opportunity knock twice for him?
The others? Who knows?
Until American open wheel racing becomes whole, there will be a high road with winners in the Indy Racing League and there will be low blows and whining in Champ Car. It's an untenable state of affairs.
(c) 2004 Anne Proffit