First-Timers

Anne Proffit
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SONOMA, April 12, 2005 - The Champ Car World Series (formerly known as CART) began its second season last weekend with a pile of first-time achievements.

For starters the group managed to get an over-full complement of 19 cars to grid despite having only 16 confirmed a week earlier for the 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. (The current contract called for 18 starters)

Toyota Atlantic regular Eric Jensen brought Italian Fabrizio del Monte along for his #41 Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone entry at the last moment, even though the hopes of Canadians were with Michael Valiante, who has experience with the Champ cars and finite knowledge of the 1.968-mile Long Beach circuit.

There may be a second Canadian team in addition to Jensen's as Ken Mandeville announced he intends to launch a Champ Car squad as prelude to a Formula One team. One can only hope Mandeville may hire a Canadian driver and bring in Canadian money when/if this happens.

HVM, Inc., primarily owned by Mexican interests decided to go Scandinavian with a Swede (Bjorn Wirdheim) and Dane Ronnie Bremer as its drivers rather than choosing a national name that would be recognizable to Mexican fans. Former driver Mario Dominguez had already read the handwriting on the wall and jumped ship, judiciously to Forsythe Championship Racing for the 2005 campaign.

Dale Coyne performed his usual feat of finding a paying driver and snapped up Ricardo Sperafico to partner Oriol Servia, one of seemingly thousands with his surname who work in the motorsports trade. This Brazilian family seems to be as prolific as the Bodine clan and just about as proficient.

These actions made the Roshfrans Rookie of the Year class a seven-strong contingent for the 14-race campaign, some more gifted than others. In addition to del Monte, Sperafico, Bremer and Wirdheim, Champ Car has former Formula One pilot Timo Glock, Toyota Atlantic graduate Andrew Ranger and Australian Marcus Marshall in the newcomer's group.

The fastest and best finishing rookie was Timo Glock, confirming the fact that abbreviated F1 track time pays off when you're in a new series with minimal practice on a new track. Glock brought his #8 Rocketsports Lola home in sixth but Bremer, in the #55 HVM machine vacated by Dominguez was just a tick behind, four-tenths of a second. It was good stuff.

Despite a spec chassis - Lola B2/00 - and bespoke Cosworth XFE engine, Paul Tracy shredded the lap record at Long Beach with a tour of 104.983mph to eclipse Gil de Ferran's five-year-old qualifying lap. Tracy was looking for his third consecutive Long Beach victory and led 23 laps en route to runner-up slot.

No surprise Sebastien Bourdais won the race as this thinking-person's driver earned his first victory of the 2005 season in the first race of the year. After taking seven wins and eight poles to earn the 2004 Vanderbilt Cup, Sebastien was not about to be denied and his inside pass of Tracy in turn one (a favorite overtaking spot) was a classic move.

In another first, Katherine Legge won the 32-lap Toyota Atlantic Championship race held before the Champ Car's 81-tour extravaganza. In so doing, she managed to get the attention of everyone in the media center as Legge, a 24-year-old Briton who ran one Formula Renault event in the US last year (at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course) trumped the boys.

The manner in which Legge performed her artistry caused a bit of a snit as she put a NASCAR move on Fernando Rees that sent him into the turn one tire wall. Hasn't anyone seen Paul Tracy do the same with his "chrome horn"? That's what racers do, folks; Katherine Legge is a racer, not a driver.

Normally the writing wags don't bother with Toyota Atlantic press conferences, but this was an historic moment: no woman has prevailed in a major North American open wheel category in modern history. The last woman to win a major open wheel race of any type was Desiree Wilson and that was 25 years ago!

As a seventh participant, Legge crashed Kathryn Nunn's six-woman Menards Infiniti Pro Series shootout last November in Texas and, with minimal seat time bettered the efforts of every other invited lady. And she had those same [formerly] ink-stained writers howling, "Danica who?"

Yes, they referred to one Ms. Patrick, currently ensconced at Rahal Letterman Racing in the IndyCar Series despite never winning in Atlantics. Granted Patrick had more experienced competition but a win is a win is a win.

Among the few drawbacks to the Long Beach race were the less than satisfactory job done by NBC Sports in showing this entertaining contest, as they barged in with little introduction after an Arena Football contest (now that's major league sports, right?) and never really bothered to show pertinent on-track action.

Between sessions 1996 CART champ Jimmy Vasser mouthed off about the Indy Racing League's initial street race a week earlier on the streets of St Petersburg, where CART last performed in 2003. Tracy did the same after the Long Beach race was completed. For most of the paddock, the Long Beach weekend provided a grand opportunity to taste sour grapes.

There was a serious lack of tension throughout the Champ Car paddock this week, and the Long Beach race almost felt - until the green flags flew - like a test session. It was left to the drivers to provide sparks on the track, which they did without pummeling one another.

Of the 19 starts, only two retired: Sperafico's antique Coyne Lola broke and Ranger punted himself out after trying to perform a like feat to his same-age (18) teammate Nelson Philippe. It sure looks like their team owner Eric Bachelart will have his hands full of kindergarten antics all season with this duo.

There were 13 cars on the lead lap and, while Bourdais' margin of victory was a monumental 4.138 seconds over Tracy, this was a well-grouped contingent who raced together all 81 laps and four [minimal] caution periods.

And now the first 2005 Champ Car World Series race is in the books and there are 13 more on the docket. With the success at Long Beach, where the minimized stands were full and the beer flowed freely, this Phoenix of a racing series looks like it might rise again.

But the likelihood of that revival happening in Long Beach, same time next year isn't a certainty, as both Champ Car's and Toyota's contracts expired with Bourdais' checkered flag. Would fans turn out if the race went to Champ Car's rival and the Great American Open Wheel Civil War continued onward?

Despite a proclivity to will a 23rd visit by the Champ cars on the streets of Long Beach, the fans will be back whether it's Champ Car, Indy Racing League or even NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competition on this track. Long Beach is a 200mph beach party, after all.

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