INDIANAPOLIS, October 7, 2003 This is a big weekend for open wheel racing, as Formula One ends its 16-race worldwide trek at Suzuka circuit in Japan, the Indy Racing League culminates its own 16-event campaign at Texas Motor Speedway and CART winds down its 19-race series with #17 in Mexico City.
While there's little suspense to the F1 closer, as Michael Schumacher holds a nine-point advantage over Kimi Raikkonen, the two Indianapolis-based groups have titles way too tight to call.
It's up to five guys in the IndyCar Series closer at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon are tied for the point lead with 467, Tony Kanaan is seven points back with 460, Sam Hornish Jr. lies fourth at 448 while 2003 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner Gil de Ferran is the caboose of this train with 437 points.
The latter two drivers need help in order to win the 2003 IRL title but the top three have destiny in their own hands. This year's IndyCar Series competition has been notable, as previous fights have been, for intensity and tight finishes. These past 15 races have also been, for the most part pretty darn clean, particularly the more recent events.
At California Speedway on September 21st, for example, only two drivers failed to finish the event, which was the fastest closed-course motor race ever held with an average speed of 207.151mph. Drivers took care of one another in that race, and taking care of one another has been the hallmark of this entire 2003 campaign. Oh, and Sam Hornish won for his third victory of the year.
The big question? Will all of that care-bear stuff go out the window this weekend, when everything is on the line for these drivers? It's one of the reasons Texas Motor Speedway should be sold out for the Sunday afternoon battle.
Quite frankly, I think intelligence will prevail until the final 50 miles of the Chevy 500K race, a 200-lap sprint. Then, with 50 miles remaining in the season, I think team engineers and spotters will have their hands full trying to keep stallions under the reins. Calmness and reason may prevail now, but don't bank on it Sunday at about 5PM EDT when the dreaded red mist sets in.
Pennzoil Panther have won the last two season-closers at Texas Motor Speedway with Sam Hornish Jr. in their catbird seat. That will end this Sunday, when Hornish departs for the red car of Marlboro Team Penske. If he wins again and his competitors falter, don't blame the new Gen IV Chevy Indy V8; even Team Target owner Chip Ganassi recognizes Sam's success is due to the preparation of his team, not just his new engine.
In Mexico, the Champ Cars will have to erase the memories of their own meltdown last week at Miami, where anyone who was anywhere near the front of the point standings ended up with damaged cars and/or lapsed dreams. The Miami Bayfront Park track of 1.150 miles in length lends itself to a demolition derby and the drivers complied by crashing into one another.
One can only hope that now, when the CART is seriously being peddled to Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS) and when four drivers have a legitimate shot at the title, they'll calm down and race, not punt one another off.
The Mexico City contest, officially known as Gran Premio Telmex-Gigante Presented by VISA-Banamex is the second visit for the Champ Cars to a 2.786-mile former Grand Prix track that has been revamped by OWRS principal Gerald Forsythe. Where once hotel maids swept the circuit clear of dust, drivers now have a modern track on which to battle for supremacy.
Point leader Paul Tracy will run his first race as a Team Player's driver bereft of Player's logos this weekend, thanks to new Canadian law. Owning 204 points and a propensity for either winning or spinning, Tracy's Lola will bear the good wishes of fans on its flanks, not blue paint. The Canadian punted rookie leader Sebastien Bourdais (4th in the points chase) out of the Miami fight and both ended up on the sidelines last weekend.
Bruno Junqueira had his own problems keeping a Lola straight at Miami and stands second with 191 points, a 13-ducat deficiency. Michel Jourdain Jr. should have won the Grand Prix Americas but was punished for a pit lane altercation and ended up an angry seventh. He's third with 171 points. Bourdais has 142 and is a true long shot.
The Champ cars have three more tries (including this weekend) to find a champion who will possess CART's Vanderbilt Cup. In recent years, the title chase has been decided before the last contest but this year it looks to go down to the wire.
With a record six Mexican drivers in the race this weekend, another battle will take place to nab the hearts and minds of countrymen, and this could be just as interesting as the title fight. Jourdain, driving for Team Rahal is the highest placed Mexican, while Mario Dominguez has 7th-place points, just ahead of veteran Adrian Fernandez. Dominguez's victory in Miami was no fluke; this one he earned.
Walker Racing's Rodolfo Lavin will have Luiz Garcia (who substituted for an injured Fernandez here last year) as a second teammate this weekend as Derrick Walker brings three Reynards to Mexico, while Roberto Gonzales replaces veteran Roberto Moreno at Herdez Competition for this particular race, hoping to lure as many fans to the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez as came last year, 350,000 over the three-day show.
So it's time to warm up the VCR and get the popcorn ready for two season finales and for a prelude to the last dance of the year (in the case of CART). I don't know who will win, of course, but I do know the anticipation of drama will keep me online and glued to the television set. I'm hoping for good clean fights for all three races, but my expectations are a bit different. I hope I'm wrong!