PT's Passion to Win
INDIANAPOLIS, September 2, 2003
It's been an amazing decade and a half watching Paul Tracy grow up from a chubby cheeked kid with oversize glasses to the slim, lasik-adjusted version of PT we have today. He's changed a lot over the years, but one thing has been constant: Paul Tracy has always been the fiercest of competitors.
I, for one, hope he earns the championship title both he and Team Player's have yearned for all this time. Player's, of course, entered the American open-wheel wars with Claude Bourbonnais and Jacques Villeneuve in Formula Atlantic and went on to score the Indianapolis 500 and CART titles with Villeneuve in 1995. The cigarette brand will depart all motorsports marketing at the end of this month.
Hiring Tracy to deliver the Champ Car title in their final year of permitted competition, Imperial Tobacco Canada Player's brand felt they had the right man at the right time in the right place. That certainly rankled Patrick Carpentier, who has been a stalwart with Team Player's since the 1998 CART campaign. It still rankles Carpentier, but he's had to live with being second fiddle to Paulie, the Thrill from West Hill, a Toronto suburb.
Tracy, of course has been in and out of favor with team owners and fans throughout his Champ Car career, which began with a single race for Dale Coyne Racing back in 1991. He's worked with the best: Team Penske (twice), Newman/Haas Racing, Team KOOL Green and now with Team Player's.
In this, his 13th CART season PT has experienced the same roller coaster ride he's had since he first started, going from winner of the first three races to three points only in the succeeding three. From hero to zero and back again. Not what he or the team needed.
And now, there are only four events left on Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford. Tracy's got 18 points on Bruno Junqueira, whose season hasn't exactly been what the Brazilian had hoped for, but certainly not the binge-and-purge ride of his closest competitor Tracy. Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr. shadows this duo like a vulture, just waiting for both of them to fall apart.
Running from February to November the Champ cars have 19 races in which to find a Champion. This title is Tracy's to win or lose and I can hear the rumblings already: "If he wins it, there should be an asterisk by his name, because all of his competition defected to the Indy Racing League."
That is a bunch of bull. The guys Tracy's racing against may not have names like Andretti, Brack, Franchitti, Castroneves, Dixon, Kanaan et al, but they've made it interesting and tough competition every weekend.
This Champ Car season is one of passion. With the series in such a state of flux, it's now or never for, well, maybe for everybody. And no one on this tour has more desire than Paul Tracy. He's not afraid to show it inside or out of the race car. He's been a veritable sound-bite lover's dream all year.
But mostly, he's simply been fighting for what he wants and what he needs. That elusive championship. You can feel PT's ardor as you watch the in-car camera, when you hear his expletive-laced conversation with his crew and with the next guy who sticks a microphone in his face.
Yes, Bruno Junqueira has passion, as do Michel Jourdain and Sebastien Bourdais and Patrick Carpentier, to name the fab four chasing Tracy. But they don't have the ability to transmit that zeal quite the way PT does. They just don't make you feel how badly they want and need this championship the way he does.
Just take a look at Paul Tracy's statistics if you need reminding how good this guy is: Tracy is 10th All-Time in Champ car wins, dating from 1909; he's fourth in CART victories and has twiceat this point anywayrecorded three wins in a row, in 1997 and earlier this season. His 18 pole positions are shared with three-time champ Bobby Rahal, giving them 11th place all-time and fifth in CART standings since 1979.
With 25 victories to date, Paul Tracy has a way to go before besting leader Michael Andretti (41), who has hung up his helmet. He leads all active drivers with 206 starts, to Jimmy Vasser's 201 and he's second in laps led behind Andretti Junior. This year alone, PT has led 594 laps, nearly double his closest competitor, Michel Jourdain.
The stats are good, yes they are, but the rewards are what elude Tracy and egg him on. After all, how many drivers have transformed their bodies like Paul has to achieve success? If you can't feel his intensity, can't feel his obsession to win, you just haven't been paying attention.
Back in the fall of 2002, when he was not yet permitted to talk about where he was going for the 2003 season, Tracy promised to support CART in what he knew would be a difficult season. "I'm prepared to put my work in, promotions-wise to make this succeed. I'm ready to help get it steered in the right direction and I don't think a lot of people are prepared to make sacrifices," he said at the time.
Not ready to give up his individuality or personality to benefit CART, Tracy still has done his part and now he's ready for the reward of the title and the Vanderbilt Cup that belong to the CART champion. I only hope he achieves his goal and helps the series on to more years of great competition. It would be a shame to see both Paul Tracy and Championship Auto Racing Teams do anything but succeed.
CHANGE OF THE GUARD
INDIANAPOLIS, August 26, 2003
After denying his intention to retire for the past few months, Gil de Ferran made it official yesterday at the Penske Racing shops in Reading, PA.
Just a day after teammate Helio Castroneves won the Firestone Indy 225 at nearby Nazareth Speedway, the 2003 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner told his Marlboro Team Penske squad he'd be gone after the final race October 12th at Texas Motor Speedway.
That doesn't mean de Ferran is going to slack off between now and then. There are three races left in the 2003 16-event Indy Racing League IndyCar Series campaign, and The Professor lies second in the points chase to Castroneves (429-404). All year now, Gil has repeatedly talked about "going out on top" and insisted he still "very much enjoys driving."
De Ferran has been racing steadily for 21 years, starting in karts at age 14. Born in France and raised in Brazil, de Ferran spent time as an exchange student in Wisconsin learning, among other things, how to milk cows.
Because he wanted, more than anything else, to race and win, Gil spent six seasons racing in Europe. "I was geared to F1 and felt, at age 19 I should go to Europe."
He won the British F3 title in his second year of competition and moved to FIA F3000 with Jackie and Paul Stewart. "The next step was either Formula One or Indy cars. In 1992 Emerson [Fittipaldi] advised me to consider going to America and in 1993, Nigel [Mansell] came over as F1 champion and won the CART championship too.
'At that time, Reynard was coming to America and I had driven their cars throughout my career, so it seemed a natural." In 1994, de Ferran came to Big Springs, TX to test for legendary car owner and builder Jim Hall. "He made me an offer mid-year and had a solid sponsor in Pennzoil. Jim had all the ingredients to win and, in my first race at Miami," de Ferran chuckled, "I got pole position!"
De Ferran would win for Hall and Pennzoil in the final Laguna Seca race of his first, 1995 CART season, quieting the throng in Victory Circle as he held infant daughter Anna in his arms. It was an endearing image of a man who relishes his sport and his family.
There's some irony here in that, when de Ferran hangs up his helmet at Texas, Sam Hornish Jr. will come onboard to drive for Marlboro Team Penske from his present ride at Pennzoil Panther. The current Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion is also in the title chase, albeit 81 points behind his future teammate Castroneves in fifth place.
One of the most difficult things for de Ferran to do yesterday was tell Castroneves he'd be leaving. They've been good friends as well as teammates and competitors for the past four seasons and "for Helio it was a big shock. We've had a great relationship and it's been tough to keep him out of it. That's one thing I will definitely miss. I've had good times with Helio," de Ferran admitted, but since they live so close (de Ferran in Ft. Lauderdale and Castroneves in Miami), they'll likely continue to see one another.
The past week or so, Hornish has been walking around carrying his own big secret, one that he had to keep from the Panther team he will leave at the end of the year, from the media who thought, for sure he'd be going to NASCAR stock cars, from Castroneves, whom he nearly beat at Nazareth, finishing .1697 seconds behind after 225 laps around this road-course of a mile oval.
Gil de Ferran has led a charmed life, driving for people like the Stewarts, Hall, Derrick Walker and Marlboro Team Penske; he's been an extraordinary tester for these teams, for Reynard, Goodyear, Honda, Toyota and many others.
But he did come to Team Penske at their lowest moment, just after this proud squad lost Gonzalo Rodriguez at Laguna Seca Raceway, just after they lost his potential teammate Greg Moore at California Speedway (then a Penske track) in the 1999 CART season finale.
Team Penske went three years without a victory, an eon for the winningest team in American open wheel racing. It wasn't until de Ferran won at Nazareth in 2000 that the hats commemorating Penske Racing's Indy car win #100 came out of the hospitality truck's bowels. The boxes had been sitting there, gathering dust all that time.
"I spoke to Roger in 1999 and it only took a few minutes for me to realize his commitment to bring this team back to success. I don't ever want to be on the other side against him," de Ferran insisted. De Ferran's familiarity with the team's Reynard/Honda/Goodyear package certainly helped bring success, but mostly it was his driven passion for the job and his desire to devote his entire life to winning races.
That will change in 2004. "Driving will no longer be the main focus of my life. I think it's best to stop now while I'm at my best, while the music is still playing. I'm driving as well as I ever did and, while I've been racing with [the knowledge of my] decision, that hasn't changed how I approach each race."
The two injuries Gil suffered last year at Chicagoland and this March on the Phoenix International Raceway oval didn't play into his decision to stop driving. "You have to drive with enthusiasm and desire. Those injuries didn't play a big part." Neither did his stated longing to road race. "There are risks in any sort of racing and I understood that from Day One."
He probably won't try to repeat at Indy next year. "That's not in the plan and it's a very difficult thing to do, but never say never," he laughed.
In April, when de Ferran's appearance at the Indy 500 was in doubt, he whisked away others' uncertainties by saying, "For me, racing is a selfish pleasure." In August, he said, "I'm having fun in the car and with the team." None of that has changed, but his commitment to continue after this season has lapsed.
Physically and emotionally, it will be a tough act for Sam Hornish Jr. to fill the driving shoes of Gil de Ferran, a two-time CART champion and winner of this year's Indy 500. Roger Penske has always been in de Ferran's pits doing race-day communication with his driver and, for four years, Gil has been Roger's driver.
Can Sam assume that exalted position? We'll have to wait and see.
HORNISH: A HERO ON FOUR WHEELS
INDIANAPOLIS, August 19, 2003
It's just two days later and I am still awestruck by the display of teamwork and driving ability put on exhibit at Kentucky Speedway Sunday, when 2001-2002 Indy Racing League champions Sam Hornish Jr. and Pennzoil Panther Racing led 181 laps, putting all but two competitors down by at least one tour of the 1.5-mile tri-oval en route to their first victory of the 2003 season in the Belterra Casino Indy 300.
This was the fastest race in Indy Racing League history and nearly bettered Jimmy Vasser's mark from Fontana last year in the CART 500-miler.
Was I surprised? Heck no. This team may have been out of the hunt for wins during the first three quarters of the IndyCar Series 16-race season, but they've been preparing for this day since Test in the West last February, when Panther Racing discovered, like every other Chevy IRL team, they had a boat anchor for an engine. Since they found out their engine maker was unprepared for competition against archrivals Toyota and Honda.
Toyota, of course, has nearly [officially] clinched the Indy Racing League's engine title, but the honors for chassis makers, entrants and drivers are still up for grabs. Both Panther Racing and Sam Hornish Jr. are fifth in their respective categories with another four races yet to run, and this group has not given up hope.
In fact they never gave up even as Honda and Toyota teams dominated the first part of the year. This group kept working on their chassis, figuring they'd have to beat 'em with finesse if their motive energy was down 50-60 horsepower to the competition. And it was.
Gathering points as they went, Hornish and the Panther crew pounced on their opportunities and clawed up the standings. It hasn't been easy, but it's been rewarding, as Hornish held the best Chevrolet record coming into the Michigan Firestone Indy 400 round and were first to compete with the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8, built by Cosworth Racing for its [aborted] entry into IRL racing.
Hornish and Panther put more than 1000 miles on the Gen IV before racing it; they were intimately familiar with the feel of the engine, its position in the Dallara chassis, the pick-up points and the harmonics. They'd developed their Dallara to its optimum during the process and, with sufficient ponies at their disposal, showed the world that they could nearly win on the first go-round for the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 at Michigan.
On their second try at Kentucky, they succeeded in such a way as to induce venom from some of their competitors who thought it was just the engine that got Panther and Hornish up front. Not so. It's been teamwork through and through and this group's great engineer Andy Brown has helped to keep the group always looking forward.
And now, forward is someplace Panther Racing is forced to look, since Sam announced on Monday, August 18th that he was moving along to "new pastures", as team co-owner Mike Griffin put it. Where he's going, Hornish won't say, but it sure looks like the open wheel world might be losing another full-time runner to NASCAR's Nextel Cup racing next season.
Enjoy him while you can. "We're going out to win them all," Hornish said of the coming four races, figuring he's got to win three simply to make up his 77-point deficit to Tony Kanaan (385-308).
While Sam doesn't have the best record at this weekend's Nazareth Speedway venue, he owns victories at Chicagoland, California Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway from the 2002 season, when he and Panther Racing vanquished the most successful team in American open wheel racing, Marlboro Team Penske.
Sam Hornish is a rare breed in the business arena in that he promised Panther Racing he'd let them know his plans by mid-August and did just that. He didn't want to leave his team of the past three seasons hanging and didn't want to "burn bridges". His words say a lot about this guy, a 24-year-old from Defiance, OH who intends to be winning races and titles for, oh, the next 20 years.
In order to appreciate this soft-spoken young man whose favorite activities outside racing are bowling and racing radio controlled cars, it's necessary to see him in action. And if your interest tends to fast, close and fair competition, please bear in mind that none other than Eddie Cheever Jr. has praised the ability of Sam Hornish Jr. to compete in the close confines of IRL battle.
Sam is one of a kind and it's my hope that we'll see his name on the Borg Warner Trophy sometime soon. Hornish has made clear that the plans he has for his future include a regular diet of Indianapolis 500 Mile races. "I don't think there's any one thing that makes me want to win at Indy, but I want to put my name there with those of Unser, Foyt, Andretti and the like. That would be a great feeling."
The final four IRL IndyCar races are set for Nazareth this weekend, Chicagoland a couple of weeks hence on September 7th, a trip to California Speedway on September 21st and the Texas Motor Speedway finale on October 12th. For poetry in motion, get an up-front look at Sam Hornish Jr. before the year is up. A "natural" like Sam doesn't come along very often.
THE OFFICIAL WORD
In any sport, officiating is a true black art. In racing, renown for its wealth of personalities on and off the track, officials have a wicked tough job. No matter what they do, usually someone will disagree.
Knowing whenand when notto throw any flag, to issue a black, a red and even a checker goes to a Chief Steward. To reprimand drivers or to give them kudos, that, too is the job of top officials in the sport. That person (or people) must enforce the rules of the game and, in this one, there are plenty of variables.
In open wheel racing, everybody's made mistakes this year.
Formula One's decision to instate Giancarlo Fisichella's victory in Brazil, giving Jordan the win in its 200th entry, was smart, unlike some intra-team moves in recent years. At least the FIA did the proper remedy. This time.
From a strict "rules" standpoint, the Indy Racing League's removal of the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 from Sam Hornish's Dallara after his runner-up finish in Michigan to place it in Buddy Rice's at Gateway is absolutely mind-boggling.
Okay, boys, now that we've given you this nice shiny toy, we're gonna let Buddy play with it for a while before youand the rest of the Chevrolet teamsget supplies of engines in time for Kentucky.
Which is, oh, about five days after they finished with Gateway. Sheesh. Why not Sam and Buddy? From an engineering standpoint, that would have been a better shakedown for a power mill than two different drivers. The beavers at Cosworth Inc are working as hard as they can to make those Gen IV motors.
Now, then, when we speak of strict officiating, Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford has the corner on poor calls. This bunch of Keystone Flops has managed to mess up just about every raceof 13held thus far in 2003.
Gone to "Race Control" is longtime flagman Jim Swintal; gone is the great Wally Dallenbach as chief steward. Chris Kneifel has been training as Wally's heir for a few years now. On and off.
When finally awarded the job as Chief Steward for what, the third or fourth time, Kneifel brought his own team to the party. Beaux Barfield is senior manager of competition and Tony Kester holds the post of CART steward.
All three of these guys have experience in racing, as recently as last year for Kneifel and Kester, but they've never run top-line open wheel racing, which means they are unqualified to judge the actions of top-line open wheel racers.
These three stooges have been running the Champ Car World Series like their own private elementary school playground and have included former Toyota Atlantic flagger J.D. Wilbur in their clique. Wilbur showed his lack of prowess at Portland this year, declining to throw green until the fourth time 'round.
What a group!
After the fiasco at Vancouver a few weeks ago, when outside front row starter Bruno Junqueira jumped prior to the start, it took this group of Mensa rejects 21 green flag laps to figure out that Junky needed to get behind pole man Paul Tracy.
Then when Mario Dominguez and Tiago Monteiro separately took out the balance of the Canadian entries at VancouverPatrick Carpentier and Alex Taglianithis same group slapped the two guilty men on the wrist the following week at Road America, placing them on a strange type of probation. If this wayward duo had any sort of problems while a lap or more down, they'd be punished, said CART's Stewards.
Those same Stewards should have punished themselves for behaving badly at Road America when they declined to permit professional race car drivers their opportunity to perform on a drying circuit, citing the awful Australian race last fall as criteria for stoppage.
Yes, the event at Surfers Paradise was a debacle, but Road America is vastly different from Surfers. The former has few walls; the latter is bounded by concrete and cement. The only similarity is that both are Champ Car venues.
This past weekend, Dominguez was not formally charged after nearly bunting off Adrian Fernandez at the start of the Champ Car Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio for oh, about the third or fourth time in the 2003 season. No penalty for his squeeze was imposed.
Later in the day, Monteiro blocked Dominguez and got a drive-through penalty. Yes, folks, there's nothing like consistency, is there?
Saturday morning at Mid-Ohio, CART issued a notice that claimed it was shuffling the steward lineup. They even changed the categories: race director, clerk of course and stewards.
CART's director of competition, Kneifel also assumes the post of race director. Swintal becomes clerk of the course and joins Barfield and Kester as race stewards. For qualifying and racing, John Anderson (senior manager of technology) moves from pit road to "race control" in order to keep things on an even keel, perhaps?
These modifications made no difference in the outcome at Mid-Ohio and, quite frankly, I don't think they're what CART really needs. Like the Indy Racing League and Formula One, they must have someone knowledgeable and forceful in charge. At this time they've got lots of chiefs but none truly capable of direction.
Yes, CART gets the brunt of criticism for its officiating, which has been poor, at best, this season. Should the company survive to race another day, the official word needs to come from a viable source, not a bunch of clowns like the ones they've got now.
BRUNO BITES BACK
Since the start of the 19-race 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, there have been two guys clearly in the spotlight.
One is Paul Tracy, currently in his 13th year on the CART circuit and still seeking his first title; the other is Bruno Junqueira, who moved to Newman/Haas Racing this year after two campaigns with Chip Ganassi's Team Target.
When you look at these two guys, the immediate reaction is to glance at the "W" column and Tracy's got that one covered with five victories thus far.
However, nobody in American open wheel racing has the consistency of Junqueira, who has finished out of the top five only once in 12 races held to dateat the Milwaukee Mile in Mayand finally notched his first win of the year in the Mario Andretti Grand Prix at Road America this past Sunday. You could almost hear the Brazilian exhale.
It's easy to have an opinion about Paul Tracy. You either love or hate the guy, a brash Canadian both on and off the track. Paulie's never met a microphone he couldn't [bleep] and controversies that surround the Thrill from West Hill are, pretty much of his own making and building.
Bruno has become resigned to toiling in others' shadows, a position he doesn't relish. Junqueira hails from Belo Horizonte, the same city that bred last year's Champ Car titleholder Cristiano da Matta.
Junqueira arrived at Team Target in 2001 (as F3000 champ), replacing Juan Pablo Montoya and promptly announced that he was as good or better than his predecessor.
Raising eyebrows with comments like that, it wasn't until Road America that "Junky" notched his first 2001 victoryof only four in his 2-1/2 seasons.
Junqueira finished second in last year's title chase to townmate da Matta and doesn't want to do so againto Canadian Tracy or Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr, the latter a strong third in the standings. Working with last year's championship team, Bruno has developed a good working relationship with his team and, finally, his keen sense of humor in Englishand is getting comfortable with his highly motivated crew.
In a show of comfort, he never removed the Wisconsin cheese-head hat from his head until after the press conference was finished at Road America, pretending to eat the "cheese" on the podium. "In my home state in Brazil, we are famous with cheese as well," he explained. "I think here is my home in the US. So I got my win at home. But I also consider Mid-Ohio my home. And Denver and California as well," he laughed.
It hadn't been an easy month of July for Junky. Two races in Canada were difficult for the "Boy from Belo", who had to give up a lead in Vancouver after CART's officials rightfully judged he jumped the start. They needed a full 21 laps to enforce that judgment, though, and it took a lot of the wind out of Bruno's sails.
"When I have a difficult moment, I get some inspiration inside of me that I became stronger than before. And I think that's what happen," he said. "I think after Vancouver, something happen to me. I was a little bit shaken for everything that's happen. I said, 'I'm going to be strong'."
And strong he was at Road America. Winning provisional and final pole positions, leading every lap of the truncated, wet race and gaining victoryand a maximum 23 pointson "my favorite racetrack." With Tracy's retirement after a self-imposed shunt on the first green flag lap, Junqueira took over the championship lead by three points, 164-161. "It was a perfect day to end a perfect weekend."
While Bruno has been knocking back the big points this spring and summer, competitor Tracy has had an up-and-down spring. A string of three races (two European rounds and Milwaukee) where he gained only three points, along with last weekend's debacle, could shelve the Canadian's title hopes. The pressure of trying to win for Team Player's in his sponsor's final year of competition could be tough on Paul. He's got a lot on his shoulders.
Bruno knows that greatness lies in front of him and is achievable. He has the tools in Newman/Haas Racing; he has a teammate who can push him to the top level in Sebastien Bourdais, who already has three victories of his own to go with four pole positions. Of the Mario Andretti Grand Prix at Road America, Bourdais noted, "It was a great day for Newman/Haas Racing. It was really special for us going one-two here. What can I say?
"We have Bruno leading the points now and I'm gaining spots and moving up in the championship as well. For sure this is the best racing circuit in the U.S.," Bourdais stated. He, too, sees the significance of his teammate's victory and the team's success on both sides of the trailer.
Can Junqueira hold off Tracy's freight train and gain the Vanderbilt Cup that signifies CART's 2003 championship? At the rate he's going, Junqueira is causing fear and loathing in Canada. And I think he likes it that way.
The new Chevrolet Gen IV Indy V8 engine.
This has been a lively week in American open-wheel motorsports.
In Michigan, GM Racing debuted its Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 in the ultra-capable hands of Sam Hornish Jr. and Pennzoil Panther Racing. Neither the power mill nor its delivery system skipped a beat as Hornish qualified fourth, ran first much of the way and lost by .0121 seconds to Alex Barron. It was great racing.
Please note that both drivers were born right here in the USA and both have an immense amount of talent. Hornish and Barron are veterans of the Toyota Atlantic series, which has been a primary supplier of driver talent for 30 years. Barron was Atlantic champion in 1997 and has driven for Toyota almost exclusively since that time, including a stint with Dan Gurney's All American Racers.
Hornish has said he will check out the crystal ball and figure out where to go and what to do for the next few years after spending the month of August thinkingand racing in three IndyCar Series events.
Reigning IRL champ Hornish has the world on his plate; he can do whatever he wants and go where he desires. Anyone who doubted the Defiance, OH native's talents after the past two seasons has no right to do so now: using the lousy Gen III Chevy Indy V8 engine, Hornish has managed to squeeze everything out of his package and run to the front when he truly had no chanceor right.
Few in the Indy Racing League paddock begrudged Hornish his return to the front of the pack. One vocal dissenter was Greg Ray, who drives for a team he helped to form and in which he is a partner. Ray's mount this season is a Panoz G Force chassis powered by a Honda engine.
Now, folks, just as Hornish's Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 has its genesis in the skunkworks of Cosworth Racing Ltd. in Northampton, UK, Ray's Honda comes from Ilmor Engines, those good folks who make Mercedes-Benz engines for Formula One.
Ray joined the IndyCar Series campaign at Twin Ring Motegi, the track owned by Honda, where the company still has not recorded an open wheel victory. The Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 made its debut near Michigan, home of General Motors after much debate on the validity of its roots. See a corollary?
Next week Buddy Rice gets to try out the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 per Indy Racing League rules. He'll be the only driver at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis to use the mill in the Emerson 250, forcing Hornish back into the Gen III.
As the Gateway 1.25-mile oval is pretty much a handling track, this week's test should aid Rice in learning how to get the Gen IV working. On and off the throttle a lot, with two differing ends of the track, the Gen IV might not be the savior it was for Hornish at Michigan. But we will see.
It's just strange that the Indy Racing League decrees only one driver will have benefit of this motor at each of these two events prior to every Chevrolet driver having that option in Kentucky for the Belterra Casino Indy 300 on August 17th. Why not get the feedback from having both Hornish and Rice using the Gen IV? That would appear to be a better test of the engine.
In other Indy Racing League news, chassis and engine makers were advised by the League to prepare their tubs and blocks for road/street racing configurations in the 2004 season. It isn't known at this time whether a road course will be on the 2004 IndyCar Series schedule, but Brian Barnhart wants to make sure the suppliers are ready for whatever happens, lessening financial intrusion should opportunity present itself.
One guy who doesn't want the League to change into a CART clone is Roger Penske, who expressed reservations prior to the Firestone Indy 400 last weekend in Michigan. It's taken a long time for the IRL to build its all-oval series fan base and competition, Penske noted, and to include a couple of road/street races would be okay, but not six or seven, he implied. That would take away from the expressed plan of the series.
On the other side of the border, CART held its second of three Canadian street/road races this past weekend, the Molson Indy Vancouver. Paul Tracy won the first event at Toronto two weeks earlier and came to Vancouver on a roll.
He also came under fire, after the sanctioningsorry, marketing organization fined the Champ Car titlist-in-waiting for his sartorial gaffes at Cleveland ($15,000 US for cut-off shorts!), something they've never done to Jimmy Vasser, whose clothing choices have been similar to Tracy's.
Tracy also has been miffed at certain competition calls at the hands of CART chief steward Chris Kneifel and his appointed flagger, J.D. Wilbur. Tracy was penalized at Portland for a contretemps with Michel Jourdain Jr. at the Festival Curvesa regular gathering place for carbon fiber, rubber and anger.
Tracy wondered at the late race caution in Toronto when he was leading by more than 30 seconds and the cause of said caution was swiftly removed from the racing surface. Was it a NASCAR yellow?
The outspoken Thrill from West Hill was also not amused when he was accused of blocking in Friday qualifying at Vancouver, had his fast time removed and had to regain top slot in final time trials the following daysomething he said he intended to do anyway, but not forcibly. The shit hit the fan after Tracy took his second consecutive Canadian pole position and he let loose with a verbal barrage that was heard from British Columbia to the Irish Hills of Michigan.
Tracy had things go his way in the 100-lap Vancouver race, being jumped before the start by Bruno Junqueira, who's been hounding the Canadian all season and will likely continue to do so until Fontana in November. Junqueira passed before the green came out and went on to lead for 21 laps before forced to cede to Tracy, who then ran away to a 17.820-second margin of victory.
Tracy has been a good spokesman for CART this yearand before nowand angering him manages to make him race stronger. He's stuck with Champ Car when he could have gone to the Indy Racing League because he believes in the series and because he finally has the ride of his life with Team Player's this year, before the cigarette maker has to bid adieu to motorsports marketing.
Paul Tracy holds a 20-point advantage on his Brazilian contender for CART's Vanderbilt Cup. Michel Jourdain Jr. lurks 36 points behind.
Three points separate the Indy Racing League's top drivers, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran.
The question is whether policies and politics currently afflicting both series will excite or alienate their fan base. And that's a big question for both CART and the IRL to examine with care.
Sam Hornish: A great driver in need of a great engine.
AS THE ENGINE TURNS
It's just another gunk-y soap opera for race fans.
Chevrolet Racing had to do something. They were getting their asses whipped by a couple of Japanese automakers just off the sinking ship known as CART. When Honda and Toyota joined the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series everything changed.
Where once motors came from the elite backyard builders, per owner Tony George's desires, now there are leases on sealed engines to deal with. Chevrolet's Joe Negri said his group was ready for enhanced competition at the IRL's Test in the West in February, but it was apparent right from the start of the season in March that they weren't.
A look through box scores for the first nine races of the 16-event IndyCar Series season tells a more potent story. No Chevrolet led any IRL race until Nashville last weekend, when savvy Sam Hornish Jr. bulled his way to the front with inside/outside passes on the 1.33-mile tri-oval that no one else could make. He is one cool dude.
So Sam led four lapsincluding the halfway point&151and then pitted just in time for caution to come out and bounce him back into the pack; he finished 11th. It's a story we've seen all season. This great driver, this great team, this boat anchor of an engine.
Something had to be done to save the year for GM Racing, which has supported the Indy Racing League since 1997, the start of the naturally aspirated engine period that continues to this day.
Which begs the big question: Why couldn't giant GM come up with its own fix for this dilemma? Why did Joe Negri's engineering crew have to go out of house to get the necessary power and expertise to compete with the Japanese? Why did GM have to go to Ford-owned Cosworth Racing?
In addition to its travails in Formula One, World Rally Championship and CART, Cosworth Racing is now supplying the Indy Racing League's premier IndyCar Series with Chevrolet-badged engines and that's cool, if it works.
Cosworth is selling Chevrolet the engine developed for CART when it was going to naturally aspirated motors. When CART decided to stick with its trademark turbo enginesconstructed and maintained by Cosworth, the aspirated block got tuned to IRL specs, but Cosworth lacked the necessary manufacturer's badge to compete.
The Gen III Chevy Indy V8 must be some kind of slug when Chevrolet makes up the long caboose of a 21 or 22-car IndyCar Series grid. Must be, when two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. can't get into the lead until race #9 of the 2003 season. Must be when the best Chevy finish is Hornish's fourth place [at Richmond]. Must be when GM Racing turns to Ford for help.
The reasons Ford Motor Co. bought Cosworth Racing are elementary: to make money from this halo division and to bring fame to the family name. Where's the glory when you sell your design parameters to the highest bidder without your name on it?
Who is to say the teams running GM Racing's Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 will be any closer to the front?
Of course it all remains to be seen, and proof of the (Northampton?) pudding comes this weekend at Michigan International Speedway in the Irish Hills outside Detroit. Isn't that site appropriate?
Sam Hornish and Pennzoil Panther Racing will be first to test the machine under racing conditions; Red Bull Cheever Racing's Buddy Rice gets it for Gateway and everybody else gets the highly touted fix in time to race at Kentucky.
Hornish has more than 1000 miles testing the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 engine in three separate encounters. The two-time IRL champ expressed pleasure with the performance and drivability parameters, according to IRL VP for competition Brian Barnhart.
So another new IRL era begins at the Firestone Indy 400 at MIS July 27th.
CART is looking more like the old Indy Racing League every day, with handouts for borderline teams and a spec engine/chassis series for Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.
The Indy Racing League looks more like the old CART with Honda, Toyota and Chevrolets nurtured by Ford-Cosworth battling for motive supremacy. Even Lola Cars is trying to get into the League after managing to talk their way in and out in 2002.
What is up is suddenly down and vice versa. Race fans can vote with their remote controls and by putting their butts in seats. It'll be interesting to see what transpires this weekend. As for me, I just don't know what to think anymore. I'm just gonna watch.
Hornish, with Chevy's lackluster Indy V8.
TEAM PLAYER'S SETS SAIL
The sport of motor racing has always been one of change. From the track to the boardroom, careers and partnerships have come and gone.
Since 1961, there's been one constant and that has been the participation of Imperial Tobacco Co.'s Player's brand, the Canadian cigarette in a distinctive blue package. Player's has sponsored races and driversstarting with the Player's 200 at Mosport near Bowmanville, Ontario, the first international racing event held in Canada.
Almost single-handed, Player's has fostered Canadian motorsports since that time, introducing decades of fans to Canadian heroes like Gilles Villeneuve, Bill Brack, Claude Bourbonnais, Jacques Villeneuve, David Empringham, Patrick Carpentier, Andrew Bordin, Greg Moore, Lee Bentham, David Rutledge, Bertrand Godin, Alex Tagliani and, this year for the first time, Paul Tracy.
These Canadians have made their marks all over the globe, wearing the familiar blue and white of Team Player's. At home, they've competed in events from Trois Rivieres to Westwood that were sponsored by Player's. A cadre of Canada's drivers has come through the ranks with the backingwhether partial or fullof the tobacco giant.
This year that will end. Canadian law stipulates that Team Player's will disband its motorsports marketing effective October 1st, a month and a day before this year's Champ Car World Series season is completed.
September 30th will cap 43 years of dedication to racing that rivals that of puffable patrons Winston and Marlboro in scope. But have those two red brands ever pursued national pride the way Player's has? I don't think so.
Player's has a Drivers Development Program since 1991 that brought sixteen Canadians up through the ranks to the top of their field. They've done it for national pride in a country thatthanks in part to Player'sloves its racing.
In the 2003 CART season, Tracy and Carpentier are Team Player's lead drivers, with Alex Tagliani having a partially funded Player's program at Rocketsports Racing. Midway in the campaign the results are good. Tracy leads the standings and Carpentier lies fourth. Tagliani, with a newly formed squad in 2003, has ninth place points.
Paul Tracy's victory in the Molson Indy Toronto held last weekend was a point of national pride and came ten years after his first hometown win. He's called the "Thrill from West Hill" (the Toronto suburb where Paul grew up) for his exciting driving style, something the outspoken Tracy has never lost, even as he's developed a fine sense for the public relations side of the sport, becoming a spokesman (and nuisance, on occasion).
The Vanderbilt Cup is Tracy's to win or lose and it is up to him to play the role of hero for Team Player's this year. Armed with people he trusts, like CART's own Obi Wan Kenobi Tony Cicale, with engineers Michael Cannon and Todd Malloy. Tracy, Carpentier and company have even more: the backing of Bob Bexon, the president and CEO of Imperial Tobacco and a race fan from his youth.
The end of this collaboration is something that makes Bexon sad. You can see his lively blue eyes droop at the thought of leaving racing, but there's nothing he can do about it at this time. "It's the law. It's moot whether I think it's fair."
Until they're forced to scrape the blue paint from the two Lolas campaigned by Player's/Forsythe Racing in the 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford, Bexon, co-owner Gerald Forsythe and the squad led by Neil Micklewright are doing everything in their power to see one of their drivers holding that big silver chalice at Fontana by the close of business November 2nd.
Bexon and 12 of his 16 drivers announced the departure of Team Player's the Thursday prior to the Molson Indy Toronto. A video montage annotating the 42 years of history that Imperial Tobacco has brought to Canadian motorsports was celebratory. Drivers were introduced. Comments were made. Later, I'm sure toasts were lifted.
"Today is quite sad," Tagliani admitted. He joined the Drivers Development Program in 1996, progressed through Toyota Atlantic to his current job driving Champ Car. "Everyone wanted to be part of this program," Carpentier said and then joked, "It feels like I've been with Player's since 1961!" Tracy called this particular Thursday a "difficult day for everybody; a difficult day for Canadian motorsports."
"There is still history to be written," Bexon declared. Working to "win another championship for Canada" is the final job for Team Player's. The most recent titles came from Jacques Villeneuve, first at the Indianapolis 500 and in Champ Car in 1995, then Formula One with Williams in 1997.
"It is with sadness, yet also with considerable pride that we make this announcement," Bexon continued. "And it's pretentious to think that if we're not involved the world comes to an end. If, after October 1st (when there will be three races remaining), we have to race 'light', we will. And I would rather stay in racing, if I had the choice," he sighed. "I, personally, will miss this very much."
As 50-50 co-owners of the team, Bexon and Imperial Tobacco are searching for another Canadian firm to take up the sponsorship slack. Thus far, they've not found a suitable partner. "Our nine years working with Jerry Forsythe have been great. He's a man of integrity and spares no effort to succeed. Our operation was formed on a handshake; that's the kind of person he is." And the type of person Bob Bexon is, as well.
"It's taken me a long time to get to this team," Tracy said. "The timing is right now and it was worth the wait. I'm having more fun than in any other season (this is his 13th year driving Champ cars) and my goal is to deliver the Championship to Team Player's at the end of the year. I've got my fingers crossed I can get the job done."
One hopes Paul won't be driving with his fingers crossed, and if he was this weekend, that's bad news for his competitors who, without benefit of caution periods fell upwards of 30 seconds in arrears to this guy, who's really on a tear.
As governments continue to curtail the abilities of tobacco firms to market their products, they also curtail the abilities of young athletes to gain success in their chosen fields. Bexon and Co. can always find ways to spend their marketing millions. Can Canadian drivers find a way to make their futures secure without them?
KERMIT KICKS BUTT IN CART
When Sebastien Bourdais came to Newman/Haas Racing as the 2002 FIA Formula 3000 champion, the media spin was huge. Many writers chose the French rookie to win the Champ Car title this year.
True, Bourdais was going to the most recent championship team, but there have been changes for all teams since the 2002 Champ Car season ended.
After his initial success in testing at CART's 2003 Spring Training, held in February at Sebring International Raceway, the expectations for Bourdais grew. He would win it all, the pundits claimed.
And the Frenchman obliged at St. Petersburg by taking pole position in his initial Champ Car race, becoming the first to do so since Nigel Mansell in 1993when he drove for Newman/Haas Racing.
Bourdais made a rookie error in his first raceyet still finished 11thand followed that by taking pole and committing another blunder in his second contest in Monterrey, Mexico.
By the time the tour reached Long Beach, the kid was almost pleased not to take pole position in the #2 Lilly Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone racer. Perhaps his luck would change? Nope, not even close. Sebastien experienced Cosworth's sole engine failure in the first nine races held to date!
So it was off to England and Germany, two more tracks Bourdais had never driven. His experience in F3000 helped, as there's precious little track time available in that series prior to each race. "Sebastien has this great ability to learn tracks very well," said Craig Hampson, his NHR engineer.
The NHR crew never lost hope and Sebastienwhom they'd nicknamed Kermit because he's French, a "frog"rewarded them with his first win of the year at Brands Hatch on the tiny 1.029-mile Indy course. The next weekend Bourdais took win #2 at the 1.5-mile EuroSpeedway Lausitz oval after earning his third pole position.
Back on US soil in late May and June, Bourdais had no luck. "Greg [Moore] and I used to call it our June swoon," current points leader Paul Tracy recalled with empathy.
Bourdais took ninth place in Milwaukee in CART's first night race from 13th on the grid; he didn't finish at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca or Portland despite racing to what could have been podium slots both times. Mechanical failures took Kermit out. "We just can't get a result in the States," he wailed.
It was getting depressing for the 24-year-old. After Portland, he participated in testing at Road America and Mid-Ohio with the car now painted red for its three-race McDonald's sponsorship agreement.
Red seems to be a luckier color for Sebastien than black, doesn't it? "It feels very good [to win again], because the car turned red for this event. I'm very glad of that because it looked like the black car was a synonym of bad luck and now it's gone," he laughed.
This Le Mans native won race #9 in Cleveland from his fourth pole position, beating Tracy and teammate Bruno Junqueira in a one-lap shootout for the victory.
A sprint from a short caution in the 115-lap US Bank presents the Cleveland Grand Prix decided the outcome. Bourdais caught the green flags just right and ran away from the duel behind him for second place between PT and Bruno.
Finally, he had his win on American soil. Car co-owner Paul Newman pointed to the destroyed left rear Bridgestone Potenza as a badge of merit after the race, but Paul, he blew that rubber doin' celebratory doughnuts, not racing!
While Bourdais was waiting for the next calamity to strike in the waning laps at Cleveland, there was Adrian Fernandez, taking his line at the third turn and coming in contact with the 11-second leader when only five laps remained. "I have no idea what happened with Adrian but I thought 'oh, no, not again'. I was so scared something happened."
This Cleveland Grand Prix was no lah-di-dah Saturday night drive. It was so tough on the top two that they shared an ice pack for their blistered hands during the post-race press conference.
The heat, the humidity after a late-afternoon storm drenched the 2.106-mile runways and taxiways at Burke Lakefront Airport were difficult for everyone, even the fit drivers of the Champ Car World Series.
Does this mean things will change for Bourdais? Will he fulfill the promise? Hell, I'm impressed. So is Paul Tracy. After the final round of pit stops, Tracy knew his fate. "He was too far down the road for me to catch him. We pretty much ran the same pace," second place finisher PT acknowledged. "Well, you know, if I do catch him, passing him is another thing."
For once, luck shone on the rookie. If there was damage to the #2 McDonald's/Lilly Lola racer, it didn't stop Sebastien Bourdais from coming first to the checkered flags. "I was really upset in the cockpit the last laps. I was so tired in the car and it was very difficult to concentrate to the checkered flags," Bourdais said.
"We knew Sebastien would be very, very good this year. He was clearly the best candidate for this job," Hampson noted later. "He's showing a little better than we expected, though."
With a 57-point lag on leader Tracy even with ten races left to run, Hampson thinks a top-three finish is possible for his rookie, currently fifth in the standings. "Our goal is to win more races than anybody this year."
They've got the tools to get that job done. Sebastien Bourdais is turning out to be a very good Champ Car driver, if not the acknowledged champion some thought he would be.
There's still a long way to go to the end of the season at California Speedway November 2nd, and Sebastien Bourdais will be right in the thick of it all. He can race with the best Champ Car drivers out there and he's having fun. "It's been very frustrating because we should be in the fight for the championship. Now all we need is a bit more luck."
IRL FANS WANT ACTION!
This message is for died-in-the-wool Indy Racing League fans: do not give up hope.
Yes, your IndyCar Series has been invaded by two former CART engine makersToyota and Hondaand yes, they've brought along all their favorite teams and drivers for battle.
The die was cast, folks, when Marlboro Team Penske, Team Target and Mo Nunn Racing dipped their collective toes in the all-oval ocean last season.
When CART changed its modus operandi, the floodgates opened and now you've got, in addition to those teams, Honda's Super Aguri Fernandez Racing (nee Fernandez Racing), Team Rahal and Andretti Green Racing, the first two double-dipping with players in both Champ Car World Series and IndyCar Series competition.
But don't forget that Toyota was brazen in compelling Kelley Racing's two-car squad for Al Unser Jr. and Scott Sharp to come on board early in the engine feeding frenzy.
Toyota also collected the most stalwart of Indy Racing League owners, A.J. Foyt Jr.'s team at the last minute for A.J. Foyt IV in the #14 Conseco car. Foyt has a rotating selection of Shigeaki Hattori from Japan, Airton Dare of Brazil and the US's Jaques Lazier, currently driving his second #5 car.
Honda garnered start-up Access Motorsports a couple of races into the season. Access' opening salvo with Greg Ray came at Honda's own track, where the company still has zero open wheel victories, Twin Ring Motegi.
And then there's Chevrolet. Wherever there's been an Indy Racing event, Chevy has been there. The ads say, "Wherever there's a Winner's Circle, we'll be there" but in 2003, Chevrolet is zero for seven.
This dubious record has prompted quick calls for action, as it's no fun being a Chevy driver or team languishing at the rear of the pack. Remember, Chevrolet and, before them Oldsmobile powered all IRL champions. The world's largest automaker, General Motors can't live with that kind of put-down by Toyota and Honda.
Toyota, of course, has won all but one of the races held to date, including the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race; Honda has but one victory with Brazilian Tony Kanaan who leads the points lead in the season-long chase.
What is Chevrolet to do? A Gen 4 engine is in the works for Chevy and could be the proper fix.
For insurance, GM's largest division's motorsports group looked outside its corporate entity for assistance, going so far as to talkand workwith Cosworth Ltd., the wholly owned (by Ford) engine firm currently supplying all motors for the Champ Car series, in addition to Cosworth's front-line work in Formula One and World Rally Championship.
Strange bedfellows, perhaps, but this deal is not yet struck. Remember, Cosworth has a 3.5-liter aspirated engine, built for CART competition before that sanctioning body decided to stick with 2.65-liter turbocharged engines. Cosworth hasn't entered IndyCar Series competition despite the powerplant's approval by the League, lacking one important item: a brand name on the motor.
Nobody's talking about what will or will not happen, at least not today, but suffice to say Chevrolet will not stand pat for the final nine events of the 2003 IndyCar Series season.
It hasn't mattered much the last two races, both held on short ovals. Sam Hornish Jr., Indy Racing League champion over the last two years has managed to get his Dallara chassis handling well enough to push through the power deficit and run toward the front of the field, even as Toyota-powered Scott Dixon has won two in a row.
Hornish has been one of the bright lights for the IRL's staunch fans, providing the type of cut-and-thrust activity for which the series has been known.
For those who have forgotten, Hornish began his IRL career with PDM Racing in 2000, running eight races with a best finish of third (at Las Vegas) and was "discovered' by Pennzoil Panther Racing's John Barnes, who knew talent when he saw it.
This year, despite a boat anchor in his Dallara, Hornish has not given up hope as his finishes of fifth at Pikes Peak International Raceway on June 15th and fourth in last weekend's shortened night race at Richmond International Raceway will attest. Sam is still the bravest guy in the IndyCar Series paddock, a man who will pass high or low at any race track.
Unfortunately, he had pit problems at Richmond with one guy who has been trouble in the pits these last two races. Ordered out of the stall a wee bit early by Kevin Blanch on his first stop, Hornish collided with Felipe Giaffone and lost time, falling down to 14th at the 75-lap mark.
He also brushed the wallfor the second time in 24 hoursbut this hit didn't harm his car. The Pennzoil Panther crew had worked from 10AM Saturday morning until it was time to grid cars just before 7PM making repairs to Hornish's yellow car after he rode the Turn 4 wall to end final practice Friday night after qualifying fourth.
That ol' #4 magic at play, don't you think? Driving #4 he started fourth, hit the fourth turn wall, managed to finish fourth on guts, talent and savvy. That's Sam Hornish. He did test the Cosworth engine, by the way, but nobody's talking about it officially quite yet and we don't make suppositions here.
There was another feel-good story for Chevrolet at Richmond, but it only lasted two laps. Sarah Fisher placed the #23 GMAC/AOL Dallara/Chevrolet second on the grid, but she went out and plunked the car against the Turn 2 wall during final warm-up.
That was a bummer, forcing Fisher's crew to do the same yeoman duty as Hornish's. Their repairs didn't suit the driver as well as Hornish's and she faded into the way-back zone, the penultimate driver to finish the 206-lap contest, in 19th, six laps down.
Buddy Rice, too, has been coming on in the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy as the Arizona boy has taken two ninth place finishes in a row for his 12th consecutive finish in his 12th race. And Rice, never one to mince words, thinks some problems are not just engine-related.
The Indy Racing League changed chassis this year, requiring new Dallara or Panoz G Force tubs for everyone, necessitating a large learning and spending curve. Rice's team owner Eddie Cheever expended a good deal of time during pre-season and initial races putting emphasis on acquiring the former TWR engine facility in England and, perhaps, chassis work was neglected?
While the CART emigres might have a better handle on chassis development, the Indy Racing stalwarts are not standing still. There have been sufficient open tests for all to get their quacks in a row and it appears that tub parity is taking over.
If Chevrolet solves its power problems, the IndyCar Series of 2003 could start looking more like it did the last three or four years. And that, my friends, would be a very good thing. Millisecond finishes are the calling card of the League and, sorry Scott Dixon, that's what the fans come to see.
The more than 50,000 of them gathered at Richmond gave a few catcalls to Dixon, unchallenged for 206 laps. Unfortunately, the Kiwi wasn't about to slow down for their pleasure. He was there to win.
THE BIG SWAPOLA
From opposite sides of the track, Juan Pablo Montoya (left) Jeff Gordon prepare to trade paint.
There was Jeff Gordon, the four-time Winston Cup champ, three-time Brickyard 400 winner and former open wheel standout. He brought his #24 Hendricks Motorsports Dupont Chevrolet Monte Carlo Winston Cup car to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to do The Big Swapola.
And there was Juan Pablo Montoya, fresh from victory in the prestigious Monaco Grand Prix who, along with his BMW Williams F1 team had dragged last year's FW24 Formula One racer out of mothballs just so Gordon could check it out. This was the same car Montoya drove in the 2002 USGP, leading until mechanical problems sidelined him.
They'd been meaning to do this for over a year but the schedules just didn't jibe until June 11th. Montoya was headed to Montreal for the Air Canada Canadian Grand Prix; Gordon just up the road to Michigan International Speedway for the Sirius Satellite Radio Winston Cup race. It was now or never.
For a while it looked like the weather wouldn't cooperate at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but expected rain held off until well after the duo had performed the BMW-promoted publicity stunt known as "Tradin' Paint".
There have always been some questions about Jeff Gordon's choice of jobs. Did he miss his calling by driving Winston Cup taxicabs? This was the opportunity for Gordon to find out if he had it. For Montoya, it was a chance to see what a front-line Winston Cup car is all about.
They were using the 2.606-mile Grand Prix circuit inside the famed Brickyard oval for this display of speed. The two teams ensconced in a brace of garages at what would normally be Pit In for the Formula One set the night before this trade-off and prepped the cars for the battle the following day. The two drivers showed up, as drivers do, the morning of competition.
Think it was just a publicity stunt? Well, think again. Even with a monstrous number of media on hand to record the goings-on for their outlets and Speed TV producing live coverage, this event had the feel of a holiday. For Juan Pablo. For Jeff. It was simply chance to have fun without pressure. And that's exactly what they did.
"I got the better end of the bargain," Gordon crowed after his first three laps in the BMW Williams F1 bullet. For a guy who has barely sat in a single seater since he began driving Winston Cup, Gordon looked at home.
He was a bit tenuous out of the garage and onto the oval heading for F1's Turn 1, as Gordon spent some righteous time just idling down the straight, learning the lights and buttons before he got comfortable enough to nail the throttle. And nail it he did.
Yes, Jeffy went off-course at the end of the Hulman Blvd short chute after miscalculating braking necessary to make the turn-in. Once he understood how the traction control operated, though, he sure got with the program. On his second stint, Gordon even successfully tried out launch control. Without wheelspin.
Gordon's lap the times came down and the smiles increased; every tour sounded more on that necessary edge. When he came into the garage area the four-time Winston Cup champ pumped his arms and clapped his hands. His joy was palpable.
"It's amazing. It's just like point and shoot. You just drive in there, stop, turn and just go to the throttle as hard as you can. He told me that, but I didn't believe him," Gordon gushed. He really meant it, too. "This fulfills really every desire and dream that I had. I can now say I've driven a Formula One car."
Gordon got seven laps in the Williams FW24 projectile that legally weighs 1322.76 pounds (with driver) and makes 900 horsepower at BMW's stunning 19,000rpm.
Now he knows. He can do this. "Man, my neck is gonna be sore," Gordon moaned happily.
Montoya (left) and Gordon.
Gordon (left) and Montoya.
And Juan Pablo Montoya knows what it's like to muscle a 3400-pound dinosaur with a carburetor and 750 horsies at 8000rpm.
"The rear moves a lot. It feels really light. It has so much more power than I expected." Montoya's comments about the lack of braking ability on the big Monte Carlo were succinct. "You know, if you put better brakes into it, it would go a lot quicker." "I tell them that every weekend," Gordon guffawed.
Montoya was making this point after over-shooting the entry to Turn 1 in the Cup car and waggling the rear coming onto the oval's banks after the final turn. He admitted all of this with a huge grin on his face. The 2000 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race victor looked genuinely happy to be doing this demonstration. There was a certain light in his eyes.
Montoya hasn't driven anything with a roof on it since 1994 but had no problems settling in. Everything was a simple for Juan Pablo, even stirring the four-speed transmission. Between first and second stints of his six total laps, the Hendrick team led by Robbie Loomis made some adjustments and "the car was very reactive to the changes."
Accustomed to Michelin grooved rubber that changes throughout each F1 race stint, Montoya was amazed that the Goodyear slicks lost grip after only a lap. Just something else to get accustomed to on the Chevrolet Monte Carlo. "It's pretty hard to keep it under you."
With the Cup car, "what you've got is what you've got," Montoya shrugged with a naughty smile. "On the oval the Cup car felt so light. The engine really surprised me" with its grunt, and the Colombian had to slow his reactions and say "okay, okay" and not rush into each corner. As in Formula One, "the last second is really hard to get. It's difficult to make the car comfortable enough to get that last little bit," he admitted.
While it was evident Gordon needed to try this to see if he had the feel for the F1 car, what was in it for Montoya? "I came and didn't know what to expect from the car. Its engine power really surprised me. Today was go out, push a car you've never driven in your life. It was a lot of fun to drive and you're not going to waste the opportunity, you know? You got to go for it!"
It was back to business over the weekend for Juan Pablo Montoya and Jeff Gordon. Montoya finished third in the Air Canada Grand Prix at the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit in Montreal, Canada. Jeff Gordon, too, finished third in the Sirius Satellite Radio Winston Cup race at Michigan International Speedway in the Irish Hills southwest of Detroit.
"I think this should be the first annual "Tradin' Paint" and we should do it every year," Gordon suggested.
This is a lesson in reading the fine print to an invitation. Apparently, Championship Auto Racing Team's people didn't realize that SportsBusiness Journal was holding its second annual Open-Wheel Racing Summit May 20-21 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not a nearby hoteland had not invited CEO Chris Pook to moderate a panel, thereby creating what the Champ Car organization considered a "conflict of interest."
(Of course, any information I'm giving you is hearsay, because I can't get a straight answer out of CART as to why they didn't show up. I sent an email to David Clare from the Summit Tuesday morning, but received no response. I wrote as a supporter of CART since the middle '80s. I was concerned. I tried an email to Adam Saal, CART's VP Communications with the same response.)
Bill King, senior writer for SportsBusiness Journal announced to all assembled during his welcoming speech on Tuesday, May 20th that representatives from CART had canceled their appearances at the Open-Wheel Summit. He said the Speedway found out the night before and informed him just that morning. The intake of breath was palpable.
Was this good PR for CART? Couldn't they have spared John Lopes (VP Operations), David Clare (COO) and/or Vicki O'Connor (President Toyota Atlantic Series) for this educational gathering?
This trio initially agreed to come and then, at the very last moment, backed out according to the explanations given attendees, some of whom had paid dearly for the two-day symposium.
Steve Ballard of the local Indianapolis Star newspaper said the rationale was bigger news about to come from Champ Car, news we're still waiting to hear. A CART operative said the decision not to come to the Summit was made by "a higher authority than Chris Pook." God perhaps? Or Bernie Ecclestone?
At any rate, Lopes was intended as part of the mid-afternoon Tuesday seminar "What Can Teams Do to Make their Ownership more Valuable?" The guys who did show upDoug Boles from Pennzoil Panther Racing Team, Tom Garfinkel of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Kevin Savoree, co-owner of Andretti Green Racing and Ken Ungar, VP of business affairs for the Indy Racing Leagueall gave unbiased useful information and food for thought.
It would have been neat had Clare joined CART partners Dan Davis of Ford Racing and Al Speyer, motorsports director of Bridgestone/Firestonewho supply, present and power CART's Champ Car World SeriesLes Unger from Toyota and GM Racing's Herb Fishel, Pace Car driver for the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. The group postulated on brand expansion using world motorsports' premier events, a topic CART needs to examine.
O'Connor wasn't expected until Wednesday at quarter to noon, to join USAC president and CEO Rollie Helmling, Steve Johnson of SCCA, Donn Gurney from Race Legends, Inc. and Roger Bailey of the Infiniti Pro Series.
Bailey is charged with building the Indy Racing League's IPS, just as O'Connor holds responsibility for Toyota Atlantic, CART's primary ladder series. Bailey built the Indy Lights Championship only to have CART cast it away. The subject they were to undertake? Helping grass roots drivers move up a more systematic ladder, a topic O'Connor knows intimately.
During the discussion on enhancing television and new media Doug Sellars of Speed Channel ran a Champ Car video with some terrific shots of Paul Tracy through the years. Sellars was on a panel that was just he and Buddy McAtee, VP broadcasting for the Speedway. Sellars was vibrant in outlining the different ways SpeedTV is attempting to make the viewer part of the action in all of the broadcaster's productions.
In fact, everyone who showed up from the Champ Car side of open wheel racing did an excellent job of, well, doing their jobs. The final seminar on Wednesday afternoon included IRL's Dr. Henry Bock, CART's Dr. Steve Olvey and Dr. Terry Trammell, and Dr. John Melvin, all dedicated to the study and safety in this particular workplace. The first three, of course, deal regularly with the injuries of drivers and/or crew members while Melvin works to enhance vehicle and circuit safety.
While I did not attend the first SportsBusiness Open-Wheel Summit held last year at Indianapolis' Westin Hotel, I was told it wasn't exactly the most impartial of panels, unlike this year's edition, which certainly was. If that's part of the reason CART pulled out at the last minute, their rationale was poor.
For a company that desperately needs all the good PR it can get, Champ Car's absence at this business gathering was a huge gaffe. No matter what other priorities might have cropped up. Keeping commitments is a very important thing.
Has anyone noticed the dearth of blown engines in CART this year? Only one Ford-Cosworth XFE has failed since the series began its 19-race trail at St. Petersburg in February and that was Sebastien Bourdais' loss of an oil centrifuge at Long Beach in April.
For any engine maker, this would be something to trumpet but, for some reason, the folks at Cosworth Inc. have been quiet about their achievements. Probably don't want to jinx it, do you think?
But let me be the first to tell you that these motors, all 2.65-liter turbocharged torquey monsters making around 750 horsepower on road courses (700 on ovals) have about a five horsepower spread between them in the manufacturing process, a level that would delight most race engine makers. This parity certainly excites the denizens of the Champ Car World Series, which is presented by Bridgestone tires and powered by Ford-Cosworth.
Ray Leto, team manager for Michel Jourdain's #9 Gigante Lola out of the Team Rahal stables, proudly said the XFE motor Jourdain was using in Milwaukee would have just under 1000 miles on it once that 250-lap contest was over. Jourdain, you might recall, finished third in the German 500 in mid-Mayusing this powerplantand was quickest in night practice for the Milwaukee Mile Centennial 250 on Thursday evening prior to the Saturday night premiere for CART under the lights.
And what did he do with this well-used equipment underneath him? Jourdain won his first racein 126 triesand avenged defeat in Long Beach when clutch failure in the pits scotched what was a sure thing. Guess that's why they hold these races. You never know the results until the checkered flags wave.
In conjunction with CART's aerodynamic adjustments, Cosworth elected to bring power down on the ovals, as the Champ Cars would, once again, be using road course wings on short ovals such as Milwaukee and, last month at EuroSpeedway Lausitz in Germany. The resulting G forces with the higher horsepower rating would not have worked nearly as well for drivers, CART believed, according to Ian Bisco, CART program manager at Cosworth Inc. in Torrance, CA.
The Cosworth Inc. facility in Torrance is, by the way, wholly responsible for rebuilding the engines; no longer is such work is sent off to the Motherland, Cosworth Ltd. in Northampton, UK.
CART's methodology provides different requirements for engine builders, accustomed to making CART motors that could rev beyond 16,000rpm on a regular basis. "Did you know that Paul Tracy used the same engine to win both Monterrey and Long Beach this year?" Bisco asked. "It had 1195 miles on it when he returned the engine to us." No doubt, he is very proud of that fact, as he must be after Jourdain's and Team Rahal's winning achievement in Milwaukee.
These results are "gratifying," Bisco admits. "We're still chasing and improving things on the XFE. We can always reach for something better."
At the beginning of the new 2003 formula for Champ Car, Cosworth engineers were expecting it would be dull, making equal engines for the entire, 19-car field. "Their minds changed when they got involved with the process," Bisco says, "and the engineers really like this change. It merits their enthusiasm."
There's always incentive to make engines better and try to stem the average power loss, from the time an XFE is uncrated until it is returned to Torrance of about 10 horsepower. "We're always looking to improve the package but it has gone extremely well thus far," he notes.
The first test of Ford-Cosworth's XFE engine was undertaken last fall by Dale Coyne Racing at Firebird International Raceway outside Phoenix, AZ. The initial engine ran for 1200 miles without any problems, giving race engineers at Cosworth something to smile about.
While the gang at Cosworth does miss heated competition with other manufacturers, "it's nice to do without the bickering," Bisco laughs. "We do get a certain satisfaction in knowing that everyone [in the paddock] gets what they need."
There are still goals to be met. "We intend to provide the best product and service. We're happy with our program and we believe we can help CART grow" in the coming years.
"From our first proposal, we brought forth the theory that, with this engine, CART could get on with business, and our theory was proven right. CART can address its marketing and promotion needs and we've eliminated the worry of engine supply. As long as we do our job," Bisco continues, "things will be okay."
Even the drivers are pleased with the Ford-Cosworth XFE. Notorious for their love of power, the more the merrier, Champ Car drivers always wondered, "Do I have the same engine" as the other guy? There are no such worries any longer. Drivers know this particular part of their package has parity.
When CART had more than two or three suppliers, there was always a favored team and/or driver for each engine maker. "Now chassis brand and setup for the particular driver are the only parameters within their control; we've taken away another problematic variable."
Cosworth Inc. staffs 16 CART race engineersfour of whom hold managerial positionsall traveling to CART's 19 events to satisfy 19 drivers on 12 teams. As such, there are three groups of four engineers per group, and they circulate within their unit. "Drivers didn't want a different guy at every race and we needed to keep these smaller groups to breed confidence," Bisco explains.
Bisco's number one lieutenant at the tracks, responsible for the cadre that travels from Torrance to wherever in the world the Champ Cars race is Ken Deagle, who has been on the job for 11 years. Deagle's official title is Manager, Track Support Department, but that means a lot more than you'd think. Deagle is responsible, in his own words, for "all field activities: technical, personnel, budget, logistics, etc., etc." The etceteras go on from dawn to dusk and beyond for Deagle.
"We have A, B and C groups with one engineer allocated to each team," Deagle says. "We rotate among the groups and I like to keep it to a small rotation so each race engineer knows the teams, principals and mechanics they work with throughout the year."
Deagle's biggest concern is loss of track time. "Thus far, we've had no problems," he knocks on wood. "My goal," Deagle states, "if my engineers are bored, with nothing to do, then I know we've done our job right. These days, I've got guys coming into my [Torrance] office looking for more work to do. That tells me the program is starting to run itself," he declares with a smile.
What about the future? Bisco admits Cosworth would prefer to remain the sole engine supplier in CART but realizes the firm has other ideas in the works, looking at manufacturers to present a different type of engine formula in 2005. Those plans must be made fairly quickly, however, and there is always the possibility Cosworth's XFE will stick around beyond the final 2004 race.
In the meantime, Bisco, Deagle et al are busy trying to make the Ford-Cosworth XFE engine an even more drivable machine. Where once Champ Car pilots used to constantly bitch about "drivability", that's another equation they've forgotten about in 2003. Thanks to Ford-Cosworth and its powerful, reliable, drivable XFE motors.
Cosworth's Ian Bisco (left) and Ken Deagle.
DE FERRAN'S DAY
Gil de Ferran was an afterthought this month of May. While all the attention played out on his Marlboro Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, who was trying to win his third consecutive Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, de Ferran coped with other things. Like recovering from head and back injuries sustained at the second Indy Racing League event of the year in Phoenix, like changing chassis from Dallara to Panoz G Force, like being second fiddle to his extroverted teammate.
Did these things bother Gil? Well, no, they didn't. He just went about his job and worked to improve his car. De Ferran didn't make the best qualifying effort of his liferemember, this is the man who owns the open-wheel record for speed, set at California Speedway in CART qualifying at California Speedway in his first championship year of 2000, of 241.428 mphtaking 10th on the 33-car grid for the 87th Indianapolis 500.
Gil wasn't terribly happy about practice being rained out on Saturday the 17th, as he couldn't go home to Ft. Lauderdale to be with wife Angela, kids Anna and Luke until the following evening, as he had to remain in Indy to make preparations for the race a week hence. At least on Sunday he had a good practice day and de Ferran didn't have to put up with the publicity machine that glommed to Castroneves.
On Carburetion Day, de Ferran posted the third quickest time of the day in his #6 Marlboro Team Penske Panoz G Force/Toyota at 227.812 mph. He trailed only Kenny Brack and Robby Gordon in that two-hour session. While Castroneves was using the tried and true Dallara chassis, de Ferran had decided, after serious thought to work with the G Force. The differences were minimal and de Ferran loves a good challenge.
During the 200-lap sprint that was the 87th Indy 500, de Ferran bounced through the field as pit stops dictated his position, usually ending up at the sharp end once everything played out. He improved his car with the help of engineer Tom German and crew chief Matt Jonsson, who have been with the Brazilian since he arrived at Team Penske. Familiarity, in this case, breeds success.
On the 169th lap, de Ferran blew by a bobbling Helio Castroneves who was undecided as to how he could pass this year's Indy 500 rolling chicane, A.J. Foyt IV. (To be kind, the birthday boy, who turned 19 on May 25th didn't knowingly cause any problems on the track, but he sure assisted in the outcome). While Helio could catch Gil he couldn't pass, thanks to three precipitous yellow caution periods where de Ferran bolted with each green flag.
He could blame it on dirty air, the number of yellows or any other artificial reason but this year Helio Castroneves got beat by Gil de Ferran, who coulda, woulda, shoulda won it the last two years for Marlboro Team Penske. In 2001, de Ferran was second to Castroneves. Last year, his implacable pit crew made a human error that resulted in a lost wheel and victory.
"This is the longest I've stayed in Indy for a long time," acknowledged team owner Roger Penske once the race was run. Wearing a continuous smile, Roger seemed absolutely elated to finally, finally have his boy in Victory Lane. The Captain has been calling races for Gil since he joined the team, in 2000 and Gil ismake no mistake about it, Roger's boy.
At Nazareth in 2000, Gil de Ferran finally gave Roger Penske a reason to break out the 100th win baseball caps that remained unused in the Marlboro hospitality unit for nearly three years. Does no one remember the hellish days from 1995 through 1999, when Team Penske languished on the Coyne end of a Champ Car grid?
When Penske abandoned Mercedes-Benz' rigor mortis engine, a program to which he had financial ties, when he joined Honda and took Gil de Ferran and Greg Moore as his drivers, everything began to turn around. When Greg fatefully died in the last race of the 1999 season and Helio inherited the seat, it turned around even more.
So Gil cried in the cockpit after his victory in the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, flew out of his cockpit when finally stopped in Victory Lane, hugged his wife and beamed as he chortled: "I love milk!" He then joined Helio for what should now be considered a Penske fence climb, no longer limited to Spiderman's victories. "It's all about the desires that you have deep inside you. They all come to the surface. It's a sense of accomplishment that really makes you feel good."
Injury is a terrible thing. It happens to professional driversand amateurs alikeand it is, simply part of the profession. To prepare for such exigencies, it behooves a driver to be in the best condition possible. Gil de Ferran is just one of many who train daily to keep their bodies ready for the stress of intense battle on the Indy Racing ovals. Gil and Angela have been running half-marathons for the past few years. In the cockpit, Gil wears the HANS head and neck support although it is not IRL-mandated.
Some have questioned why Gil de Ferran doesn't retire. He's had these two awful accidents that knocked him out and hurt him within eight months. The most recent one, a questionable Turn 1 shunt with Michael Andretti at Phoenix in March, gave him headaches for quite a while and shoulder aches on race day. He really has nothing to prove.
"Only my heart will tell me" when to leave the sport. "I enjoy the sensation of driving. I enjoy challenging myself and that's why I race and that's why I drive. I really get a thrill out of it and as long as I feel that, life as a race car driver will go on."
Gil de Ferran is respected as a CART two-time champion who earned third place in his first IndyCar Series season despite missing the final race. Gil has a wonderful wife who shares his love for athleticism and exercise. He has two adorable children, the older of whom (Anna) expects her daddy to take her to school, a regular chore, in the family's new Indy 500 Pace Car Chevrolet SSR , a winner's gift.
Gil also received a Toro lawn tractor for his Indy 500 victory, as did Helio for winning pole position two weeks earlier. Would they hold a lawn tractor race? De Ferran didn't seem to interested the day after the race but maybe, a little later he might.
"Certainly this is a risky business and there's no doubt about that. Certainly," referring to the Indianapolis 500 and the month of May, "There's a lot of emotions playing up there, suddenly coming back from the accident and the whole meaning of the Indy 500.
"When I crossed the line, there was so much going on, you just kind of let go for a moment and then, all of a sudden, it all comes flooding through. It was a special moment for me because it's all about the dreams, it's all about the desires that you have deep inside of you. It's a sense of accomplishment that really makes you feel good."
One can hope that Phoenix marked the last of Gil de Ferran's physical difficulties and that he can assert himself for the balance of this season as a championship threat. If Gil can keep his natural aggression and make some luck for himself, this might be more than de Ferran's day we're celebrating at the end of May. It could be an exceptional year for the Brazilian ace.
Penske Racing's Gil de Ferran
HERE'S TO HELIO
INDIANAPOLIS, May 22, 2003
The dichotomous Helio Castroneves. One minute he's climbing fences and laughing with his teammate Gil de Ferranthe 2003 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winnerin the paddock or on pit road. The next minute he's so seriousabout his crafthe seems like two different people.
When Helio won his first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 2001, many of us chalked the victory up to the awesome Marlboro Team Penske machine that had its own score to settle with the historic 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.
Remember, Castroneves wasn't even supposed to be part of this team. He got the ride of his life because Greg Moore lost his at California Speedway the previous fall. He was lucky.
Then last year he won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in a duel with open wheel racing's own Intimidator, Paul Tracy. Of course some would say he didn't win but, nonetheless, it's Helio Castroneves' mug on the Borg Warner Trophy, not the Canadian's. Holy fence climbing, Spiderman!
Remember, while de Ferran gave Roger Penske his 100th open wheel victory at the team's hometown Nazareth circuit, Castroneves has given Team Penske its 12th Indy 500 trophy and, this year, the Penske team's 12th MBNA Pole Award. Driving #3, in his third Indianapolis 500 Mile race, going for his third win in a row. Would it happen?
Walking through the paddock and pits at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one could sense the air of comfort and pride at Marlboro Team Penske. Not that this is new, of course, but for some reason, this long-lived staff seems to be looser than I've ever seen them.
These guys were working three different squads, for Castroneves, de Ferran and Richie Hearn, newly adopted to the Penske family with Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the availed of a car and support group to lease. They had the challenge of preparing two different chassis for Castroneves (Dallara) and de Ferran (Panoz G Force).
The daily Penske drivers get along in an awesome fashion. Gil and Helio have totally different lifestyles and senses of humor, but boy! Does it meld well? Gil de Ferran is "the professor" and absolutely relishes the structure of testing and racing. His sense of humor is dry and witty, the same nuances as his driving.
Helio Castroneves is the visually emotional one, asking aloud why the Indianapolis Motor Speedway marketing gurus haven't made a bobble-head doll in his likeness (after seeing the Rick Mears example)? Living by his passions, this May baby. Living without them, though, when he goes to work. Helio turns into a machine when he goes to the Yard of Bricks. A winning machine.
Part of Steve and Christine Horne's "gong show" at Firebird Raceway in December 1995, a young Brazilian named Helio de Castro y Neves was one of three drivers (culled from eight) chosen to represent Marlboro Latin America on Team Tasman's Indy Lights squad.
Tasman had won the Lights title with easeand Steve Robertson's talentbefore this group came on. It was Helio, Tony Kanaan and Jose Luis di Palma. Two of these drivers you know, the other didn't take.
Helio was hurtwith busted ribsthrough the middle of the first season, spending the time learning from mid-pack. He initially wore Hudson Ice Cream colors because, until the 10th of May 1996 Helio wasn't old enough wear Marlboro's logo.
He has been a Marlboro driver with pride, promoted in part by Emerson Fittipaldi, the Brazilian godfather of racing, who moved him on to Tony Bettenhausen's and Carl Hogan's Champ Car teams. As Helio has grown in fame, so has he changed in name.
He became Helio de Castro Neves, deleting the "y" connecting his father and mother. He got his first pole position. And when he went to Helio Castro Neves, he got the ride with Penske. Helio Castro-Neves won his first race. And Helio Castroneves became the fence-climbing winner we know today.
It's a process that seems to have worked. With Helio, the more succinct the name the tighter the game.
While members of his team remarked, "Where did he find that?" after the ten qualifying miles that placed their man on MBNA Pole Position on May 11th, a day when winds tossed race cars into walls like handballs. Helio Castroneves dealt with that situation and attacked it.
Traits like that are what made Helio de Castro y Neves a Three-Peat threat at the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. No matter what name you wanted to call him, this guy was an odds-on bet.
And then, and then Gil happened. This French Brazilian, this former US exchange student, who spent some formative years in rural Wisconsin, this gentle family man with the sly sense of humor. How life changes. How fortune changes.
Gil took advantage of his teammate's bobble when attempting to pass A.J. Foyt IV and just blew by Helio. He aced Spiderman at each re-start that followed ensuing caution periods. He didn't give Castroneves a way by for that history-altering third consecutive win that surely seemed in the cards until lap 169.
So Helio didn't Three-Peat, but he did something sweet after his teammate won his first Indy 500. As Gil de Ferran completed his emotional victory lap of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval yesterday, there was Helio to greet and congratulate him. Watching fans clustering at the fence, Helio and Gil climbed together to salute them.
Gracious in defeat, Helio Castroneves intoned, "This whole month of May, it has been incredible. Starting from the pole position, support from the fans, support from the press, you know, it's just outstanding. This place always gives you a surprise and, well, I am happy with second place." The spirit of this Spiderman lives on.
INDIANAPOLIS, May 15, 2003
Ah, the intrigue of choosing a suitable substitute driver for one who is injured. First, a team owner must speak with sponsors, engine supplier, and must satisfy other vested interests. Take a driver on the basis of talent or marketability? That's the question.
For Michael Andretti and Andretti Green Racing, the choice of Robby Gordon as sit-in for Dario Franchitti appeared pretty direct. Co-owner Kevin Savoree made the initial contact with Gordon and it took ten days to put the deal together so that the current Winston Cup driver could do it all: the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and the Coca Cola 600, held a few hours after Indy at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The logistics for such a feat have been discussed at length and it will be Gordon's fifth try at completing 1100 miles of competition this May 25th. The Californian fully realized his folly last year when he declined to take an intravenous feeding between races. "This year I'll pay attention to the doctor and take the IV," Gordon declared. "I feel really good about coming here and practicing fast from the get-go. I don't think I've lost it," he said.
On May 25, driver Robby Gordon will run both the 87th Indianapolis 500 and the Coca Cola 600, held in Charlotte, North Carolina.
With Franchitti out of the #27 Alpine/Archipelago/Motorola Dallara/Honda until at least the middle of next month, Andretti needed another driver for events at Texas, Pikes Peak and, quite possibly Richmond late in June. Who did he call? Bryan Herta, almost forgotten by open wheel ownersmuch like current Andretti Green Racing pilot Tony Kanaanafter having little seat time over the past two seasons.
This week Herta is in Colorado at Pikes Peak International Raceway getting some valuable seat time in Franchitti's car. He also took some lap time here at the Brickyard before practice and qualifying heated up.
When Arie Luyendyk crashed last Friday while practicing for (what he intended to be) his 18th Indy 500 start, the two-time winner fully expected to be back on-circuit in time for, if not MBNA Pole Day, at least Bump Day this coming Sunday. But then the pain escalated and the headaches from his wall-smack continued and, when it came time to restart practice yesterday, Arie simply wasn't there.
The problem had more to do with his head than his back, although both are giving the Dutchman fits. So it was time for Morris Nunn, the former F1 and CART team owner, the race engineer who helped craft Alex Zanardi's two championships with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, to make a big decision.
He called Paul Tracy, who still firmly believes he won the 86th running of the Indianapolis 500 last May. He spoke with Bruno Junqueira. Alex Zanardi even called to offer his services after running his final 13 laps at Champ Car's German 500 last week, filled with desire to return. Paul wanted to come back to Indy. "I'd love to," he said but figured that his car owner Gerald Forsythe would never go for it. After all, Forsythe owns more CART stock shares than anyone else.
Junqueira wanted to come back to Indy after taking pole position last year and his crew wanted to come with him, engineer Peter Gibbons and the entire Newman/Haas group ready to hike on down to Indy from their suburban Chicago shop, but owner Carl Haas vetoed that idea.
Alex Barron will drive the #20 Meijer G ForceToyota in Arie Luyendyk's place.
The vultures circled Mo Nunn Racing's garage and hospitality tent Wednesday, each one looking for a chance to shine. But when it came down to making hard choices, Nunn did the one thing he could only do: He hired Alex Barron, who won his first IndyCar Series race last season at Nashville and finished fourth at Indy in 2002, earning co-Rookie of the Year honors at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Since Blair Racing closed shop at the close of the 2002 Indy Racing League season, Barron has been pounding the streets, much like the rest of the vultures walking the paddock this May. Look around and see Max Papis, Richie Hearn, Stephan Gregoire, P.J. Jones, Jeff Ward, Donnie Beechler, Eliseo Salazar and Memo Gidley circling the wagons. Just like 19th century Indians looking for the white man's scalp.
Barron has experience in the new cars mandated for 2003 by the Indy Racing League. When Gil de Ferran was injured in a crash with Michael Andretti at Phoenix International Raceway in March, Barron got the call to help Marlboro Team Penske until the 2000-2001 CART champ was well enough to return to the cockpit.
Team Penske wanted Barron to test and drive a Panoz G Force/Toyota, not the Dallara/Toyota package that de Ferran had been driving up to his accident. Barron qualified 12th at the Twin Ring Motegi round but crashed out and finished 17th. He then took two days of private testing for Penske here at the Brickyard and was quickest in that test. But then de Ferran came back and Barron was, again, on the sidelines.
The Californian's familiarity with the same chassis and engine used by Mo Nunn Racing got him the ride and now has three days to get the #20 Meijer Panoz G Force/Toyota into the show. Some might say that will not be a difficult job, as there don't appear to be as many car/engine/driver combinations available as there are positions still available to sate the thirty-three-car grid.
Twenty-four grid spots have been filled for the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race; nine remain to be taken. Beyond Barron, Billy Boat needs to find a way to the grid with his #98 Pedigo Dallara/Chevrolet out of the Pennzoil Panther Racing stables. Shigeaki Hattori, too, needs to find the speed to place his #5 Epson Dallara/Toyota on the grid for A.J. Foyt Enterprises.
Jimmy Vasser has returned to the Brickyard and to Rahal/Letterman Racing after a two-race Champ Car swing in England and Germany and will attempt to qualify the #19 Argent Mortgage Dallara/Honda. Vitor Meira has practiced in a #2T Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet, a twin to the car qualified by Jaques Lazier. Airton Dare has practiced in a #5T Epson Panoz G Force/Toyota for Foyt. Jimmy Kite continues to flog the #18 PDM Racing Dallara/Chevrolet without gaining sufficient speed to make the show.
All this could make for an interesting Bump Day come Sunday, if the fickle Indiana weather cooperates. This situation could also mean lower crowds for the traditionally tense final shot to make the field. Whatever does occur, there's at least one guy, Alex Barron, better off than he was on May 4th when the track opened for practice. At that time Barron had helmet and seat available, but nowhere to put them. Now he's back on track and doing the job he knows he was destined to perform this May.
Alex Zanardi returns to the EuroSpeedway Lausitz for the first time since his horrific crash in September 2001.
Has the CART transfusion been good or bad for the Indy Racing League and its IndyCar and Infiniti Pro series? Is the new Champ Car a valid place to learn top-notch skills and is the 19-race arena a viable top-line venue for teams and drivers?
Those are valid questions I asked myself many times over this weekend, when the Champ Cars were in Germany racing on a 2.023-mile tri-oval and the IndyCar Series performed MBNA Pole Day qualifying at the historic 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
For the Champ Car World Series, this past weekend was an emotional one, having Alex Zanardi on hand to complete the 13 laps he failed to run nearly 20 months ago at EuroSpeedway Lausitz and to serve as Grand Marshal. Wearing the same suit, same hat and driving a car painted (but not branded) in the Pioneer Electronics colors he carried, Zanardi managed to click off laps that would have placed him fifth on the 19-car grid.
Was there a dry eye in the house? I doubt it. Everyone, from CART CEO Chris Pook to the physicians and emergency medical technicians on the Simple Green Safety Team, to team personnel, his competitors and those of us who chronicle the life and times of Champ Car racing, this was an emotional day.
Zanardi is one of the best drivers in the world (still, obviously), one of the nicest guys one could hope to meet and an inspiration to everyone who comes in contact with him. As chronicled by CBS Sports, Alex's 13 laps (seen from inside and out of the cockpit) were extraordinary. Just like the subject.
Once he'd taken the checkered flags and listened to wife Daniela remind him that the banners meant the race was over (is it really?), it was time for the Champ Car drivers to button up their cars and get on with their own show, a 154-lap German 500 dash. Would it be a typical follow-the-leader processional like the previous week's event at historic Brands Hatch's 1.192-mile road course? Or would the chassis rules imposed by CART for this two-race swing work to competitors' advantage?
From this writer's perspective, the German 500 looked much like the "good old CART" races of the middle 1990s, with plenty of overtaking possibilities and good clean side-by-side racing, something that had been missing for quite a long time.
The battle between ultimate victor Sebastien Bourdais and Mario Dominguez was a classic one, to be sure, and it was terrific watching them feint and thrust throughout. It's also good to see that there were no truly dumb moves made during the race and that the professional drivers of Champ Car looked just that. One can also note that Michel Jourdain Jr. appears to have recovered well from his horrible experience at Long Beach, where he led handily until the gearbox let him down.
Back home again in Indiana, the "crossroads of America," I'm worried about the direction the IndyCar Series is taking. It's starting to look like CART. Where Champ Car now has a single engine supplier in Cosworth, the Indy Racing League has deserted its original intention of leaving the building of motors strictly to competitors. With Honda and Toyota as new partners in the IndyCar Series leasing is in fashion and only Chevrolet permits competitors to manipulate their motors.
So we're back to the engine wars that permeated the last decade in Champ Car. Even though Infiniti began to grow and challenge Oldsmobileand now Chevroletfor wins in the IRL, parent company Nissan realized there was no way for the company to succeed once its over-the-road competition entered the IndyCar Series. They decided to throw baby with bathwater and get out while the getting was good.
Even continuing its presence in the Infiniti Pro Series is not written in stone, as the former builder of Infiniti engines, TWR went down the tubes, acquired by new entity Menard Cheever Technologies. Nissan is aware of what happens when Toyota and Honda get into a pissing matchthey saw signs of it when Toyota wiped Nissan out of the old IMSA GTP category in sports car racing.
But that was then. And now, after a day of rain cancelled the first round of qualification runs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the big blow arrived in the form of constantly changing and heavy winds. Not just the thermostatic winds, but the winds of change, as Honda and Toyota traded places at the top of the qualifying order regularly during the tense six hours of time trials on Sunday.
Helio Castroneves, who seems to love the four walls and challenging corners of the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval took pole position late in the afternoon for Toyota and Marlboro Team Penske, the first time Penske's held pole since the glory year of 1994. Even his crew members were astounded by the Brazilian's taming of the Speedway and its intricate spider's web. How appropriate that Spiderman himselfsorry Tobey Maguireearned the top slot for the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race?
Toyota once again has bragging rights over Honda, taking the first step toward an Indy 500 win. Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan tried, but still couldn't best his regular competitor Castroneves. These two have been duking it out on race tracks since they were kids. Kanaan got Castroneves for the Indy Lights title; Castroneves seems to own the Speedway. Toyota versus Honda.
Now what does this mean for the future of General Motors' open wheel racing? With sole possession of the last two IndyCar Series titles, thanks to Pennzoil Panther Racing and Sam Hornish Jr., Chevroletwhich succeeded Oldsmobile in 2002 as the branded engine offered by GMis down on power and credibility. While Joe Negri's troops are working round the clock to find fixes for the dearth of power, there's a long way to go to meet the engineering and financial clout put forth by Toyota and Honda.
So the back half of the grid here at Indianapolis is populated by, um, boat anchors, it appears. The best Chevrolet could do on the first day of qualifying was Hornish's four-lap average of 226.225 mph, which places the two-time IRL titleholder back in the nosebleed area outside Row 6. Not good.
The only non-Chevy in the way-back area of Row 8 is 18-year-old A.J. Foyt IV, having a tough baptism at the Brickyard, who will likely re-qualify on Bump Day in another of his grandpa's stable of Dallaras and/or Panoz G Force chassis with a Toyota engine propelling it. Obviously disappointed by his first trip to the Palace of Speed, young Anthony still has a great deal of learning to do before he achieves his stated goal of earning five (!) Indy 500 mugs on the Borg Warner trophy, just to top his illustrious grandfather A.J. Foyt Jr.
The first three races of the IndyCar Series season, leading up to the Indy 500 have been notable for incidents, more than the close racing that typified the Indy Racing League over the past few years. The first five Champ Car events have yielded processionals with Long Beach and EuroSpeedway Lausitz as the two most exciting to watch from the pit road or the sofa.
All of this brings up questions that need to be answered: Can the Indy cars manage to produce heart-stopping competition they've generated in the past with the new engine and chassis regulations in place and CART carpetbaggers on the grid? Will the Indy Racing League even fill the field to a traditional 33 racers for the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race? And can Champ Car survive long enough to resurrect itself competitively and financially? Those, my friends, are the $64 million questions.
I have no answers, but I do hope that open wheel racingin and of itselfcan survive these winds of change.
INDIANAPOIS #&151; They are two Italian-born ambassadors of motor sport in two very different ways: Alex Zanardi and Mario Andretti speak for all of us in racing with their wisdom and their passion.
And they share another role this year: each of these accomplished racers will be the Grand Marshal of a Champ Car event during the 2003 season.
For Zanardi, the return to EuroSpeedway Lausitz as Grand Marshal of the German 500 Champ Car race on May 11th will be an emotional one. The 1.5-mile oval near Dresden is the site of his life-defining accident on the 15th of September 2001.
The Italian nearly lost his life, yet he doesn't think of the horrors of that day. Rather, Zanardi is looking forward to "be, again, with people that I love, people that I've enjoyed together in my racing career."
While Alex made an appearance at last year's Molson Indy Toronto, waving both green and checkered flags for that race as honorary starter, he also came to salve wounds among his former competitors #&151; particularly Alex Tagliani #&151; concerning the events of September 15th. And he came to see the CART Simple Green Safety Team who assured the continuation of his existence.
This time, however, "I don't think the feelings that I will have driving into Lausitzring with my rental car will be feelings of fear. It will probably be more feelings of pride to say, 'You didn't do me this time'."
Alex Zanardi's daily regimen is still full of athletic endeavors. This past winter he returned to the ski slopes with a mono-ski that he and a friend modified to allow Zanardi the use of his prosthetics on the slopes. "It was fantastic and it gave me a lot of the emotion which I felt when I used to ski with my own legs. It's very challenging."
Another challenge for Champ Car's popular two-time champion is karting. Trying to find a kart suitable for his talents and his limitations, Alex finally realized that in order to have the perfect kart, he'd have to design and build it himself.
"Very shortly a chassis called Zanardi is going to come out and it's going to be sold also in the United States. I am doing this with Italian kart maker CRG. The racing one I'll probably call 'doughnut' and the other the 'pineapple' or something," he laughed.
It's difficult for a person like Alex Zanardi to be considered being an inspiration to others in similar straits as his own. For Zanardi, there is no other way than what he's done. "All I can say is that I'm a guy that is trying to put his life back together, because we only have one life and to waste even a minute of it, indeed, it's a waste of time. It's stupid.
"I think every one of us has a lot of energies in his reservoir which come out when it's needed," Zanardi noted. "Now, if with my attitude I can energize somebody to do a little more, well, this is a great compliment. I'm just trying the best to lead the best possible life" with wife Daniela and son Nicolo.
The emphasis for Mario Andretti, former Formula One and CART champion, consensus Driver of the Century is also on family. For that reason, the 63-year-old grandfather agreed to help son Michael, whose Andretti Green Racing team was devastated by injuries to drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan.
With a two-day test scheduled at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week in preparation for the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, the younger Andretti needed someone to sort out #&151; and possibly qualify #&151; the car Kanaan will drive once cleared by IndyCar Series medical director Dr. Henry Bock.
Since his retirement from fulltime Champ Car competition in 1994, Mario Andretti has been a busy man. He has his car dealerships, his winery, his car wash centers and a myriad of other business ventures to keep him on the go 24/7.
Well, Mario helped sort the Dallara/Honda on a "glorious day" but also ended up taking one of the wildest flights ever seen at the venerable 2.5-mile Brickyard oval, completing two flips and landing on the Firestone Firehawk tires he promotes for the company that has been longtime supplier of rubber to both the Indy Racing League and CART. He walked away.
One thing Mario Andretti can't walk away from is his love of motor racing. Over the past few months, CART Board of Directors member Andretti has also been the guiding voice for reinstatement of the Champ Car World Series' event at Road America, a staple venue for the past 20 years.
Mario has been trying to reconcile CART and Road America since the day cancellation of the August 3rd round was announced. "I was very sad when I saw Road America disappear from the schedule. The fans and competitors want it and I couldn't ignore that."
The 4.048-mile road course outside Elkhart Lake, WI "is, from a competitor's standpoint the most satisfying road course in America. I remember it from my CanAm days as a good place to race. It takes a lifetime to build traditions and there were compelling reasons #&151; from both sides #&151; to reason things out and get it back on the schedule," Mario admitted.
Andretti couldn't believe the reaction in the racing community over the absence of Road America on the CART Champ Car calendar. "I've never seen a reaction quite like it," from drivers, engineers, team members and, more importantly fans.
The money quarrels between CART and the track appeared too tough to work out at the start, but it didn't stop Mario. "I was a pain in the ass. I was very persistent in trying to make it happen. We finally reached a good compromise."
Just like Alex Zanardi, Mario Andretti believes in the importance of the theory that "behind every negative is a positive. I had to roll up my sleeves and justify the effort and the noise was and is positive about Road America."
It took a while for Mario to effect conciliation between Road America and the Champ Car World Series but he did it. His reward? The race on August 3rd will now be known as the Mario Andretti Grand Prix of Road America and he will be Grand Marshal for the event.
There have been very few accomplishments as rewarding as this, Mario said. "Nothing is more rewarding than getting the point across about the importance of Road America. Finally both sides realized it and we have an agreement.
"I had to persevere and find answers. Everybody reached to make it happen and, at the end of the day, this is a great victory for the sport. The fan and team reaction was that everyone really, really wanted this to happen. All that's left is for 100,000 fans to show up on race day. I did it for motor racing, period."
There's no argument that Mario Andretti has done the right thing for racing. Leave it to fellow Italian and Champ Car Grand Marshal Zanardi to put forth a consensus opinion on the great Road America circuit: "Circuits like Road America are really the paradise of the good drivers.
"When you win in Elkhart Lake, it's a reason of pride, for sure, because you know that suddenly you had the car to do the job but the job was done and was done well, because otherwise, you don't win on a place like Elkhart Lake if you don't have it as a driver."
They are the great ones, from A to Z, Andretti to Zanardi. Grand Marshals, yes. Great men and great contributors to the sport of motor racing, they dare each one of us to do better with our lives, every day and to survive whatever life has in store.
Is it something in the air in Long Beach, California that brings out the best in the Champ Car World Series?
Surely, the race run by Michel Jourdain Jr., Paul Tracy, Adrian Fernandez and, yes, Oriol Servia, among many others Sunday was an outstanding show. Held under clear skies #&151; when storms had been predicted #&151; the 29th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was a textbook show of how open wheel racing can and should be.
Nineteen drivers and their teams gave the many spectators (crowd count was down but not unexpected) in attendance an afternoon of suspense, drama and pathos, the latter occurring when Jourdain's clutch #&151; or was it his gearbox? #&151; gave out on his third and final pit stop, essentially giving the victory to patient Paul, the remade bad boy who has now become a paragon of skill, to add to his reputation for tenacity.
Could William Shakespeare have written it better? Hell, could Chris Pook?
This 20th visit to the streets of Long Beach was just what the CART doctor ordered and, after completing three races, the lack of stupidity on the part of participants was the one thing that stood out. In fact it stood out in complete contrast to what occurred at Twin Ring Motegi, where the Indy Racing League, too, held its third contest of the season.
Granted, the IRL had to contend with difficult weather conditions at TRM, where rain washed the track clean and temperatures rose, necessitating a change of setups. Meanwhile CART had what's known as "Pook Weather", warm temperatures, mostly clear skies and no sign of rain.
Tracy, after winning his third consecutive race this season had, of course, a special view of the dichotomous weekend for America's two open wheel series: "I think there's some guys about six thousand miles away wishing they were here right now. I can tell you that, for sure. We had a great race today, and the pace was fast and it was a hard race. We have a great series and a lot of fans here. We have a lot on the table right now."
Yes, there's something about Long Beach that brings out the best in the Champ Car crowd. The duel for pole position on Saturday was one "feel good" story when Jourdain copped the top spot.
The veteran who began his CART career on these streets in 1996 is blossoming with the care of Team Rahal, now in their second year as grid partners. Jourdain credited his crew, and particularly team manager Ray Leto with the change from last season, when the group had little trouble racing but couldn't seem to get it together for qualifying. That's changed and Michel looked like championship material since the first day at St. Pete.
CART's new brand of Champ Car racing is going to bring new stars to the cars and make new heroes on the track. Jourdain is just one of them.
Adrian Fernandez, his countryman has found something in the Lola chassis this year and his test at the new Arizona Motorsports complex last week certainly aided that veteran's ability to perform this weekend. "We found something", but to say what that "something" was is not in the cards. "Then everybody would know," Adrian laughed.
Another guy who looked ready for the podium fell just a bit short, by a few gallons of methanol. Oriol Servia, the Catalan who spent the first part of last season begging for a ride (in a rather comedic fashion at one point, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word "unemployed") has landed with Patrick Racing and has the wisdom of Jim McGee at his disposal. This is a good thing, for sure.
1996 CART champ Jimmy Vasser is making the best of his situation with American Spirit Team Johansson by doing wonders with year-old Reynards #&151; better than he likely has a right to do. Rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay is learning at the feet of the master and drove a good race at Long Beach. Here's hoping he learns as much as Jourdain did last year when paired with Vasser at Team Rahal.
Of course there were incidents, and what would a Long Beach race be without them? Many rookies found the wall, as did some veterans. Making errors is part of racing, that part which Tracy is trying to avoid this year in his quest for that elusive championship.
And of course there were mechanical failures, such as the one that halted Sebastien Bourdais' progress and stopped him from scoring points. Hard to believe many in the media had the Frenchman pegged for the title before the season began. What were they thinking? Yes, the kid's got talent, but he's got to finish races to win titles.
But most of all there was unusual camaraderie abounding around the paddock at Long Beach. Some might have felt it was better to be here than in Japan, wisdom that rang true after half that field failed to finish, primarily due to hugging the walls.
It makes you wonder about people like Tony Kanaan, on the injured list for at least three weeks after coming together with Scott Dixon at Twin Ring Motegi. (Tony's left arm is under reconstruction; Scott's right hand and wrist were injured.) About Dario Franchitti, riding an MV Augusta motorcycle in UK when he should have been preparing for work and, if he were riding, it might have been smarter to be on a Honda. About Michael Andretti, one of two guys left standing at Andretti Green Racing (Dan Wheldon being the other).
All racing is dangerous, but oval racing is even more so. Will Andretti now be forced to abandon his plans to retire, lacking drivers to complete the balance of the IRL season? This is not the first time Kanaan's had problems with his arm and who knows where Dario's head is at?
So many questions for Andretti Green Racing, but at the same time, so many good times for their former teammate and compatriot Tracy, who gets to run on streets, roads and ovals this year. At the time their choices for the 2003 season were made, the gang at AGR looked like they'd done the right deed. With two drivers on the injured and unable to perform list, who looks smart now?
In racing, what's important is not what you did last week, but what you will accomplish the next time you hit the track. If there's anyone who understands this premise, it's Paul Tracy, the Canadian who is currently leading the standings for CART's Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford. It's a nice place to be, but Paul knows it's what he does this week and through the year leading to the grand finale at California Speedway in late October that matters.
We all remember when Tracy was, um, square. Built like a brick building, there's little the Canadian could do to change his genetic makeup, but he's sure given his body a new look.
Last year, PT shed about 30 pounds leading into the season and kept the weight off despite a travel schedule that was made for fast food. This year he's knocked off another five pounds and, if you've known him a long time, looks painfully thin to the eye.
There's nothing painful about Tracy's regeneration, though, as he's remade himself into a lean, mean driving machine at age 34. The results at St. Petersburg and Monterrey, Mexico say it all: Tracy leads the Champ Car standings with 43 points, 11 more than twice runner-up Michel Jourdain Jr. And this weekend, he'll attempt a feat only Al Unser has achieved, in 1971: winning the first three races of the season.
To listen to Tracy, though, he's nonchalant about it all. "I'm not getting caught up in all that. If we come off the trailer with a good car and start near the front, we can win," he said. "We have to get our setup together and get through the weekend with as few mistakes as possible."
That's what he did in winning his first Champ Car race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 1993, after being quickest the prior race at Phoenix and crashing out while leading by two (!) laps. "That year we came to Long Beach with our tail between our legs. We had problems but still came away with the win and that was great."
In 2000 Tracy started in 17th place and still won on Long Beach's devilish streets, striking a pose of strength on the victory stand after vanquishing the rest of the field.
What Paul Tracy has done off the track, though, is nearly as impressive as his feats behind the wheel. When many in his profession are reaping rewards by building new homes and buying new toys, Tracy continues to give back to the sport that bred him. Since 2000, he's owned a karting team and business that has brought new, young drivers to the attention of race team owners and sanctioning organizations.
"Karts are expensive. I know. I've got a team," Tracy acknowledges with a laugh. "It's [the money necessary to win] increasing because steps are being taken" to up the level of competition in karts. Now Paul would rather see one cohesive, uniform championship rung, rather than the three or four titles available today. He thinks CART's immersion in karts and its Stars of Tomorrow program is a big help.
Chief among Tracy's proteges is A.J. Allmendinger, the Hollister, CA-bred 21-year-old who, after whipping the Barber Dodge Pro Series ranks last year and gaining that championship through financial scholarships and victories but not with Tracy's money, has now joined the Toyota Atlantic trail with RuSports, based in Colorado.
Allmendinger was one of Tracy's first hires when he started his kart venture in 2000. The kid was raw but, even with a mediocre team A.J. was scoring points and podiums in the 80cc ranks. Tracy could see the talent, could see the will. "I put A.J. into one of our karts, and he's made his way with Barber Dodge scholarships from there."
For A.J., who yes, was named for Foyt it's been a great affiliation. "I get publicity being around him and, even more important, I can go to Paul with my questions and he's there to answer them. Plus, we get to hang out. His knowledge and experience help me get my setups right. It's all adding to my bag of tricks."
Allmendinger moved out of the house when he got his Toyota Atlantic drive, relocating to RuSports' Colorado location. "Training in the thin air helps me a lot but, more importantly, being near the team, being in the shop each day shows these guys I'm here to be part of their program. This way, I can see what it takes to put a team together. I think we'll get even stronger as the year goes on."
Just like his mentor, Allmendinger loves to win and hates to lose. "I never give up, no matter where I'm at. I love being part of CART and working to drive a Champ Car, that is where I'm at. My goal is to move up and, while most take a two-year program into Atlantics, I'd like to do it one year. I want to win the title and move up," A.J. declares. Sounds just like Paul, doesn't he?
And what team is Tracy's biggest competition for the championship this year? Despite rookie Sebastien Bourdais' challenges in the first two Champ Car races, where the Frenchman placed himself in jeopardy after taking pole position, Tracy still thinks Bourdais, Bruno Junqueira and Newman/Haas Racing are the team to beat.
"But I've got to concentrate on my program and not worry about anybody else and what they think," he says. "We've got a really good chance to win in Long Beach and I think experience is really beneficial at that track. There's walls around the place and plenty of opportunity to make mistakes.
"I knew there still would be plenty of competition in the Champ Cars," Tracy allows, "and that it would be tough to win this season. We didn't go fastest in pre-season testing but I knew we had a good team and can get the job done. The only advantage I think I've got, as a Champ Car veteran is on the first day [of a race weekend]. But as you've seen, the new guys don't need a long time to learn and Sebastien is a prime example."
Making mistakes is something Paul states he's trying to avoid in 2003. He and Team Player's are still learning about one another and the Lola chassis the team has adopted for the first time in its history, balanced against the group's inherent knowledge of Ford-Cosworth's engines.
"My goal is to win the championship this year and score points in every race. Knowing the tracks is an obvious advantage and having guys around me like Tony Cicale, Greg Kainhofer and Todd Malloy, guys I've worked with successfully before now sure makes it [the change of teams] fairly easy." Relationships within a team are what binds people together, as we saw last season with Cristiano da Matta and Newman/Haas.
Neighbors in the Las Vegas area, Tracy and Team Player's teammate Patrick Carpentier "get along. We have a mutual respect and we can look at one another's telemetry and learn from each other." As Carpentier performs preparatory tests for the Long Beach weekend at Phoenix, there's a more relaxed, more confident Paul Tracy, heading to race #3 in the chase for Champ Car's Vanderbilt Cup.
"Winning the first two races helps. Coming into the season my anticipation was higher: to do well, get good finishes and bring home the title for Team Player's and [owner] Gerry Forsythe. I'm not going to sit on my heels. I'm going in to win. I'm still learning at age 34 and I'm in the best shape of my life. I'm not burned out at all," Tracy remarks and, that my friends, is bad news for the 18 other Champ Car drivers chasing Paul Tracy this year.
This has turned out to be an interesting weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, where the Indy Racing League and USAC presented their annual Copper World Classic.
When I arrived on Thursday at Phoenix International Raceway, I discovered the IndyCar 2-seater being used for rides. Thought I'd grab a fix and got to go `round, with Jeret Schroeder at the controls. He failed to scare me, which is probably why he's driving the 2-seater. (I would have preferred to sit behind Davey Hamilton, someone I know would try to place the fear of God in me)
Anyway, the ride was fun and I just ate it up. The g-forces here at Phoenix are so much more pronounced than at California Speedway, where I had a prime view behind JJ Yeley last year. I think you can really get a good feel for how hard a driver works at Phoenix, and nearly know how cool it must be to get it right.
I had a nice talk with Yeley after the 2-seater experience wrapped up for lunch. Of all the young American open wheel masters, JJ's my choice of the guy to pick up. He's got the car control, he's got the goods to win and he's got a righteous and real personality. Not only was he racing at PIR this weekend, JJ fought the dirt at nearby Manzanita. Gotta love him. Yeley admitted he messed up when he got his first IndyCar Series opportunity and now, once again, an open wheel genius is looking to tin-tops.
What's the attraction? Like any other motorized calling, it's getting the whole package to meld. Yeah, JJ opined, he likes the test of getting a Busch car to work and the teamwork that entails. The series' spec Goodyear radial tires are quite a challenge, he said, and you could see the light in his eyes. Now, I can deal with that if he's excited, but again, it makes me wonder about the real reason behind the fenderless side of the sport.
If open wheel is where you learn car control so you can succeed in NASCAR, well, that's doable. And it does keep an ever-changing array of young, exciting talent coming through. As with any racing class, some make it to the next step and others make themselves into icons of their sport. And there's nothing wrong with being the best at what you do. Works for Steve Kinser.
The big brass from Ford is in town for this affair, and they're not here to watch their IndyCar teams go at it. They have none. Some day they might.)
And as JJ Yeley is hankering to drive a Busch car, so Scott Dixon is finding a niche and having fun. The 22-year-old Kiwi came up through the standard road racing ranks and was dominant in Indy Lights. His first CART victory, still pegging him as the youngest driver to cop a prominent series' win, was at the Nazareth oval in 2001.
The kid's come close on road/street courses, but never made the top step. Nearly one year after joining Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon has won in his first IndyCar Series start, at Homestead early this month. After two years in a Champ Car, Dixon is sure, "Most people came here [to the IRL] for the competition and, yeah, these cars are a lot more fun" to drive. And PIR, he says is a fun track.
Why is this track fun? Well, it's a challenging oval for sure and, one might add, a bit more than a four-cornered bowl. And now, of course, track owner ISC is thinking about taking away the turn 2 kink that is the leit motif of PIR, all to please the NASCAR drivers. I'm not so sure this is a good idea.
It's been so interesting to see how people are working through their racing lives. Dario Franchitti considered his Homestead race almost tragic. "It was a terrible weekend," he said, despite finishing 7th. "We couldn't just put on whatever they had," he remarked about teammates Michael Andretti and Tony Kanaan. Of course, Homestead is where he had a horrendous crash at Spring Training 2000 that ruined that entire year of competition for the Scotsman.
"Recalibrating your brain", is how Dario feels about his conversion from inveterate road racer to all-oval driver. Franchitti's second place in CART's final Michigan race (2001) gave me great respect for him. Watching Dario hunt down and nearly catch Patrick Carpentier (together with Michel Jourdain Jr.) was magic. So was the feat he performed last year winning at Rockingham, with a little strategic help from his Team Green friends. And entire family.
This PIR paddock is just so, well, comfortable. It was unexpected, for me at least and I've got to wonder how it all morphed this way. It just feels right here, without the huge political fistfights that characterize CART, even to this day. Particularly with the carpetbaggers who have changed venues over the last couple of years, the underlying need to be competitive is enhanced but the catcalling has stayed away.
It was interesting that both Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske considered this the place they needed to be for the IndyCar Series event. Both, of course, have teams in NASCAR and have spent a great deal of time and energy working to bring them to the front of the pack. That they chose to be in Phoenix and Penske's admission that "this is the most important battle of the weekend" ring true.
It was especially nice to see the Chevrolet runners pick up steam at PIR this weekend, as they'd looked hopelessly out-classed in Homestead. Jaques Lazier, one of the most well spoken drivers on the IRL circuit admitted that it's not just the engine that's a problem, even though the Chevys continue to be a bit down on power from Honda and Toyota. Rather, it's getting the engine and chassis to work together. A different center of gravity for this year's engine and an all-new tub has made it a bit more difficult to set up. Lazier finished sixth as the best Chevy at Phoenix.
Sarah Fisher, too, looked far more "racy" on the track than she has for a while, too coming to grips with her Dallara/Chevrolet package and melding with the team. She was fighting for the lead of this race and it was great to see her hounding winner Tony Kanaan in the middle of the 200-lap contest.
One has to wonder where Sam Hornish Jr.'s head is these days. Is he simply marking time with the Pennzoil Panther team before heading to NASCAR next season? Sullen Sam managed to take himself out early in the race with an ill-advised pass on rookie A.J. Foyt Jr. It wasn't pretty and took him out of a competition in which he could have finished among the top five.
So, perhaps, the parity the Indy Racing League has worked toward is coming to fruition. It's certainly a mellow paddock with people grateful for the competition, as any one of 10-12 drivers could have won the Purex/Dial 200 this weekend. Everything is being run extremely well from an Officials' standpoint and it shows.
While CART may soon end up being a feeder series to Formula One, if pundits are correct and Gerald Forsythe gets his way, the Indy Racing League looks poised to be a microcosm of what the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race has always been: an event [or series] open to all competent teams and drivers from all corners of the world, with exciting competition from start to finish. And this is a good thing.
In most any type of business, it's an acknowledged axiom that to make money you must also spend it. Championship Auto Racing Teams has taken this idea a bit farther than most public or private companies in 2003: it is spending a war chest on teams, tracks, television and events, yet letting one of its most illustrious races fall by the wayside.
Last year CART co-promoted and/or bankrolled more than a half dozen of its shows and had to bear much of the fees for the Rockingham round in September after EuroSpeedway Lausitz backed out of their deal. That was extremely costly for the sanctioning body no sorry, CART is a marketing machine now, isn't it?
It's been a unspoken fact that many of the new teams that have cropped up to run this year's Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford 19-race or wait! CART's 18-event campaign is being helped by more than the marketer's Entrant Support Program (ESP). It's easy to point fingers.
Let's see now: who has real sponsorship behind their efforts? Fernandez, Jourdain Jr., Dominguez, Lavin from South of the Border; Tracy, Carpentier and Tagliani from the Great North. Newman and Haas have some backing from PacifiCare, Mr. Patrick continues with Visteon partnership.
Stefan Johansson's first-class operation, while it has few visible means of support doesn't get a Jimmy Vasser on the docket for peanuts. Conquest Racing's two separate entries, one in conjunction with class act Emerson Fittipaldi, has minor money but no big backer, other than Fittipaldi's partner James Dingman.
And you've got to wonder what Paul Gentilozzi is doing in his off-time? Is the guy married to a woman or his work? He's got responsibility for the entire Trans Am series, for his own T/A team and for Tag's CART enterprise, which is likely to be a rather expensive endeavor, judging by his first event.
So who's paying the bills? Who do you think?
But CART wouldn't go to bat with the operator of the best, most pure racing circuit on the calendar. They wouldn't do business with Road America in Elkhart Lake, thereby ruining the vacation plans of many formerly happy campers at the 4.048-mile road course, along with party plans at Siebkin's Resort for just about everyone on the Champ Car tour.
This is plenty sad, but so is the news that CART has, on the same day it announced cancellation of Road America, purchased the Grand Prix of the Americas and will promote and operate the endeavor. Hunh?
Now, far be in for me to suggest that CART is in trouble. I've been a Chris Pook fan since 1975 and have worked/played at every single Grand Prix of Long Beach, in addition to giving my time to his press relation department to stuff envelopes out of love, not money. But yes, I think CART is in trouble.
This is no time to be spending money; rather, it's a good time to figure out what one has in assets and hold 'em. We're about to go to war and CART is buying assets of a Miami street race? Sorry, I don't get that. Or the financing of race teams. Or the renouncing of old friendships like Road America. Even if it's not the first time this has happened...
While more than 30,000 live bodies showed up for the first race of the year at St. Petersburg, FL, CART's similar turnout in front of the tube for the St. Pete telecast has a lot more to do with fiscal reality. There will be a huge attendance for the Monterrey, Mexico bout next weekend but the Speed broadcast goes up against the Indy Racing League's network telecast from Phoenix. ABC is paying for its IndyCar Series productions; CART is paying Speed TV. Is there even a chance?
Slim and none that CART will beat the IRL on the airwaves. And a few weeks later, even the gem of the series, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is going out on cable. This is not a good thing.
I am wishing and hoping that CART will survive but, as a businessperson, I'm really not sure my wishes and hopes are making any difference. Each time I attend a CART race, I believe again. May I suggest that if anyone out there wants to see CART succeed, attendance at the venue or in front of the television is mandatory?
So, how strange is this, being at Homestead-Miami Speedway in south Florida for the first IndyCar Series race of the 2003 season and realizing I'm Sam and this is Cheers? It sure feels that way.
A week and a half in Florida to cover the start of the open-wheel seasons for warring factions ChampCar and IndyCar is good respite for what ails the soul, particularly if you live in the fenderless capitol of motorsports, Indianapolis. Certainly teams were happy to leave snow and cold behind, only to have record high temperatures greeting all throughout the two weekends of competition.
Yin and yang.
So what did we learn after Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (CART) and the Indy Racing League's Toyota Indy 300? These two events were like a Virginia country reel, in which one changes partners almost at will.
CART, once home to four engine makers and as many as three chassis manufacturers now has one spec engine, Ford-Cosworth producing a turbo-charged XFE and 2002-spec Lola and Reynard chassis. Bridgestone continues as sole tire supplier.
Teams competing in the Indy Racing League run on Firestone rubber, and now have three engine choices Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet are taking part and the same two chassis-makers, Panoz G Force and Dallara. Falcon Cars is the third designated chassis builder, but nobody's buying. Yet.
For the past seven years the IRL has been primarily a spec show like CART is now. What's up is down. What's down is up.
Money formerly dropped in CART's lap for race title sponsorship, pace vehicles and other goodies is now being plunked into the IRL. With new engine and chassis specs requiring amortization over a three-year period, the cost of racing in the IndyCar Series has risen exponentially. The playing field has changed.
It's a dilemma Chris Pook and the ChampCar guys would love to have. It's a quandary IndyCar troops must face.
At first glance, one needed a photo scorecard to differentiate the players at St. Petersburg. With only 10 veterans in a 19-car field, CART has a new look. It's an international flavor, many of the players coming from FIA F3000 and national F3 series. There are new rivalries in CART that could be fun.
An old hand won the season opener and Paul Tracy did so in a smooth, workmanlike fashion. Slim, trim and almost politically correct, Tracy bided his time with rookie Sebastian Bourdais before capitalizing on the Frenchman's errors. One can only hope Paul's personality hasn't been quashed along with his extra weight.
This was the first time an Andretti hasn't been a factor in competition since 1980. Michael has defected to IndyCar competition; Mario was nowhere to be found, failing to show at both St. Pete and Homestead.
A week after CART's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Team Target's Scott Dixon took the checkered flags to best Marlboro Team Penske teammates Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves in the Toyota Indy 300. There were 21 cars on this grid.
Dixon, the Kiwi who was "given" to Chip Ganassi's outfit by CART last year when the team he drove for, PacWest Racing (PWR) folded, gave Toyota its first victory in an IndyCar debut and also the first in a race it sponsors. The 22-year-old's face was still as red as his driving suit an hour after the race was done. Yep, "hot in herre."
Honda took pole with Tony Kanaan driving for Andretti Green Racing, formed by Michael Andretti to give him a job after his final race this May in the 87th Indianapolis 500. (One can only hope Michael celebrates his final race after it's over, which would be unusual for the man who has led more laps than any other non-winner at the Brickyard.)
Where were Chevrolet, Sam Hornish Jr. and Panther Racing? Together, they were figuring out how to rescue pride and possession of the Indy Racing crown, which General Motors has owned since the League began. Ch-ch-changes.
Yes, the scenery and atmosphere has changed immensely for both CART and the IRL. The partners CART chewed and spit out are now in the Indy Racing camp. The IndyCar set now has all the friends CART once owned: Toyota, Honda, Firestone, PPG, FedEx, et al. Even money says the IRL will keep 'em.
Ford and subsidiary Cosworth, Bridgestone Tire and PacifiCare health systems are CART's core supporters right now. A false step ChampCar's staff made was convening a teleconference the Tuesday after St. Pete to celebrate the fact that the race took place and was successful. Moving along to Monterrey would have been enough.
These two Florida races answered no real questions about the season to come, in either competition or political arenas. We'll have to wait until mid-October to figure out where the IRL stands and to the end of that month to see what CART has wrought with its changes.
What does this mean for all of us fans? It's another good reason to have a viable video recorder, because as with that long-running comedy series Cheers, you won't want to miss an episode.
Apparently, the F1 show next year will be significantly better. According to the powers that be, the recent F1 changesqualifying is now a two-day affair, with Indy style one-lap timed runs; the tire suppliers can now tailor rubber to different teams; team orders have been banned; and you can test at a race if you don't test outside of race weekendswill radically liven up the show.
Give me a break. Taking them in order, what we have is the following. Saturday qualifying order is determined by Friday afternoon speed, and Friday order is determined by the reverse standings in the championship. In theory, this could shake things up, but a Minardi is still way slower than a Ferrari, no matter how much a track speeds up over the weekend.. Now, occasionally, it will rain during the Saturday session, but the fast guys will still be fast. All it means now is they can't afford to spin on their first run, because that is now their only run.
On tires, Michelin will now get really confused, and Bridgestone will continue supplying tires to Ferrari with nary a thought for their other teams.
Team orders can't really be stopped, either. What's to stop Ferrari leaving wheels behind, getting wheelnuts stuck, etc, when Rubens is leading Mikey at the second pitstop? Or using telemetry to reduce power by 30 hp?
Finally, poor teams will test on a race weekend because they have to. Ferrari, Williams, et al, will continue to blow their budgets droning around Mugello and Silverstone because they can afford to. And the more they test, the faster their cars are.
The rules changes are window dressing of the worst sort. What F1 needs are the following:
1) Massive aero revisions. The cars can't overtake because they generate so much downforce that braking areas have shrunk to nothing, and because the aero packages mean cars lose downforce when following competitors in fast corners. Reduce the downforce, and braking zones become longer and cars can follow each other at close quarters. Getting rid of the the flat bottoms would mean the cars don't hydroplane in wet conditions.
2) Ban traction control and auto 'boxes. Overtaking maneuvers are set up after someone makes a bad exit from a corner or misses a gear. These two measures would immediately help with overtaking. And we might see who has throttle control and subtlety, rather than sheer bravery.
End of sermon.
Spa is gone. Quite why F1 has decided to kill the Belgian GP because the Belgian government has ditched tobacco advertising prior to the Europe-wide ban that's due in 2006 is beyond most people. After all, don't F1 cars run at France, Britain, and Germany with the cigarette sponsorship covered? Bernie Ecclestone's and Max Mosley's decision looks like a thinly veiled threat to the EU that, if the tobacco advertising changes aren't withdrawn, F1 will take refuge in Asia and South America. The way that F1 is going, with its dull tracks, dull and ugly cars, and lack of personalities, they are welcome to it.
A funny thing happened to my couch potato racing program this year: Speed channel took over the only two forms of racing I am really interested in watching (aside from the WRC). Thus I have hardly watched a live F1 or CART race because my local cable channel thinks the denizens of Ann Arbor prefer watching the crappy International Channel to motor sport. (Neatly forgetting that half of Ford's top management lives in the town.) And you know what, TV mavens and racing series promoters? Didn't miss it. Got my fix on the Autosport website and occasionally watched the IRL and NASCAR and ESPN midgets. Moral here: make the racing exciting and make it accessible. If you lose a die hard like me, you're in trouble.
Jaguar Racing's latest driver move prompts yet more amazement at Niki Lauda's continued tenure there. Mark Webber is a pretty good shoe and Antonio Pizzonia is a lot better than his F3000 results make him look, but D Franchitti and Bruno Junqueira have better career records, are super fast, can set a car up, and would likely blow both of Jag's new boys away. Come to think of it, Justin Wilson, Darren Manning, or Anthony Davidson would go pretty darned quickly, too. Then again, The Rat probably has never even thought to look at a CART race or at how his current charges fared relative to the guys I just mentioned. My prediction is that E Irvine will be laughing loudly while Webber and Pizzonia flounder amid the Jaguar political infighting and that the Jag gets blown into the weeds by the Ford powered Jordan. It will be even more ironic if Irvine is behind the wheel of one of those Jordans.
Talking of CART and F1, it will be interesting to see how Cristiano da Matta fares at Toyota. So far in the past ten years, CART has produced two stars of F1 (Villeneuve and Montoya) and one dud (Andretti M). Da Matta is certainly quick and will likely prove how overrated Olivier Panis is, but he will have to get used to running near the back, particularly if Toyota fails to get its act together.
Why, oh why, does the F1 Racing magazine's brains trust think that Giancarlo Fisichella is the second coming? At Suzuka, a proper driver's circuit, Takuma Sato showed him up mightily. Fisi has always been one of those Italiansthink Capelli, Patrese, De Cesaris, the Fabi brotherswho looks the real deal but never wins anything. Silky smooth, fast, but unlikely to win a race even if all the cars ahead of him fell out. (Remember the European GP at the 'Ring when he was leading and threw his Benetton off the road?) I know Fisi is very pretty, but isn't it about time he showed more than mere talent and good looks?
Two great spats in American racing are getting ever more amusing. First, there is the ongoing dispute between Tomas Scheckter and erstwhile boss Eddie Cheever, which will probably be resolved in a court somewhere sometime soon. In the meantime, Scheckter, Toyota, and Ganassi will be one of the forces in the IRL, if Tomas can remember that hitting walls isn't the best way to win races. Then there's the fallout between Paul Tracy and Team Green over a recent Autosport interview, where Paul told the truth about how second-rate the IRL really is. (In my view, any series where the rules allow very average drivers to shine against the real talent is second rate.) Cue Team Green slapping a massive fine on Tracy. For what? Get real, Kim and Barry. You have been railroaded into second tier racing by your engine supplier and all Tracy is doing is being honest. Bearing in mind that Toyota decided to bring CART down (in league with Tony George), I hope that the Japanese maker spends the season blowing engines asunder, although that's probably unlikely. And while I am throwing vitriol at big Japanese automakers, U.S. Honda boss Tom Elliott and his PR team win the lying in racing award over Honda's decision to ditch CART and go IRL racing in '03.
Biggest liars in motor racing
Tie between Honda in the U.S. (see above) and Ferrari (on the subject of team orders and just about anything else).
Best performance by an America driver in any race series:
Most cowardly decision in all of racing:
Tie between Ferrari for making Rubens move over in Austria and Cadillac for pulling the plug on its Le Mans program
Most predictable result of the year:
Audi winning Le Mans (again). Cadillac pulling the plug on its Le Mans program
Best throwback to another age in racing:
Tony Stewart for a fine AJ Foyt impersonation
Best teammate spat of the year:
Tie between Eddie Cheever/Tomas Scheckter and Ralf Schumacher/Juan Pablo Montoya
Gilles Villeneuve real racer:
Tie between Jeff Gordon, M Schumacher, and JPM
Patrick Head and Frank Williams Spirit of Alan Jones award:
Singular disappointments of the year:
(In no particular order)
The Mercedes F1 engine
Infiniti fleeing the IRL when Honda and Toyota moved in
Saddest career ending move:
Thomas Enge's positive dope test after winning the F3000 title
Showing up your teammate royally:
Kimi Raikkonen for showing how deeply average David Coulthard actually is
Verbosity without saying anything:
Ron Dennis (in perpetuity)
Worst team uniform (outside of NASCAR):
McLaren's new tight black T-shirts, which might suit D Coulthard but hardly flatter overweight mechanics
Most amusing/entertaining driver off the track:
Tied between Jeff Burton, John Force, and JPM
Biggest balls in racing:
Anyone who drives an NHRA Funny Car
Most amusing performance in a racing car in 2002:
Barrie "Whizzo" Williams in a Morris Minor at the Goodwood Revival
Most civilized man in motor racing:
Worst performance in charge of a racing team:
The head in the sand award:
The guys who run F1
Call me a contrarian, but I don't have much use for Cup races on bullrings like Bristol and Martinsville anachronisms that produce racing that's as tedious in its own way as the WFO spectacles at Daytona and Talladega. Personally, I prefer Phoenix International Raceway, a fast, flat, difficult and unique one-mile quasi-oval that's as difficult to master as Darlington. Yesterday's show at PIR was Winston Cup at its finest. Not only could you see the guys sliding the cars into corners, often with great big dollops of opposite lock, but there was also plenty of clean and compelling side-by-side racing. And not any of this IRL stuff, either, with everybody's foot planted to the floor. These were guys braking, turning and accelerating in perfect harmony, like the drivers in a Joie Chitwood thrill show, only going a whole lot faster.
Phoenix also saw the Cup debut of Christian Fittipaldi, which offered a nice test for my colleague Mark Gillies' any-baboon-with-a-competition-license-can-drive-a-Cup-car theory. Granted, nobody's going to confuse Fittipaldi with his countryman Ayrton Senna or even his uncle Emerson. But he has some legitimate Formula 1 chops, and he won two races in CART, which ain't chopped liver. Driving for the day-late-and-a-dollar-short Petty Enterprises operation, Fittipaldi qualified solidly mid-pack (teammate and fellow CART refugee John Andretti was on the outside pole). But as soon as the race started, Fittipaldi marched resolutely to the back of the pack, and his race ended with a hard confrontation with the wall after being punted by another car. "The first half of the race we were not looking exceptional but not bad," he said later. "It was just a different kind of racing and I wanted to run many laps."
Note to Christian: You've gotta work on those post-race interviews. Speaking on NBC TV, Fittipaldi failed to mention his myriad sponsors or to thank his crew for "giving me a Top Whatever car." He also neglected to call the crash "one of them racing deals." The boy's obviously got a lot to learn.
Just to prove that F1 isn't about racing any more, Spa in Belgium has gone from the calendar. Yep, that leaves just Suzuka as a proper driver's circuit with long, fast, flowing corners. The great drivers have always shone at Spa (just as they have at Monaco), so it is little surprise that Schumacher M has dominated at Spa while Schumacher R (and one Edmund Irvine) both think the track is overrated. From my perspectiveI last raced there this September in a Maserati 300Sit's the best track I have raced on, its nearest competitors being the old Nurburgring and Elkhart Lake. Everyone thinks that Spa's Eau Rouge is the ballsiest corner on the planet, but Pouhan (a long sweeping, downhill double-apex left hander) and the nearly flat-out left-hand sweep at Blanchimont are at least as exhilarating. Ironically, the changes made at the circuit for this year's GP in the name of safety made Eau Rouge less daunting because you could fly over the new low curbs into massive blacktop runoff areas. The previous year, the curbs would have launched you into the gravel trap. Perhaps it's a good thing F1 is deserting Spathe rest of us won't have to put up with safety measures aimed at one small section of the racing world.
Dinner with Jack Roush, for the first time. Amid an evening of lively motor racing discussion, Roush ventured that if you thought Kurt Busch was good, just wait until Kyle goes from trucks to Cup cars. This is scary. The elder Busch, of course, is part of a new breed of drivers, led by Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, and Jamie McMurray who are rattling the establishment. (Jimmie Spencer should be worried about these young kids, because they are way faster than he is.) Roush revealed that he rated Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon (which is hardly news) but didn't think that much of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. This is news, as there are people who seem to think he is the second coming, despite the fact that Junior has a problem with focus. I've always thought it interesting that Junior can't be bothered to learn how to road race, whereas his father worked really hard on that aspect of his game. Roush also thought that Christian Fittipaldi might struggle when he goes Busch racing next year, mainly because he has come from a series (CART) where the cars are terrific to a series where the cars (stock cars) just don't work that well.
P Lerner is absolutely right: why the hell is Johnny Benson's crew chief bitching him out because he won't put someone in the wall to win? It might have been OK for Dale Earnhardt Sr to dish out the occasional love tap, but once he had left the scene, it might have been good if that kind of driving had been outlawed. Last year, I was incensed when Bill Elliott tapped Ron Fellows into the wall at Sears Point and the boneheads on TV thought that was OK. Earth to ground control: on the exit or in the middle of a corner, the guy who is ahead has the line. Any contact from the car behind is wrong and dumb and the driver should be penalized if it was deliberate.
I don't want to rag on Winston Cup racing but...
But two observations came to mind while watching Johnny Benson earn a popular victory his first in a Cup car at Rockingham. First, I was struck by how pleased everybody was that he won the race without wrecking the guy in front of him, which is exactly what crew chief James Ince had urged him to do to Kurt Busch at Martinsville. Why and since when is punting somebody out of the lead condoned in NASCAR? Because let's face it, it's not that difficult to pass people if you're willing to bounce them into the wall to get by.
Second, did you hear the long radio transmission between Busch and his crew? It could've been a pair of teenage girls talking about mascara tips from Britney Spears. If stock car racing is so mentally and physically taxing, then would you mind explaining to me how the drivers are able to be so chatty while they're supposedly so hard at work? Jeez, why not just give the guys cell phones and let them use up some of those free weekend minutes staying in touch with Ma and Pa?
Alex Zanardi returns to the EuroSpeedway Lausitz for the first time since his horrific crash in September 2001.