Take Two?

INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 2004&#151

After a winter of malcontent, it is now evident that there are and will be two competing open wheel series in the United States: the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series and Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.

The pair of combatants in the United States’ Open Wheel Civil War nearly went head-to-head over the previous weekend, as the IRL held its second annual race at Twin Ring Motegi on Saturday and Open Wheel Racing Series’ Champ cars worked it out in the 30th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, CA a day later. This was an intriguing match-up with both contests at opposite ends of the Pacific Ocean.

In Japan, Honda placed ten cars on the Saturday afternoon grid in an effort to finally secure victory&#151in seven tries&#151at their home track, the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi circuit Honda blasted out of a hillside (for about $800 million) during its CART heyday. In addition to the oval track at TRM there’s the fabulous Honda museum on-site, several road course configurations and various fun/play areas for families to enjoy whilst between track activities.

Watching on television, the crowd count looked down again from the final CART race at Motegi, but that can be artificial; Honda keeps fan attendance regulated at TRM and has since the place was built. It was certainly a partisan group, equipped with a plethora of Honda flags to wave. And, apparently Honda did the proper amount of homework and its number came up, as Dan Wheldon ran off and hid from all pursuers.

Don’t begrudge the 25-year-old Briton this victory, though. It was Wheldon who performed much of Honda’s R&D testing prior to the company’s entrance in the Indy Racing League. If any one of Honda’s boys should have won, it would have been Wheldon or Andretti Green Racing teammate Tony Kanaan, whose second-place victory donuts honored the engine- and car-maker as much as Wheldon’s presence in Victory Lane.

Most race wins these days appear to be purchased anyway, don’t they? Ten cars in the field and a good group of engineers did it for Honda last week, and why not? If you think Adrian Fernandez and Bobby Rahal didn’t want to be in Long Beach rather than Japan, well, you’ve had a wee bit too much Kool-Aid to drink. And doesn’t Ferrari‘s ongoing massacre of Formula One occur due to massive influx of lira, dollars and Euros?

Paul Tracy (c) wins at Long Beach.

In Long Beach, despite failing to take pole position in what is now a spec series with bulletproof Ford-Cosworth XFE engines and Bridgestone tires (softer rubber was available), Paul Tracy used the new push-to-pass button instigated by OWRS rules makers in an attempt to add variety to the race and, once again put the kibosh on Bruno Junqueira. If you thought anyone else was going to be first to Turn 1 at the 11-turn, 1.968-mile Long Beach circuit, please check that Kool-Aid jar once more.

Tracy left Junqueira to ponder what could have been in his Champ Car career, as he has since joining Team Target in 2001. The former F3000 champ has had a whale of a time getting me to believe, as he first stated upon arriving in the US that he is every bit as good as Juan Pablo Montoya, whose seat Junqueira inherited with Chip Ganassi’s outfit. Bruno landed with Newman/Haas Racing last year and this season, in what was Cristiano da Matta’s chair.

As for Tracy, even six months off couldn’t temper the Canadian’s ability to snooker his competition into submission. Sure, there was no pole position for PT, but he knows what to do when given tools like push-to-pass. There was no rust. PT’s bicycling and karting over the winter have left him lean and mean as ever. Think he wanted that 2003 title for Team Player’s more than anything else? Well, the bar’s been raised for Tracy. Winning is addictive. The very large contingent of fans and party animals at Long Beach agreed.

The Champ Car race was semi-amusing, just like the IndyCar Series contest. Each featured mid-field battles but nothing at the front, for all intents and purposes. Both series have their calling points and each has vociferous fans. Just ask someone who is into Champ Car racing what they think about the IndyCar Series and you’re bound to get a mouthful. It all goes around; it comes around. Everyone has their favorite group and mine is whichever series is running at that particular moment. I enjoy road racing and I like oval contests. But what I dislike, more than anything else is a parade of racecars that cannot pass one another.

In both the IRL and in Champ Car, that’s what we’ve got right now and it’s not much in the way of entertainment. Short of putting Humpty Dumpy back together again&#151which looks impossible at this point, I’d like to ask fans to let the sanctioning bodies know what they want from open wheel racing.

If you agree that better competition with less influence by engine makers is what Indy cars need, let the Indy Racing League know what you think. If you believe the Champ Car World Series requires less intrusive pit scheduling rules and more on-circuit jousting, let OWRS know what you think.

No matter how much we journalists talk about it, the success of American open wheel racing depends on its fans and its sponsors. Let the suits know what you want and, who knows? You might actually get what you need.

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