Cornucopia of Pleasures

LAGUNA BEACH, March 15, 2005 – A cornucopia of pleasures awaits race fans this weekend. In addition to yet another NASCAR NEXTEL Cup race (this one at Atlanta), Saturday brings us a duo of interesting contests.

The first American Le Mans Series race of the 2005 season takes place on the seminal airport circuit in Florida as prototypes and sports cars contest the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

ALMS held a three-day test at Sebring early in February just before arch rivals Grand American Road Race Association put on their Rolex 24 at Daytona. It sure looks like the big fight at the end of Saturday’s grueling Sebring enduro will be between teams and drivers but you never know.

Privateers reign in ALMS with Champion Racing carrying the weight for Audi as they have for the past couple of years. This year the Pompano Beach, FL-based gang adds Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela to an already stellar lineup that includes six-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen and Allan McNish, JJ Lehto and Marco Werner.

They’ll have to contend with Rob Dyson’s team of James Weaver and Butch Leitzinger, the latter doing duty in both ALMS and Grand Am this year and others who want to knock Champion down to size.

Some might find that outcome boring but the essence of sports car racing is and always has been haves versus have-nots and Audi has everything it needs to succeed: a well-sorted chassis and engine, a champions’ roster of drivers and good karma. Who could ask for anything more?

In the GT classes of ALMS, politics have taken over. There’s a new Maserati competing that’s looking to gain sufficient stature for Le Mans eligibility in June, against the odds of competitors’ protests; the Corvette C6-R makes its racing debut this week looking to be equally as competitive as its C5-R predecessor.

Even Aston Martin, the erstwhile Ford-owned purveyor of gentlemen’s cars is taking part in this year’s Sebring 12 Hours and the DBR9 looked pretty and fast in its testing debut. Steve Saleen’s Ford-based creations will be on hand; PorscheGT3s will challenge anybody in sight and who knows what other oddities will come out of the woodwork?

The best part about the Sebring race is the ambience. Even as we speak, thousands upon thousands of party animals are converging in the flat lands of central Florida looking for uncapped kegs of beer to quaff.

Over the course of the next few days, the Sebring airport circuit becomes the happiest place on earth. Orlando, eat your heart out!

While there are (likely) some who disparage the fun activities that occur at Sebring and the number of children born nine months later, at least the kids were conceived under joyous circumstances.

Also scheduled Saturday, the Indy Racing League contests its second – of 17 – races this season on the speedy one-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval. At one time PIR was considered a circuit where one separated men from boys; that won’t be possible this weekend unless we’re separating men from boys and woman from girl.

Yes, Danica Patrick has been cleared to run her second IndyCar Series race after experiencing the ringing of the bells in south Florida a week and a half ago. She learned a lot but still can’t remember even being in the race, which is customary.

Reigning IRL champ Tony Kanaan will be going for a three-peat, a hat trick at PIR as he’s won the last two IRL races held in the Valley of the Sun. There must be something in the water of the Estrella Mountains that agrees with the Brazilian.

Phoenix is a notably tough track to tame and the IRL cars can look skittish dancing about its flat road-course like 22 gangly ballerinas in training. No change to the car count for this round, but hopefully somebody will give Big Nose Kanaan a run for the money – outside his own Andretti Green Racing team. The usual cast of characters does get boring after a while, even if they are having such a good time of it.

Boring is a word regularly applied to the current era of Formula One, particularly, particularly since Michael Schumacher took his seventh championship at the close of 2004. The most positive part of Schumi’s monstrous title last season is that it didn’t happen in June or July.

He didn’t look so hot a couple of weeks ago though, did Herr Schumacher? Watching Giancarlo Fisichella win, legitimately win the Australian Grand Prix was nearly edible. Can he do it again under the newly manipulated rules that mandate an engine live for two full races and tires last for an entire race?

That Renault engine has to be toward the end of its service life by now so I’d guess Flavio Briatore might not be kissing everyone in sight and laughing so long and hard at the end of Sunday’s Malaysian GP but stranger things have happened.

Already in that paddock there are rumors that former F1 and CART champ Jacques Villeneuve won’t last the full season with his new Sauber team, especially now that Brazilian teammate Felipe Massa continues to outshine the Canadian.

It’s always fun when the unexpected driver outdoes the veteran. Do we hear story lines here?

And so it’s mandatory TV time this week for fans of all types of racing. I can’t wait to see who’s fast at Sepang, Sebring and Phoenix.

Incredibly, for the open wheel addict I am, I can’t wait to see if Dale Earnhardt Jr. manages to overcome his own weaknesses and settle (not crash) into a pace early in the Atlanta Cup race.

It’s a fine weekend for racing. Settle in and enjoy.

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