Racing in Earnest

INDIANAPOLIS – The major North American open-wheel racing season has begun in earnest.

Two weeks ago the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race was held, just last Saturday the Champ Car World Series did the traditional “week after Indy” 250-mile dance in Milwaukee and this week both the FIA Formula One (in Canada) and the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series (Texas) are in action.

Pardon me if I have a bit of postpartum blues.

It will be tough to surpass this year’s Indy race month for excitement, both drama and, yes, even comedy. The faith that Buddy Rice had in himself and his Rahal Letterman Racing team throughout May (and vice versa) took the wind out of everybody else’s sails.

Even the Captain, Roger Penske had no navigational tools to answer Rahal Letterman Racing; his brace of Dallara/Toyotas looked out-classed. And they were out-run.

And how about Rice’s restart pass on Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon? The coven of wizards at Andretti Green Racing came close, earning second, third and fourth. They all agreed that May was the month of Rice’s reign.

Of course the Rahal Letterman team did provide some comedy to their success. The Checkers/Rally’s Pit Stop Challenge that they won with likely the slowest victory pit pass ever seen. It reminded me of a couple of dragsters spinning rubber, not Indy cars. Indy was just fine, despite the weather, and that’s pretty unusual too.

The last time it was truly fun for me to go to Milwaukee the week after Indy was 2000, the year that Juan Pablo Montoya won the 500, then was rained out at Milwaukee before completing his coup de grace.

The past two nighttime Champ Car races at this historic Milwaukee Mile venue have presented good entertainment under the lights despite being runaways. Last year Michel Jourdain Jr. smoked ’em by leading 234 of 250 laps.

This year Ryan Hunter-Reay took it one step further (Rice’d them?) by leading every single lap; scything through traffic, the Florida resident put all but second and third place a lap down.

Last Saturday’s race had an interesting podium with Patrick Carpentier second (3rd in ’03) and last year’s winner Jourdain placing third with a brand new RuSPORT team. It was a good show of focus by them and a defining drive for the team’s young rookie A.J. Allmendinger, who has been on my personal radar screen since 2000.

Allmendinger qualified 13th on Friday night and showed a definitive case of nerves in his first Champ Car oval time trials – only his second oval race period. A.J. looked like a pro finishing fifth on Saturday. It was an overnight metamorphosis.

The Formula One troops go to Circuit Gilles Villeneuve starting Friday with Michael Schumacher again waltzing away from his competition. Even Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley are getting concerned.

As that, as convicted felon Martha Stewart would say, “Is a good thing.”

Michael still enjoys his racing and this is evident by his wins and his competitive nature, the latter of which assisted in his retirement in Monaco. That Schumacher has won all but one 2004 race coming to North America likely makes the Canadian and United States Grands Prix less enticing this year to the casual viewer.

While Max and Bernie want and need quick fixes, nothing, not even the new McLaren will come soon enough to save Canada and Indy. Although he may not take firm possession of #7 on these shores, Michael Schumacher will come even closer, making attendance compulsive for race junkies who need to see the best at work.

There is the prospect of challenges, but not likely from the usual cast of characters in Canada. The BAR Honda and Renault teams have come into their own, knocking heavyweights McLaren-Mercedes and BMW-Williams down a notch. Oh, some drama please!

After Montreal F1 comes to Indy, which is being swept of its oval vestiges and turned into the road-racing circuit and paddock fortress Bernie and Max require before their circus comes to town. No longer separated by months, the two North American F1 contests are now divided solely by one week and border, thereby inviting all to take two.

Now that Buddy Rice finally realizes, by virtue of his voluminous media tour that he did, in fact win the biggest race he’ll ever capture, it’s time for the Indy Racing League to get back on the road to the Texas high banks; after all, there’s still 12 races to run. This year it holds rather dubious memories.

The Texas Motor Speedway 1.5-mile banked oval is the site of Kenny Brack’s huge crash last October that, while it didn’t take his life literally took our breath away. Brack intended to test at Richmond last Friday but the weather scotched that; ergo, Vitor Meira drives one of two Rahal Letterman entries.

Coupled with Tony Renna’s life ending crash at Indy ten days later, Texas changed the IRL world, forcing the sanction to impose new anti-lift remedies and horsepower castigation.

At the same time the Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series – now with 3-liter engines and domed skid plates – is as competitive as ever and anyone’s game. The Bombardier 500K night race is always a hoot and it should be again.

After all, there are bragging rights on the line and, apparently Toyota and Chevrolet are not going away without a fight to Honda, which has won all four races to date. Most IRL drivers and teams have their own rationales and desire to fight even harder on the Texas high banks.

Fighting even harder is what makes the season – for any series – compelling. Watching the triumphs of the last few weekends, and thinking about the future months of competition ahead, perhaps that let-down feeling from Indy will pass. Perhaps it already has?

(c) 2004 Anne Proffit

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