Looking Both Ways

In motor sport, this was the season of the over-dog, represented by Michael Schumacher’s seventh Formula One title, Newman/Haas Racing’s fifth different championship driver Sebastien Bourdais in the Champ Car World Series trail, Andretti Green Racing’s dominance with four exemplary drivers (and attitude straight out of Animal House) led by the incomparable Tony Kanaan. And there was Jack Roush’s ability to produce a second straight championship season after languishing as a bridesmaid for 15 hard-fought years.

That Schumacher would win another title was never really in doubt, but the battle for scraps saw Honda-backed BAR and Renault come up with the largest challenges. Where were BMW Williams and/or Mercedes-McLaren in 2004? Picking up the pieces of hubris.

The demise of Jaguar, snatched by Dietrich Mateschitz and his Red Bull conglomerate made for a soap opera ending to the season, as did the assumption of engine maker Cosworth Racing’s assets by Champ Car World Series owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerald Forsythe.

It’s reassuring to know that the folks at both Jaguar and Cosworth will live to work another day, but their new owners are expecting more results than Ford Motor Co. received from either/both entities.

That a 2004 edition of Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford even occurred is one of the miracles of this year. Fourteen races on street circuits, permanent road courses, a single short oval and solitary superspeedway gave Champ Car a new lease on life.

In December of 2003 nobody would have given odds on Champ Car making it to the bell for 2004, much less producing such an entertaining, complex and competitive bunch of races. Yes, Ryan Hunter-Reay made a shambles of the Milwaukee round by winning pole and leading every single lap but that was an anomaly.

It was a terrific and fierce battle between 2004 Newman/Haas Racing teammates Bourdais and perennial bridesmaid Bruno Junqueira to the finale in Mexico City where, apparently 90 percent of the population turned out to watch a race and party on

That Tony George would lose his opportunity to finally shut down Champ Car in court this past January was quite a surprise, but the owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League who caused the schism in American open wheel racing had poor advice. Whoever Mr. George’s attorneys of record may be, they did not earn their wages in that fight.

The Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series in 2004 became a clone of CART in the mid-1990s as it embraced competition between stalwart supporter Chevrolet, Toyota and Honda.

AGR’s Kanaan, who nearly won it all last year with a late developing Honda engine completed every lap (3305), won three races and led 889 laps, amassing nearly $5 million in the process of becoming League champion.

Sophomore Dan Wheldon, fresh from making a Bombardier Rookie of the Year title run in 2003 visibly matured on the race track and he, too, took three victories this year to place second. Dario Franchitti became a short oval ace – who would have presumed that? – and led 349 laps in the process. Only Bryan Herta failed to win amongst the Andretti Green steamroller but wait ’til next year.

The sole exceptions to the “Honda wins again” rule were the two victories by Dallara/Toyota-based Marlboro Team Penske that bookended the 16-race IndyCar Series season. New recruit Sam Hornish Jr. won his debut for Penske; Helio Castroneves won the last race of the year. In between, 2003 engine titleholder Toyota had nothing for Honda-powered teams.

Honda also took its first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 2004 with Rahal Letterman Racing and Buddy Rice, the castoff driver who had nothing cooking at the start of last year. For his three victories in 2004 and third place in points Rice has been rewarded with a long contract at RLR.

Buddy has a new role as leader of Rahal Letterman’s 2005 three-car Panoz G Force/Honda assault, which adds Toyota Atlantic Championship veteran Danica Patrick to the strong duo of Rice and Brazilian Vitor Meira.

Disgusted by his reception at the new Champ Car, Mexican veteran owner/driver Adrian Fernandez left that series before its Long Beach opener and joined the IRL. It wasn’t an auspicious debut for Fernandez in his adopted hometown of Phoenix but Adrian did win three of the five final IRL races and ended up fifth in the standings. He also helped propel teammate Kosuke Matsuura to Bombardier Rookie of the Year honors.

Fernandez won’t be driving again in 2005 as his Mexican supporters of long standing, Tecate and Telmex look to other opportunities.

In addition, so decimated was GM Racing’s winless IRL “effort” in 2004 that in November Chevrolet announced the coming season would be their final one with the League unless things change on engine specs. And how many teams will Chevy have next year? One team and driver only (at this point), down from six efforts from four viable teams.

That Jack Roush would win back-to-back NASCAR titles couldn’t have been ordained.

The new “Chase for the Championship” became a lightning rod for those who want to shout down everything about contrived competition.

The Chase did get NASCAR huge television ratings and interest at a time of year when racing normally plays second fiddle to baseball’s World Series and the start of the NFL football season.

So what to expect in 2005? Schumacher will likely add trophy #8 to his case. Newman/Haas Racing in Champ Car looks extremely strong particularly if 2002 champ Cristiano da Matta returns to the fold.

Andretti Green Racing’s juggernaut should continue unabated unless Toyota figures that, even though it, too, is sure to leave the Indy Racing League after 2006 (with Honda in hot pursuit), another IndyCar Series title would be nice.

The Chevy teams in NASCAR should revive and quell Roush once again with either runner-up Jimmie Johnson or teammate Jeff Gordon on top in another emotional season for Hendrick Motorsports, but look for sophomore Kasey Kahne to finally break his maiden and win some races for Dodge and Evernham Motorsports.

Where at this time last year nobody in American open wheel racing would have given Champ Car a chance to survive, the tide has turned and the spec series with one chassis (Lola), one engine (Cosworth XFE) and Bridgestone tires looks stronger than it has in a couple of years. Full 18-car fields are expected for 2005, while the Indy Racing League is working hard to keep all of its current teams in the fold.

Off-seasons seem to get shorter and shorter in racing and the 2004-2005 is no different. Before we know it, competition will commence again – starting with the Chili Bowl in Oklahoma early next month – and bench racing will get thumped by the real thing. I, for one, can’t wait.

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