Room at the Top

There are many challenges facing the Champ Car World Series in 2005. While the lineup of races appears to be solidifying, the organization itself has a lot of obstacles to tackle.

As noted a month ago, the series lost its chief technical whiz, Lee Dykstra, one of the savviest men in the business who is respected by just about everyone. Obviously he’s disliked by some entity within the Champ Car organization; otherwise he’d still be there.

The purges that occurred over the month of December – what a wonderful time of year to fire people, right? – included personnel from every facet of Champ Car, not just Dykstra, but his was the most pronounced firing.

At the time, we noted the plausibility of Lee’s being a fall guy for the September Las Vegas debacle and still stand by that, as well as continuing to believe that John Lopes had a part in the departure.

Lopes proclaimed otherwise and said so in an email: “Lee Dykstra is a consummate professional and his tenure at Champ Car raised the bar within the operations departments,” Lopes declared.

At the time Lopes said (confidentially) he was pretty much fed up with the way things were being handled and not to be surprised if he wasn’t around long after the first of the year.

That shoe dropped last Friday when Andretti Green Racing announced John Lopes was joining their 2004 Indy Racing League championship winning IndyCar Series team and working on “business development, including new sponsor acquisition, special projects, administration and management services” as a vice president of this growing organization.

Andretti Green has, of course, gone farther than simply being a four-car lead team for both engine maker Honda and chassis builder Dallara. They won Honda’s first race ever at their home track of Twin Ring Motegi with sophomore Dan Wheldon and dominating lead driver Tony Kanaan took the IndyCar Series title, finishing every lap and falling out of the top five only once to take eighth in the first of 16 races.

All four drivers, including Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta finished in the top ten for this year’s championship chase. Only Herta failed to win a race as the other three took three, three and two, respectively. Now that’s domination.

AGR is more than a team, though and this year Andretti Green Promotions is handling all details of the IRL’s first foray off the ovals when the series races on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida in April.

Significantly, AGR is hiring road course professionals to take care of this new street circuit challenge, its preparation and track operation, all with the blessing of city fathers.

Co-owner Kim Green’s brother Barry, who began Team Green ten years ago as a CART squad is the promoter of record for St. Pete; former CART operations executive Kirk Russell is on-board the organization and now Lopes has gone, as I’m sure Champ Car’s Tres Amigos will note: “to the dark side”.

What is particularly difficult to understand is why Champ Car is letting people like Dykstra and Lopes go when it’s apparent they are passionate about the tenets that made the World Series as good as it is today: tight controls on equipment cost with spec ECUs for the spec Cosworth (nee Ford) engine, aerodynamic development freezes, testing limits (also adopted by IRL), push to pass, alternate tires and more.

While some road race contests will always be typical “follow the leader” parades when you have the caliber of Newman/Haas Racing pushing the envelope and a driver like Sebastien Bourdais showing off his exquisite talents behind the wheel, for the most part – when allowed to compete at will – most Champ Car races this past year or so have been entertaining.

There has been way too much interference with the quality of these races by at least some of Champ Car’s new owners, who may even have alienated Ford Motorsport chief Dan Davis, a man with a recognized short fuse who hasn’t yet declared whether this year’s competition will be supported by the Ford Motor Company.

Poking their noses into the operations department has made everyone at the top of this heap look like Paul Tracy’s favorite circus clowns and has not done a darn thing to make fans happy. Manipulation of competition by the owners – at least some of ’em – has not worked one whit.

While the future apparently looks pretty good for the Champ Car World Series with Bridgestone back onboard and with two of three “amigos”, Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven purchasing engine supplier Cosworth, right now there is a big void atop racing operations – save director of operations John “Ando” Anderson and electronics guru Kevin Vander Laan.

Champ Car has no chief steward and no true head of racing operations. The first event isn’t until Long Beach in April but that’s not really enough time for a new management team to be put in place. Ando, from what I’ve heard is finally returning to pit road where he can be in the thick of the action, where he belongs.

In terms of added events to the 14 already announced, there are viable rumors of two South American races that may actually happen; South Korea might occur as planned in 2005 and even Elkhart Lake’s Road America may be back on the schedule again.

We don’t hold out hope for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca though, as it’s too small a track for these cars (or so Champ Car would like us to think) and there’s been a wee bit of alienation between CCWS and SCRAMP, the benevolent organization that runs the seminal central California road course.

In order to mend fences with old friends (the best kind, Champ Car should remember) and make new alliances, the Champ Car World Series will need strong people at the helm of its racing operations department. I don’t see many viable candidates standing in line to take these positions, particularly when there is uncertainty as to whether they’ll be allowed to do the job.

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