The Weight of Worry

AGUANGA, CA – The racing season is finally winding down, as Formula One closed out last weekend in Brazil with former CART and Indy 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya tasting his final victory champagne with BMW-Williams and beating next year’s Mercedes-McLaren teammate Kimi Raikkonen to the flags in a race-long dogfight. It was just the way we always hoped F1 would be, wasn’t it?

Seven-time champ Michael Schumacher was pretty much nowhere to be found after performing pirouettes; teammate Rubens Barrichello finished his first home race in ten appearances and did so in third place. Nice work. He had a large cheering section, including newly crowned Indy Racing League champ Tony Kanaan, who got a hero’s welcome returning home.

All that’s left is NASCAR Nextel Cup and the Champ Car World Series on the North American continent. In NASCAR, this past weekend’s tragedy and victory for Hendrick Motorsports is inconsolable.

Flying to and from Cup races has become the norm over the past five years or so and, with all of the obligations away from race tracks these days, having a plane and pilot(s) available to get from A to B is becoming a necessity.

Flying in poor weather is not a smart idea in commercial small planes and chancing this flight resulted in tragedy for 10 extraordinary people and those they left behind. But the season must continue to its end next month in south Florida and then the true sorrow can set in.

Just as Adam Petty’s death at New Hampshire changed the face of Petty Enterprises, as Davey Allison’s helicopter crash remade the Alabama Gang, so too will this disaster transform Hendrick Motorsports, which was Ricky Hendrick’s to assume had he survived.

It is tragedies like this that make us step back and take a look at motor sport and make us question why we love the sport so much. It is tragedies like this that make us stronger and, hopefully will do just that for everyone involved in Cup competition. It is their choice and their obligation.

There is just one race left in a 14-event Champ Car World Series and this series is not as bad as it could have been nor as good as it might well be. That the races occurred is a miracle and they’ve been, for the most part well attended.

The championship will go down to teammates Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira from Newman/Haas Racing, a conundrum in itself as side-by-side crews battle for a title. Watching the November 7th finale from Mexico City should be quite interesting.

This past weekend in Surfers Paradise pretty much exemplified what’s right and what’s wrong with the series. Probably the best story of the year is that of rookie A.J. Allmendinger, hooked up with people who believe in his abilities at RuSPORT. That the team’s management includes folks he worked with at Barber Dodge, A.J.’s first professional championship, who then took him to a Toyota/Atlantic title makes better for the kid who just earned Rookie of the Year over F1 expatriate Justin Wilson.

This weekend marked the 14th visit to Australia’s Gold Coast for contenders in the series formerly known as CART and it was, for once a race without weather problems. A crowd of more than 300,000 showed up for four days of racing and carousing and, while the victory by Bruno Junqueira was one of passion for this perennial bridesmaid, the supporting cast to the NHR squad needs a ton of upgrading.

The V8 Supercar Series manages to excite the locals as much – if not more than the Champ Car action does and the promoter for that series believes (probably rightly so) that his show could bring in the same number of drunkards and racing fans as do the open wheelers imported from the USA.

It costs a lot to put on the show in Queensland and the local government is both the primary contributor to high sanction fees and the first beneficiary of bed taxes and Americans’ hunger for fine Australian products (notably Ugg boots and wine).

While most local tourists come to celebrate the start of springtime Down Under – this is Spring Break for the Aussies, after all – the number of Americans who venture across the Pacific Ocean to view this spectacle has diminished over the past few years.

Local news outlets weren’t terribly pleased with the competitors brought in by Open Wheel Racing Series and those drivers’ proficiencies. By adding local pilot David Besnard, who has been good in the V8s and has some money backers the series managed to draw more local interest; when veteran Patrick Carpentier crashed on the 53rd of 57 laps, causing the race to end under yellow, it was back to the beer parlor for most everyone.

One report even said, “The Champ Car contest was a third-rate show with a rag-tag bunch of unknowns and pay racers who were slow and unspectacular.” That Carpentier is okay and will race again after his waggling front wing separated from its donor Lola tub is pretty darn miraculous.

Carpentier’s Forsythe Championship Racing team manager Neil Mickelwright even acknowledged the team had spoken with the driver concerning this wiggle-wing problem; they all decided to keep going, Mickelwright said for some unknown reason.

Of course the renowned Canadian driver is supposedly leaving the Champ Car set to work in the rival Indy Racing League next year, and such defections are not meting well within the Champ Car community. People who express any kind of affection for the IRL get met with jeers in that paddock while those in the League don’t have the same animosity.

What’s it all mean? Why, very little in fact. “Look at these idiots. They are hopeless,” said one [unnamed] veteran Champ Car reporter at the Surfers Paradise race. “There are only a handful of decent drivers and Tracy (Paul Tracy, last year’s champion) is past his sell-by date.”

The 2004 Champ Car season ends in Mexico City November 7th without the favorite son who has meant more to that country’s motorsports fans than any other: Adrian Fernandez. No, Fernandez defected and won three of the six final races in this year’s IndyCar Series 16 events. It’s a telling mark.

The visible troubles with Champ Car could easily morph off to Formula One next year should no one step up to buy Jaguar Racing and/or Cosworth Racing. Like Champ Car, the owners/team principals could be forced to field added teams in 2005 – like Gerald Forsythe, Kevin Kalkhoven and Paul Gentilozzi did this season with Champ Car – and I’d like to see Ron Dennis, Frank Williams or the folks at Ferrari put their money where their mouths are, which is one of the few things Champ Car has done right this difficult year.

It’s a sad week for the denizens of major motorsports; we mourn the loss of those NASCAR folks who died en route to their jobs; we also feel the stab of destiny as it renders the Champ Car World Series somewhat less than its name might imply.

(c) 2004 Anne Proffit

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