The One Percentile

AGUANGA, CA, September 28, 2004 – Monday is always a day of reflection after race weekends. Today I’m thinking about Bruno Junqueira’s comment after the Bridgestone 400 Presented by Corona Champ Car race that, on oval tracks the car is 99 percent of the equation while the driver is one percent, he said.

Could that really be so? If so, does that make the engineer the true driver of an oval race? Or is it the DAG? You get the drift.

The Las Vegas Champ Car event, a late addition to a race weekend featuring NASCAR’s Craftsman Truck Series called Double Down in the Desert offered some pretty good competition, when Series officials weren’t getting in the way. While they did not pack up like an Indy Racing League grid might, there were intense battles within three packs all night long.

On the first mandatory pit stop lap – an arcane rule resurrected for this contest only, one can hope – Ryan Hunter-Reay spun coming in, bringing out yellow. The guys behind all pitted but Alex Tagliani, his Rocketsports team thinking the pits would be closed.

Shown as the leader after the “officials” went to every nook and rules cranny, Tagliani was later called for a stop-and-go penalty for his late first stop, a black flag he ignored for four laps. After the race was over, protests were filed and denied, knocking Tag back to 16th of 17 starters after local resident Paul Tracy never made the opening bell.

But 99% car on an oval, Bruno? Watching from the press box it looked pretty intense, just as the action does in the IndyCar Series. In their second oval race of the 2004 season, Champ Car World Series drivers battled for position and took care of one another; spotting was excellent on the roof. Some teams took on IRL spotters for this race, a good investment in bringing drivers and cars back alive.

The race was safe, competitive and exciting to the finish, but it couldn’t keep the interest of fans in the stands, which were about 3/4 full when the race began at nearly 10:30PM. This is a city that never sleeps after all.

What made these prospective Champ Car fans make an orderly exit – State Police looked bored after the race – wasn’t the lack of on-track competition, it was the 12 laps of caution that were called for Hunter-Reay’s little bump and Tag’s subsequent failure to show at the methanol pump allocated to his team on time.

Maybe Tracy really did have a good point when he called the Champ Car World Series officials “circus clowns”. Or maybe they’re all Jimmy Buffet fans: “indecision may or may not be my problem.”

In any event, these guys sent the crowd back to the tables early; odds on this race happening again went down appreciably after a $500K investment by Open Wheel Racing Series (OWRS).

Yeah, Bruno, set-ups for an oval are always very important but the human factor has a heck of a lot to do with success on a superspeedway like Las Vegas Motor Speedway. When Junqueira says his efforts are only one percent of the equation, I have to disagree.

Watching teammate – and eventual winner – Sebastien Bourdais hang loose in the early going while Bruno and Patrick Carpentier argued over first place, I got the feeling he was using his best resource to find out what he could do later, when it counted.

Seabass later acknowledged he was looking at the lines his competitors were taking and how they were going about changing those lines. The duo do have a lot more time on oval tracks than he does; this was Bourdais’ fourth oval, second superspeedway and he earned victory in his first superspeedway appearance in Lausitz, Germany last May.

Smart racers do things like that. Smart racers also do their best to be patient on a track like LVMS; ovals require tenacity. But they also require a great deal of physical conditioning for the G forces.

Endurance with the mental acuity to go for it at the end – provided that mechanical package is right there with the driver – is an important facet for success on oval race tracks.

Bruno gives himself too little credit, perhaps, but at the end of this late night battle, he didn’t win the race. The man who had troubles with his first pit stop and fell to sixth, needing to fight back, well, he won the race. The same driver who recognized the need to calculate his moves took the trophy. The smart driver won the race, not Bruno Junqueira.

There are two races left in the Champ Car season now, at Surfers Paradise, Australia and in Mexico City. That a 14-race campaign is being held at all is pretty amazing.

The fact that the championship is going down to these two races between Sebastien Bourdais, Bruno Junqueira and Patrick Carpentier (gone to the IRL next year) is pretty darn exciting. That’s the order in which these drivers finished on Saturday night – or was it Sunday morning by then? – and that’s likely the order in which they’ll complete the season.