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Cleveland Diary:
Day Three
Heading In The Right Direction

Cleveland, Ohio, June 26, 2005 Something happened on the way to the shore. A crowd showed up. A large one. And they had a lot of fun. The trend is reversing, and Champ Car is now showing definite signs of growing back to prominence.

The Buzz Is Back. Despite the brutally hot and humid weather (unofficially, five people on Friday alone were taken to the hospital due to heat related problems), a strong, and most importantly, an enthusiastic crowd showed up for the Champ Car race. After a down year, many of the grandstands (those down pitlane and by the chicane) were full and the other stands, though not full, were not sparse either. Also, I heard there were a lot of people milling about the midway area even during the race.

Cleveland has always been a Champ Car city (remember the uproar when it appeared the IRL would move in?), and they know their stuff. When Cristiano da Matta walked back to the pits after crashing out of the lead, the fans gave him a standing ovation. Who says foreign drivers can't be appreciated and loved? They stood and roared every pass Paul Tracy made and had A.J. Allmendinger won, I have no doubt they would have cheered louder than the post race fireworks.

People associated with the Portland event talked about how the buzz was coming back to that event. The same goes for Cleveland. When a series is struggling and almost dies, it's very difficult, especially just months after saving it from bankruptcy, to get sponsors to invest in it. Proper event sponsorship is not a one shot deal. It requires an investment over time before the true value gets returned. This year, a number of local sponsors started to see that stability and acted in kind.

Same with the fans. They too want to know they are going to a happening, and you don't get that feeling from a patient on the deathbed. There is still a ways to go, but the better attendance and atmosphere at Portland and Cleveland, along with strong ticket sales at San Jose and word of a sellout in Toronto (which it definitely was not last year), and it is evident that the Champ Car World Series has turned the corner. Sure the TV ratings are still relatively pitiful, but one rebuilding block at a time from the bottom up. When you get the events back to where they once were, the television audience will start to return as well.

Hands On Owner. You have to admire Dale Coyne. He is an owner who does this for the sheer love of the sport, doing whatever it takes to make sure his team operates at their best. Sure, they may be underfunded, understaffed, and a rent-a-ride operation, but commitment and hard work is not lacking. The personality of this team is directly related to that of the owner.

Watching him work behind his team's pit stall was one of the more interesting and pleasurable things to do during the race. He ran the Tarso Marques operation. He actively stayed in communication with his driver and the pit crew, made firm decisions not to pit with the broken front wing under green, and then to pit under yellow to fix it even though the pits were closed. He had his reasons for it all, and after watching him, you were convinced they were the correct decisions.

The one action that really stood out and clearly displayed the type of owner Coyne is occurred during the stop to fix the wing. With some of the crew occupied fixing the nose, the others performed the routine pit stop duties of changing tires and fueling. However, this left no one available to give the squirt of water after the fuel hose was pulled out.

Thus, without hesitation, Coyne came down from his pit stand, grabbed the water extinguisher, and squirted the side of the car. Then, he calmly climbed back up on the pit stand, all the while talking to the driver over the radio. Can you imagine Carl Haas doing that?

Breaking Away. Lost amongst the hype of Katherine Legge winning the Long Beach Toyota Atlantic Championship round was the fact that Charles Zwolsman was the best driver that weekend. He had the fastest time in qualifying by a good margin, and only a brain fade mistake by his crew prevented him from starting on the pole.

Relegated to the rear of the field after failing tech, he drove a brilliant race to move up to third. Had someone other than Legge won the race, all the talk would have been about Zwolsman. After Cleveland, all the talk is about Zwolsman. And Tonis Kasemets as well.

These two drivers are starting to pull away from the rest of the pack. Since Long Beach, Zwolsman won three times with Kasemets taking both Portland races. It's not just the points, either. They are making a mockery of the rest of the field in the races as well. Though Antoine Bessette, Legge, Andreas Wirth, and even Al Unser III and Chris Dyson are scoring respectable finishes, the margin they are behind the leaders is huge. Large enough, that when you get right down to it, they are getting hammered.

When they don't run into problems, this pair run close to each other. Behind them, there is quite a distance. At Monterrey, third, fourth and fifth were approximately 13, 15, and 26 seconds back, respectively. Portland also saw gaps in the 15+ second range with the exception of Wirth who got inside 12 seconds. The first Cleveland race, the margin was over 22 seconds. The second race, Bessette was "just" over ten seconds back. Some of the top runners in these races were over a half minute behind.

Hopefully, the rest of the field can catch back up to Zwolsman and Kasemets. A two man battle is fun, but getting Bessette, Wirth, Legge, and the others back in the action will be a lot more exciting.

Double Reverse. The Trans-Am series reversed the top five starters after qualifying to add some excitement on Saturday. This had been done before in the series, but at Cleveland, it's almost the case of what's the point.

Being it is so easy to pass at this airport circuit, it didn't take long for the Fast Five qualifiers to virtually revert to their original starting positions. Heck, by the first turn, they were nearly running in the "proper" order. The first two qualifiers, thus starting in the fourth and fifth spots, were one-two after the first lap. Klaus Graf won the "pole" and immediately moved to second place. Teammate Paul Gentilozzi immediately went from fourth to first. Max Lagod went from second starting spot to his true qualifying spot of fourth (after Joey Scarallo moved to the back of the field because he changed his engine).

Of course, this doesn't mean they should abandon this gimmick. It can make for some very interesting and exciting races with lots of passes up front. It's just at Cleveland, it wasn't really necessary.


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Copyright © 2005 by Russell Jaslow and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

 
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