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Portland Diary:
Day One
Musical Chairs is Not Just for Children Any More

Portland, Oregon, June 16 — The 2006 Champ Car season thus far has gotten it all wrong. The racing has been as predictable as a well run mass transit system. This is not a good thing, to paraphrase Martha Stewart. It is very bad for business when racing becomes predictable as in “Bourdais wins. Yawn, pass the vegetables, please.” In fact, what makes racing—or many other sports for that matter—exciting is its utter lack of predictability. It’s the not knowing who is going to grab pole, win, or become champion that keeps fans buying tickets, jumping fences at road courses, and tuning in on the telly every single race.

And so it has gone. Long Beach, Bourdais wins from pole. Boy, I didn’t see that one coming. Houston, Bourdais capitalizes on a Dominguez error and wins. Monterrey, Bourdais wins. Milwaukee, Bourdais finally wins. This is not to say that Bourdais is not a great racer or a terrific human being. In a way, I am glad that the rest of the world does not know what a tremendous athletic talent it has in this young man from Le Mans, because he is still relatively unspoiled due to the absence of the sycophantic praise that is normally heaped on talent of this magnitude. But, I digress. Predictability is a good thing when it comes to the car you drive. It’s not a good thing when it comes to racing.

Champ Car, however, in an effort to overcome the numbing effects of too much predictability, seemingly came up with a solution for this in the time between Milwaukee and Portland. Used to be, silly season started in late summer. In 2006, we had a Silly Week of musical chairs, or rather, musical seats, with three drivers changing teams right in the middle of the season. The story that every good journalist in the series wants, but isn’t getting, is why these changes happened when they did. However, I haven’t spent a good chunk of my career in Hollywood for nothing. So, without further ado, here’s what I think did and will happen with the driver changes from Silly Week.

RuSport owner Carl Russo entered this 2006 season believing that his team and drivers could and would strongly contend each race and start chipping away at the dominance of Newman Haas. In this he was both mistaken and greatly disappointed. His top driver, Justin Wilson, could not catch Bourdais, and was having to settle for being the best of the rest.

The second most disappointed person in the paddock was Cristiano DaMatta, who was on a slow slide to Nowhere. Two seasons ago, he was driving Formula One. After losing that ride, he landed at PKV with his old friend, Jimmy Vasser, as both teammate and co-owner. Da Matta, however, is a driver who is especially dependent on his team for his success. And, this team was not really for him in spite of a win at Portland in 2005 and his manager was someone with whom Kevin Kalkhoven said he would never again negotiate a contract. It appeared that the Sonny’s Barbeque ride with Dale Coyne Racing was going to be the best he could do for this year.

I think it’s highly likely that DaMatta’s despised manager was able to convince the hungry Russo that DaMatta was just what RuSport needed to compete with NHR and that this happened after the race in Houston where RuSport was never a factor.

Coming into play with this was Russo’s willingness to work with the ownership of Champ Car and delay any announcement of a firing of Allmendinger until after Milwaukee, where such a move would have gravely hurt ticket sales not to mention attendance. And, like a generous husband who has cheated, Russo wanted to appear more magnanimous than he perhaps was, and made sure that A.J. had a good place to go before anything being announced. So, I don’t believe there was any big blow up between Carl and Dinger after Milwaukee. Instead, Russo, Kalkhoven, and Forsythe were merely setting the stage for what was about to unfold.

This game of musical seats pivoted around what Gerald Forsythe was willing to do. In this, the views of his team’s manager, Neil Micklewright, and top driver, Tracy, were certainly a factor. Due to Forsythe’s self funding of the team in the new Champ Car era, Tracy has seldom had anything but a ride buyer for a teammate. This has in turn deprived Paul of the competitive edge he needs to win more races. The chance to hire someone under contract to someone else who also had some decent sponsorship of his own would of course appeal to both Neil and Paul. Clearly, then, Mario Dominguez had to go. Thus, it was the pure resolve to compete, contracts or not, which drove these changes and ironically made what happened more exciting than what’s happened on the track thus far.

It is still early yet to see how all of this will work out. I am willing to go out on a limb and make some predictions:

Dominguez: Although a talented racer, the biggest problem Mario has is the way that sponsorship money in Mexico is drying up. It’s hard to imagine, but just a few years ago, there were more full time Mexican drivers than there were Mexican races. I look for Dominguez to hang out in Champ Car for a little while, and then take his money over to Busch as has Michel Jourdain, Jr. He will be missed, but it’s all about the money.

Allmendinger: He’ll be a man on a mission to prove Carl Russo wrong, and I believe he has the heart of a champion. This is perhaps the most risky of all the moves, but I believe Dinger will thrive with Forsythe, as long as the latter is willing to pay at least some of the bills. Look for wins and championships to come.

DaMatta: I predict more disappointment for Carl Russo. Cristiano was able to win a championship for Newman Haas, but I don’t see that Russo has the team infrastructure he needs to succeed beyond Wilson, who can shine wherever he is. Cristiano’s best racing is behind him. By the time Carl figures this out, A.J. will have won races he could have won for Russo.

And, of course, on Friday, Allmendinger took provisional pole. Whether or not this success will translate into a win remains to be seen. I can tell you that if Dinger does win his first Champ Car race in this city of Roses, there will not be a dry eye in the house. And, if Sebastien wins again, I may be the one crying hardest, because I hate being bored.

Friday’s Atlantics action was fast, furious, and in the case of qualifying, wet. France’s Simon Pagenaud took provisional pole over newcomer Carlos Mastretta. Graham Rahal was third. It’s a shame that there aren’t two Atlantics races this year as there were in 2005, which were both dominated by Tonis Kasemets.

We did run in to Tonis last night at our favorite North Portland seafood restaurant, Salty’s on the Columbia River. Kasemets is making his Champ Car debut this race for Rocketsports. Based on his time, we are afraid his ride is in the chassis that is known around the paddock as the “Flexi-Flyer” which has tormented drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay, amongst others.

As the day came to an end, Jeff Davidson and I were treated to the drawbridge by our hotel raising for some barges going through. We can only hope for such drama to find its way into our series.

And now, I’m off to the races!

Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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