Road America Diary:|
Baby Itís Cold Outside
Elkhart Lake, Wisc., September 22 ó Go ahead and say itóI am a spoiled California girl who usually experiences thunderstorms only if theyíre part of a movie script, and Iím watching a DVD. The Midwest is supposed to be positively beautiful this time of year, but itís kind of hard to tell, because itís raining nearly all day and all night. Jeff and I left LA about 5:30 on Thursday night, and after a three and a half hour flight and two time zones, we arrived in Milwaukee a little after 11 PMóand our plane lands by sliding down a very wet runway. Iím a white knuckle flyer at best, but itís all going to be worth it, or so I tell myself, because at long last, weíre going to go to the Mecca of North American road racingóRoad America.
Itís been a month since thereís been a Champ Car race, and like any self respecting junkie, I am ready for my fix, but am rather irritable while waiting for it to come. Itís cold in a way only a soggy, wet day can be, but who cares? For today, I am enjoying being able to stay inside and look out on the flag stand and watch those aging Lolas speed past me as I am writing this.
I never fully realized exactly where this famous track was, I just knew it was in Wisconsin, which is somewhere east of LA. Most Californians function on a two coast system, East Coast and West Coast. My brother Howard lives on the East Coast and works on Wall Street. My family and I live on the West Coast, and I work in the entertainment business. When I told my Editor, Russell Jaslow, that we would go "back East" to cover this race, he quickly corrected me that it was actually the Midwest.
To orient any other coasters reading this, on the shores of Lake Michigan is Milwaukee, a town where, so Russell informs me, wine is called "beer." One hour drive north of Milwaukee, and also on the shores of the great lake, is the city of Sheboygan. Our hotel is in Sheboygan, because everything remotely habitable around Elkhart Lake was booked about 5 minutes after Champ Carís return to Road America was announced. So, weíre about 20 minutes away from the track thatís considered to be North Americaís Spa-Francorchamps, but only if youíre F1 centric. Yet, when I try to punch it up in the "Neverlost" device in our rental car, itís not listed under "Race Tracks." Who knew? We have no trouble finding the track anyway, because Elkhart Lake is a very small town.
Fridays on three day race weekends are always filled with anticipation. Today we add to this mix, trying to stay dry as the rain continues into the early afternoon. Sometime during Atlantic qualifying, the rain stops, to be replaced by overcast gloom. Graham Rahal is fastest in morning practice, but loses provisional pole to championship points leader Simon Pagenaud. One of the most suspenseful parts of the weekend will be whether or not the Frenchman can hold on to his lead and claim the championship along with the all important $2 million Champ Car sponsorship, or if it is snatched away by Graham Rahal.
Sundayís race, the finale for the 2006 season, looks to be an exciting one. Pagenaud, like any good racer, wants to win both the race and the championship here at a track where he has no previous experience. Rahal, on the other hand, seems focused on the championship and feels his car is unbeatable in the rain. We predict that the final finish for the season will be just as the qualifiers finished today: Pagenaud, Rahal, and Wirth. And, all three with proper funding, should be able to transition to Champ Car in 2007. That is, after all, what Atlantics is about.
It has been an incredible season for the Atlantic series, as it has truly come back to life in 2006 with a new car, deep talent pool, and a rich championship prize. Whether or not open wheel racing stages a serious comeback in North America remains to be seen. What is unquestionable is that Kevin Kalkhoven and Champ Car have bet on the future by developing young talent instead of drawing on the past by trying to lure back veterans who have defected to Indy Car.
Development series can be cold in how they attract and then weed out talent. Over the years, I have seen many talented racers go by the wayside in this process. Itís not always fair, and itís often heartbreaking. It is hoped that those who were not able to rise to the top this year will come back next along with the inevitable still newer talent, including J.R. Hildebrand, who replaced Steve Ott for this final race at Newman Wachs Racing. Iíd like to see more of Raphael Matos, Alan Sciuto, Joe DíAgostino, James Hinchcliffe, Richard Philippe, and Ryan Lewis. All showed promise this season without being in the position to grab the brass ring in 2006.
Over in Champ Car, the relatively small 17 car field soldiers on. Mario Dominguez has complained long and hard about his drives since being unceremoniously dumped by Forsythe Racing four races into the season. Dale Coyne picked him up after Milwaukee, and it seemed he had a place to land until next year. But, still he felt the Coyne ride was beneath him, so here at Road America, heís with Rocketsports and a cool looking race car. Unfortunately, he is still near the bottom of the time sheets, so Iím going to go out on a limb here and predict the complaining will continue. Too bad, because when heís driving well, I really like Mario.
Not complaining was Cristiano Da Matta, who was released from the hospital and flown home to Miami today by private jet. Itís impossible not to like Cristiano, and we hope to see him back next year if he can still race. RuSport will reportedly hold a "shoot out" for his seat, and we are still hoping it goes to Ryan Hunter-Reay. Not because heís an American, although that doesnít hurt, but because heís never really had a chance to shine in this series, and he is a very talented racer.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, itís qualifying time for Champ Car. Unfortunately, this yearís thin competitive field has usually led to predictable results. Ho hum, yawn. Not today. Not here. The top three today are not the usual suspects. In third place is Alex Tagliani who has had a pretty disappointing year thus far. He feels his car is strong in both dry and wet conditions, and he may wind up winning Sundayís race. An equally surprising second place is Charles Zwolsman, who opted to go out on slicks and posted some very fast laps as a result. Good for Chachi, who back in February, was still looking for a ride. And on provisional pole is rookie Dan Clarke. Who could have predicted that? His team also made a good tire call, and now heís guaranteed a front row start for the first time in Champ Car. It is refreshing when different drivers are suddenly up at the front, but we donít know how long it will last. We are sure that somewhere, Sebastien Bourdais is figuring out how to take pole tomorrow, Justin Wilson is talking to his engineer, and Allmendinger is plotting how to win on Sunday.
As the day closes, we are off to the CARA charities Tailgate party, which should be a hoot. Itís almost time for Rosh Hashanah, and more sacred concerns for some of my racing friends. As for me, I cannot wait to catch up on my sleep because you know I had to leave the hotel earlier than I wanted to come to the track. Nighty Night!
Copyright © 2006 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.