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Long Beach Diary:
Day One
Turn, Turn, Turn

Long Beach, Calif., April 13 — There are places that exist only in our imaginations and then there is the world of the Long Beach Grand Prix. It springs up every year like Avalon emerging from the mists, only to disappear after a few days of sunshine and racing. It usually coincides with the income tax deadline, Spring Break, and Easter. So far this year, it looks like it’s going to be very crowded at the Beach, and the weather has suddenly gotten to be almost absurdly pleasant. Good thing. Yesterday, the wind was blowing so hard, I thought I was in my own private version of The Wizard of Oz.

Well, we definitely aren’t in Kansas today, because I’m sure the parking would be much less expensive. We pay $20 to park at “Aqua,” one of the new high rises that dot Ocean Boulevard. It’s totally worth it, and allows us to save our time and energy for more important things.

Because Long Beach is so very much the same every year, it’s also easier to spot what changes from year to year. Taking a look at the Atlantic series, it’s hard to remember the dire straits the series was in just two years ago. Our friend, Justin Sofio, was driving in the “C2” class – a souped up club car is what it was – because there were so few regular Atlantic entries. Fast forward from 2005, and we can clearly see that a new car that is much less expensive to run and a $2 million sponsorship award for the Atlantic’s champion has turned a nearly dying support series into one that fields around 30 entries every time it runs. Oh, and Justin qualified 8th today, and in a regular Atlantic car, thank you very much, thanks to the sponsorship of Ray Mathiasen.

Ray has put together a first class program for Justin: he has a backup car, he has a driving coach (Andreas Wirth, so we understand), and it looks like it is all coming together for a talented young driver. These changes in the Atlantic series needed sponsor money to happen, but it was smart money rather than the stupid money that manufacturers used to throw around, that brought about the turnaround in CCAS. Oh, and congratulations to Rafael Matos, who scored the fastest lap in qualifying, but we confess to missing James Hinchcliffe at the top 3 press conference – it’s just not as entertaining without Hinch.

And, as things change, they also remain the same. If you turn around and look at the American Le Mans Series, you will note that many of their drivers have a Champ Car, and thus a Long Beach, background. Today’s fastest qualifier, Dario Franchitti, is just one, but also here are Ryan Briscoe, Adrian Fernandez, Guy Smith, Bryan Herta, and Mika Salo. It seems that ALMS may mesh better with Champ Car weekends than Grand Am did.

We also notice many former Trans Am drivers in both ALMS and the Speed GT series. Whenever we cover a race weekend with so many series, we also have to make judicious decisions about what we will or will not cover. This weekend, time constraints will keep us away from Drifting, Speed GT, and the Pro Celebrity Race. In the case of the first of these, we were never really interested in Drifting, and have always felt the last is nothing more than comic relief at best.

Nearly everyone in Champ Car, whether they are employed by the series, a driver, or a member of the media, is waiting for the series’ financial situation to turn around. All of us have run out of free, and have been hoping for better days. As it is, the sponsors are not coming back, at least not in a meaningful way that will turn a money loser into breaking even. This was painfully obvious with today’s “sponsorship announcement.”

It seems that Drive Energy Drink is going to sponsor the Face of Champ Car and become the Official Energy Soda of the Atlantic Series. Now, that’s something that keeps me up all night – worrying about the lack of a sponsor for Face of Champ Car and the lack of an energy drink for Atlantic. Not!

It gets very painful when you realize that corporations are falling all over themselves to get into NASCAR, and we have no title sponsor. We don’t even have a series presenting sponsor any more. Even more difficult, most of the media who have remained with the series – and many have left in the past 4 years – are very close to being unable to afford to continue to cover Champ Car. That’s trickle down economics for you.

The manufacturers left in 2002. 2003 brought Pook-fare to bridge the gap when the manufacturer’s free was gone. In 2004 through 2006 there was defacto Pook-fare in the form of subsidies from the series. Now in 2007 there are supposed to be sponsors again, but if there were really sponsors the way there needs to be, there would be some free somewhere, at least money-wise, and there’s not. I know this because I am not sure how long I will be able to afford to be part of the media of Champ Car. And, I have a good day job. There are many in our ranks who don’t have that, and they are hurting.

And, when we see changes in competition in Champ Car, we see them most startlingly (and painfully for Newman Haas) in the changes wrought by Team Australia. Back in 2004, Derrick Walker could not afford to continue to run the talented English driver Darren Manning (who is, gladly, finally back in open wheel racing) and faced the very real possibility of losing his racing team. Walker repurposed his team as Team Australia because of the financing and vision of his Aussie Vineyards partners. I am sure it has cost Gore and his team substantial monies, but it has been smart money, and well spent, and today, his team is consistently beating everyone else, as evidenced by last weekend’s pole and win by Will Power and today’s provisional pole for the same driver.

And so before the mists close around Long Beach again on Sunday, we leave the track for a relaxing evening of dinner and working. Tomorrow should be great, and there’s going to be an ALMS race. I know Angelo is going to enjoy that one, and you should, too. Until then, I’m off to the races.

Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

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