Spring Training Diary:|
Fasten Your SeatbeltsÖItís Going to Be a Bumpy Ride
Laguna Seca, Calif., March 10 ó Ever since OWRS bought Champ Car out of bankruptcy in 2004, a familiar pattern has emerged. Itís always the same thing, without fail. Only weeks remain before the new season, and we still donít have enough announced drivers to fill the grid. The first year, I didnít blame anyone for this, because OWRS had only owned the series for weeks, so it totally was not their fault. In 2005, we patiently waited for announcements that never came, and the field only came together right before the first race. Last year, we arrived at Long Beach Thursday only to find that Dale Coyne was announcing his team on Friday morning. It is now 2007, and the three amigos have accomplished many things. The one critical item still undone four years later: not enough cars announced for the series in advance of the opening race.
Yes, there have been improvements in the series. For 2007, thereís a new chassis, a new logo, and a simpler name. These are all good. And, when external entities have threatened the series, Kevin Kalkhoven, et al have stepped up to the plate and purchased Cosworth to ensure an engine supply and the Long Beach Grand Prix to ensure the survival of our marquee event. These actions have cost considerable capital. Kalkhoven even spent a great deal of time last year with Tony George to possibly unify with the IRL. And, they provided the capital to resurrect the Atlantic series. Yet, these numerous successes make the failure to produce a decent car count even more exasperating for those of us who cover the series. At a certain point, there must be accountability for this, and who, I must ask is responsible?
Does anyone remember back in January when Champ Car President Steve Johnson said publicly that it was time for teams to announce their drivers? If we were NASCAR, teams would have made up driver names to satisfy ďMr. Johnson.Ē Remember that people were saying since we have a new package this year, teams would have to set their driver lineups early to remain competitive? Since we arenít NASCAR and those people obviously did not know what they were talking about, itís now March 10th and I count 10 announced drivers: Bourdais, Tracy, Jani, Dalziel, Figge, Pagenaud, Power, Gommendy, Wilson, and Tagliani. Thatís enough to make a fairly decent dinner party, but hardly enough to start a Champ Car race.
I make my living catering to affluent people, and so I can tell you that one thing this group handles very badly is public humiliation. So, I am reasonably sure that this will provide sufficient motivation to ensure that there will be more than 10 cars when we grid in Las Vegas. If we are going to have anything close to a full field of drivers, something must be done and soon. One can only hope that checkbooks will open and deals will be finalized. Here (with a lot of guess work and reading between the lines) is our rundown of what can be done quickly and how on this very bumpy ride to the start of the season:
Newman Haas Lanigan: We heard Graham Rahal was a done deal last year in Denver. We heard there was a major US sponsor poised to spend millions to fund an American driver like Graham. Then we heard he would be announced this weekend for sure. He wasnít. Whatís the problem? We suspect NHL wants to tie him up for more years than Papa Bobby would like, but itís rather late in the game for him to find something else for this year. On the other had, NHL could probably pick up Bruno Junqueira for a song. Will it happen? We say a definite maybe on Rahal, and a definite yes for one of the two, Rahal or Junqueira, bringing us to an 11 car count.
PKV: Hired Neel Jani, who seems competent, and then announced a ride buyer yesterday, Tristan Gommendy, who no one ever heard of and who leaves us very unimpressed. Will it last? We say yes on Jani and no on Gommendy, who seems to be another Patrick Lemarie in the making. Depending on if the check clears right away or not, we say, sooner or later, they will bring back Oriol Servia. This will leave us even at an 11 car count.
RuSport: They signed Justin Wilson for another year, and his car is well sponsored. Since Kalkhoven crony Dan Petit now owns (or is leasing, depending on who you believe) Carl Russoís former team, it is likely that Kevin will prevail on his friend to spare him the acute embarrassment of such a small field. They have been a 2 car team before, so it wonít be too much of a stretch to hire Kalkhoven protťgť Katherine Legge, who finds her unsigned status clearly unsatisfying (despite popular belief, Legge said she is still not confirmed anywhere). Will it happen? We say yes, RuSport will again be a two car team, and clearly, Legge is under contract to someone, and will have to be run by somebodyís team. This will bring us to a 12 car count.
Minardi Team USA: Please explain to Paul Stoddard that this is not Formula One and we donít do reserve or test drivers. Where is Cedric The Entertainer when we need him? Keith Wiggins? Derek Daly and his hollyhocks? At any rate, last I checked, Doornbos is still not announced, and as he comes directly from F1, he is doubtless finding this a huge comedown. Like we really need that. If we can get Stoddard to understand where he is, perhaps we can break it to him that the two HVM drivers from last year are available. We can only hope that MTUSA will announce one or two actual regular drivers some time this season. Will it happen? I would not count on more than one driver, and thatís very iffy at best. But, for fun, letís say theyíll have one entry, which will bring us to 13 cars. Lucky us. Werenít they the team that was going to run 3 or 4 cars?
Forsythe Racing: We know Gerry Forsythe has spent a fortune on Champ Car. We hope he doesnít mind us asking to spend a little more and bring back 2006 Australia winner Nelson Philippe. We think this is a match made, if not in heaven, at least in a very good place. Heís likely to be much more grateful than Allmendinger was for the opportunity, and being a rich kid, will not be swayed by seven figure NASCAR salaries. And we think he and PT could kick major ass. Will it happen? As Forsythe is a rich series owner, the embarrassment factor should work in our favor. I promise to work on the parents, Mr. F. Think about it. Weíre going to say maybe, which will bring us to 14 cars.
Conquest Racing: Me and everyone else are wondering, who was that last minute sponsor who stopped Eric Bachelart from laying off his team a while ago? They were nowhere in evidence this weekend. Clearly, he needs major money. Will it happen? Weíre going to say no for this year, as it will fly in the face of the announced ďteam self sufficiency.Ē If they help him, they will have to help others. Maybe they should, but we arenít going to count on it.
Dale Coyne: The king of the ride sellers, Coyne has at least two cars and the smarts to keep his team running no matter what boneheaded moves the series makes. We donít know who he will end up running, but we will definitely say he will run the two drivers who bring the most money before each race. We would not be surprised if he ends up running Mario Dominguez, as he will doubtless have sponsorship some time this year. Ditto Andrew Ranger, who is not the most talented driver, but seems to be able to line up sponsorship. Will it happen? You betcha, we just donít know who and when. This will bring us to a total of 16 cars.
Rocketsports: However, the owners can avoid the appearance of subsidies by having Paul Gentilozzi run a second car. We frankly donít see how they are going to avoid it, because 14 to 16 cars, with or without subsidies, is just too few to run, and Paul is also a series owner. Look for him to run whoever the amigos want in the series (or who they have already contracted to run in the series) and is not racing for another team. This could bring him Oriol, Bruno, or Katherine, any of whom we would be delighted to see in the series. Will it happen? You can count on this one, because they have to have at least 17 cars running at Vegas, but if Paul has to expand, someone is going to have to pay him, trust us on this one.
Thatís the biggest number we can come up with unless we get a new team or if an existing team expands. Seventeen is a very small number. We can only hope that those in a position to make things happen put this together as soon as possible. Otherwise, even the most optimistic of Champ Car cheerleaders are going to look like absolute idiots.
Like I said, fasten your seatbelts, itís going to be a bumpy ride.
Copyright © 2007 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.