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Thursday, September 21, 2006
Road America a treat for drivers and fans

By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com

This weekend's Champ Car Grand Prix of Road America probably won't feature a heart-stopping championship battle. But that really doesn't make anyone too unhappy.

"Road America is probably the best, the most beautiful natural road course in the U.S. It's a long track that has slow, medium and high-speed corners and that's where the cars are really stretching their legs."
-- Sebastien Bourdais

After all, whether you are a driver, a crewmember or a spectator, just being at an event at the scenic road course near Elkhart Lake, Wis., is an annual highlight. Champ Car returns there this year after a year away as the series and the track try to recapture the glory days of the mid 1990s when the Road America race was the biggest spectator event in the state.

At 4.048 miles, Road America is one of the longest road courses in America, and it is without a doubt the most natural one. In fact, it is one of only two race courses listed in the Register of Historic Places. There's not an artificial, speed-sapping chicane anywhere, contributing to a 130-plus mph average lap speed. Road America's long straights, fast corners and tall trees require one thing out of a driver -- steady nerves.

That's why the drivers love the course, even with the specter of Cristiano da Matta's near-fatal testing accident from Aug. 2 fresh in their minds. The popular Brazilian's RuSPORT Racing Champ Car struck a deer on the track, and he continues to recover from significant brain injuries in nearby Neenah, Wis. Da Matta will be feted throughout the Road America weekend, with a silent auction on Friday night and an opportunity for fans to participate in a charity bicycle ride around the famous track on Saturday.

RuSPORT tried hard to hire Dario Franchitti to fill da Matta's seat for the final three Champ Car races of the season, but the Scotsman's management prevented a deal from happening. So Justin Wilson will run his third race in a row without a teammate, potentially harming his already-slim championship chances. RuSPORT is expected to stage a shootout in the coming weeks to select a less expensive driver to complete the 2006 season in the No. 10 car.

A.J. Allmendinger
A.J. Allmendinger is a long shot to win the title, but he could easily win the race.

Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger -- the man who started the season in the No. 10 RuSPORT car -- arrive at Road America 62 points behind championship leader Sebastien Bourdais. And if Allmendinger has had the hotter hand by scoring four race wins since his move to the Forsythe team, he's also had his share of distractions. His contract negotiation to finish the season with Forsythe nearly backfired (thanks to the same CSS Stellar agency retained by Franchitti) and last week, Allmendinger made an exploratory NASCAR Truck Series start. Team boss Gerald Forsythe wants to maintain the Allmendinger-Paul Tracy driving duo into the future, but he's not willing to pay an exorbitant price.

Assuming an 18-car grid for the final three races of the season, the maximum points spread between first and last place when factoring in the available bonus points is 31 points per race. Basically, if Bourdais finishes in front of Wilson and Allmendinger on Sunday, he'll wrap up his third consecutive Champ Car championship, matching the feat accomplished in 1946-47-48 by Ted Horn, albeit in a very different era.

Put another way, if Allmendinger or Wilson achieves perfection in the last three races -- every pole and every fastest race lap -- Bourdais can clinch the title by finishing eighth or ninth over the balance of the season.

That's an unlikely scenario based on Newman/Haas Racing's stellar record at Road America, which the suburban Chicago-based team considers its home track. It was there that Mario Andretti claimed the first of NHR's 96 race wins during the team's rookie Champ Car season in 1983, and he also clinched the first of NHR's six Champ Car championships there a year later. Newman/Haas has earned nine wins, seven poles and 18 podiums at Road America.

Still, Bourdais is taking nothing for granted, even though he boasts a win and a third-place finish in two starts at Elkhart Lake.

"For the McDonald's team to clinch the championship this weekend we would need to have a perfect weekend and our opponents would need to have a bad one," said the Frenchman. "We need to focus on finishing the event to leave Elkhart Lake with the same point lead. Then just starting the race in Surfer's Paradise [Australia] would do it."

Like the rest of the drivers, Bourdais rates Road America as his favorite track in America -- if not the world.

"We don't have so many road courses throughout the season so we all really enjoy this one," he said. "Road America is probably the best, the most beautiful natural road course in the U.S. It's a long track that has slow, medium and high-speed corners and that's where the cars are really stretching their legs. It's vivid and it shows on TV."

There are other potential race winners beyond the top three in the championship, of course.

Bruno Junqueira, Bourdais' teammate at Newman/Haas Racing, has earned two poles and two race wins on the scenic layout. Paul Tracy of Forsythe Championship Racing is a three-time winner at Elkhart Lake. Tracy's back-to-front run to win in 2000 without the benefit of a full-course caution was one of the finest drives of his long Champ Car career. Alex Tagliani of Team Australia claimed his first and only Champ Car win while driving for Rocketsports Racing at Road America in 2004. Nelson Philippe and Dan Clarke have helped elevate CTE Racing to "best of the rest" honors several times in 2006.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.