Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Champ Car grid has one confirmed name and lots of speculation
By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com
Another clue has emerged that there actually will be a 2008 Champ Car World Series: PKV Racing, the team co-owned by Champ Car co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven, announced that it will field two cars, including one driven by Oriol Servia.
The 33-year-old series veteran from Catalonia became the first driver to be officially confirmed for the 2008 season. With Conquest Racing having already revealed its plan to expand to two cars this year, that brings the confirmed Champ Car field up to four cars and one driver.
Given that the first race on the Champ Car schedule (the 34th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach) won't take place until April 20, it could be argued that it's far too early to be thinking about the series' driver lineup.
Then again, back in the good old days of the PPG/CART Indycar World Series, plans for the following season would have been well advanced months ago.
In fact, I've still got a CART press release dated Nov. 3, 1995, that confirmed in exact detail (driver, chassis, engine, sponsor) the 28-car field that was already set in cement for the 1996 season.
Of course, the whole reason CART issued that November '95 release (not to mention another from the same day trumpeting its expanded television coverage for 1996 that was expected to build on the 56 million viewers who tuned in during 1995) was to demonstrate the strength and stability of the series in comparison to the Indy Racing League, which was ramping up to go into direct competition with CART's existing open-wheel formula.
Fast-forward 12 years and the picture isn't nearly as pretty.
Champ Car has a long way to go before it figures out what it's 2008-spec product is going to look like. And the situation isn't much better in the IRL, which currently boasts 11 confirmed drivers and a couple more (including Tony George's stepson Ed Carpenter) who we can assume will be on the IndyCar Series grid.
OK, there are a few other Champ Car drivers who we can assume will be ready to roll in Long Beach. Former series champion Paul Tracy is tied into a longterm contract with Forsythe-Pettit Racing, and that team's co-owner Dan Pettit is believed to hold the rights to Justin Wilson's 2008 contract. Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, which is Champ Car's flagship team, will presumably announce Graham Rahal as one of its drivers as soon as it figures out who it is going to field in the team's other car. Will Power, tipped by many as a championship contender, is likely to return with Team Australia, and Formula Atlantic champion Rafael Matos has $2 million worth of sponsorship to take to one lucky Champ Car team. Dale Coyne has stated that he would like to maintain his 2007 driver lineup of Bruno Junqueira and Katherine Legge, and it's a given that Pacific Coast Motorsports will field a car for Alex Figge, who is team owner Tom Figge's son.
So there is generally plenty of reason to believe that by the time Long Beach rolls around, Champ Car will somehow match its 17-car entry from a year ago. But series officials seemingly have no idea how bad it looks when a makeshift field comes together at the 11th hour. And they are clueless about the burden it puts on race promoters trying to sell tickets to a series that completely lacks definition or direction.
Alas, this just-in-time scenario is nothing new to those who closely follow the Champ Car World Series. Last year at this time, barely half-a-dozen drivers were confirmed and there were serious questions about whether Elan Motorsports could produce enough Panoz chassis and spare parts to equip even a 17-car field.
Once the initial bugs were worked out, the Panoz-Cosworth spec car proved to be a reliable and raceable machine. But in 2008, the crisis surrounding Champ Car's lack of a solidly identifiable field is worse than ever.
And what makes the situation even more comical than in years past is that series management is repeating the exact same mistakes they made and pledged not to repeat from a year ago.
"Maybe we got the PR side of it a little bit wrong," Kalkhoven said in March 2007. "There has obviously been a quiet period over the winter offseason and that may have been taken by some people negatively and some people positively. But we had always planned to make a number of major announcements [in late March] and that we were bringing all these major announcements together at one particular time.
"All I can say is wait until April 8 and I don't think people will be disappointed."
Well, people were disappointed when only 17 cars materialized for last year's opener, the now-defunct Las Vegas Grand Prix. And the disappointment intensified when Champ Car fielded no fewer than 10 different driver lineups over the course of a 14-race season, with changes made race by race, seemingly on a whim and a small sponsorship check.
Last November, when Champ Car hastily released its 2008 schedule, Long Beach Grand Prix general manager Jim Michaelian expressed some dissatisfaction with his race being the first event of the season -- mainly because of the lack of a solid field of drivers to promote. At the time, Michaelian tried to sound upbeat.
"We've expressed a preference for not being the opener and our position would continue to be such," Michaelian said. "But when you really think about it, three of the last four years we have been the season opener and I think you could say that, honestly, we haven't suffered very much and have managed to survive it.
"I think the big difference this year is I've already had some conversations with Champ Car and sense that there's going to be a much more structured preseason program," he added. "That's not to say there aren't some challenges. We need to work together with our sanctioning body so we can identify the teams and the drivers well in advance so all of you in the media as well as us can be promoting who is going to be here and who is going to be competing and with what teams. But I'm more confident now than I have been in the past that that is something that all parties are looking to achieve."
Still, it cannot be denied that since the 2007 Champ Car season ended in Mexico City on Nov. 11, the only piece of real news to emerge from the series prior to last week's Servia announcement was the confirmation that Pettit had shut down his Colorado-based RuSPORT team to join forces with Gerald Forsythe. No drivers were announced, despite the fact that Tracy signed a five-year contract with Forsythe less than a year ago.
Back in November, Michaelian expressed confidence that despite Champ Car's unstable lineup, Long Beach will remain a strong draw at the gate. Last year's race attendance rebounded noticeably to pre-2000 levels.
"There is a gentleman that is returning who has won this race four times and is looking to win his fifth, and his name is Paul Tracy," Michaelian said. "And Graham Rahal is coming back, and Will Power is coming back -- I'm expecting him to come back at least. And Justin Wilson. So there is a very strong cast of characters. Plus I think some of the new folks like Matos coming out of Atlantics are going to provide plenty of electricity.
"We've gone through many, many, many stars over the years starting way back in 1984 when Mario Andretti came here and won the first race that we ran here with Champ Car. And a lot of them have graduated on and been replaced by new stars that we'll be featuring on the streets here."
Still, Michaelian's job, and that of Champ Car's other race promoters, would be a lot easier if they knew who those drivers were and what team they will driving for -- more than a week in advance.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com
We've gone through many, many, many stars over the years starting way back in 1984 when Mario Andretti came here and won the first race that we ran here with Champ Car. And a lot of them have graduated on and been replaced by new stars that we'll be featuring on the streets here.
-- Jim Michaelian