Success of Vegas race seen as critical for Champ Car

LAS VEGAS -- Following an offseason that produced as many questions as answers, Champ Car's inaugural Vegas Grand Prix is likely to feature more of the same.

The focus should be on what happens on the track in the Champ Car World Series' 2007 opener. But given Champ Car's recent "track record" in terms of staging new races, attention is likely to be diverted by the minutiae of the event itself.

Recent examples of Champ Car events that weren't ready for prime time include Miami (2002, a ridiculously tight track with a 76 mph average pole speed); San Jose (2005, where the cars took flight twice a lap over railroad tracks and barreled down a 180-mph straight into a 25- mph hairpin with no runoff area) and Houston (2006, bumpy enough to shake the fillings out of a driver's teeth and also sporting a dangerous lack of runoff).

Now the Champ Car series wants to plant roots in Las Vegas, where it failed to catch on as a parking lot race in the early '80s and didn't attract much attention as an add-on to NASCAR truck races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2004 and '05.

What's going to make the third time the charm? Well, for starters, the Vegas GP has been reinvented as one of Champ Car's "three-day downtown festivals of speed." The race will take place on a new street course, not on the Vegas strip, but in the heart of downtown, near the venerable Golden Nugget casino.

Although it is dominated by 90-degree corners, the 2.44-mile layout looks relatively interesting in street course terms. And make no mistake, the track does matter. Good street courses -- like Surfers Paradise, Toronto and former iterations of Long Beach -- can be even more challenging to drivers than natural terrain road courses. But bad ones make everyone, including fans, want to stay home.

Champ Car is not only confident that it will get the circuit right in the hot spotlight of Las Vegas, series boss Kevin Kalkhoven said he believes the Vegas GP will quickly become a marquee event in American motorsport.

"I think it's really important for everyone to understand that what we are doing is not just about one year -- it's about many years," he said. "This will be the first time there has been a race on the streets of Vegas. It's the first time in which the mayor and all his staff in Vegas are solidly behind a race and it's a unique opportunity to build for the future.

"It's also going to be a great track, wide with passing zones," Kalkhoven continued. "What is also relatively interesting is that we're making parts of the course available free for spectators who are in Vegas. Understand that what we are doing is building for the future. Look at any one circumstance at any one time, sure, but understand the much broader picture. Imagine how much any other series would like to be racing where we are come April 8."

The race itself promises to be a crapshoot, because cost-cutting rules mean that most teams have logged only about four solid days testing the new Panoz DP01-Cosworth combination, and testing has been far from trouble-free. But Panoz and Champ Car are confident the most significant bugs -- mainly gearshift electronics -- have been worked out.

The late addition of Conquest Racing's entry for New Zealand rookie Matt Halliday brings the Champ Car field to 17 for the opener, but in truth, all eyes will be on the red No. 1 car driven by three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais.

Here's a fascinating nugget: In the last four years, Champ Car has staged five new or inaugural races. Bourdais has won them all, and the odds of anyone beating him in Vegas on Sunday are slim and none.

In fact, the Frenchman's biggest worry is whether his Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing entry is reliable enough to make it to the flag. The season starts with three high-attrition street races on consecutive weekends.

"For the team, it's a lot of work, especially with the new car," Bourdais said. "We don't know what the reliability issues might be, not having any data on it. It's quite stressful for everybody, so hopefully we don't suffer any major breakdowns."

Bourdais has won the last two Champ Car season openers on the Long Beach street course, and the Vegas track is likely to play to his strengths.

"The two races we won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway were a heck of a show but I think bringing the show to the city is going to make a huge difference," Bourdais said. "It will probably be more appealing to Champ Car fans to come see a street course than a 1.5-mile oval where it's flat-out all the time and very much IRL-style racing.

"The new venue is supposed to be really good. The promoter had a lot of support from the community and the layout seems pretty cool."

"The new venue is supposed to be really good. The promoter had a lot of support from the community and the layout seems pretty cool."
-- Sebastien Bourdais

Also attracting attention in the NHLR tent is 18-year-old rookie Graham Rahal, the son of three-time Champ Car champion Bobby Rahal.

Seven of the 17 drivers entered for the race are rookies, including Simon Pagenaud of Team Australia, who beat the younger Rahal to the 2006 Atlantic Championship crown. Other notable first-year pilots include Formula One testers Neel Jani (PKV Racing) and Robert Doornbos (Minardi Team USA).

However, a pair of locally-domiciled Canadians could prove to be Bourdais' toughest competition in Las Vegas. Paul Tracy hopes to regain the form that netted him the 2003 Champ Car title, while the revamped R-SPORT team is Alex Tagliani's best ride in four years.

"It's great being able to start out the season at a track that's only a few minutes from my house," said Tracy, who is Champ Car's active leader with 30 race wins. "I've seen the track and it looks like they've done a great job. It's wide, it's fast, and it seems to be pretty smooth, so I think it will be a lot of fun. There's been a lot of promotion leading up to this weekend and I have no doubt that it will be a big success."

Other drivers to watch this weekend include 2006 championship runner-up Justin Wilson, who teams with Tagliani at R-SPORT; Will Power of Team Australia, who closed out the 2006 season with his first Champ Car pole and podium finish; and Mario Dominguez, who has three races to cement his status as Tracy's teammate with Gerald Forsythe's team.

Champ Car has certainly taken a beating in the media over the last three months, mainly because its driver lineup still wasn't finalized the day before the scheduled start of the season. But most of that negativity could evaporate in the space of a couple of hours if the inaugural Vegas Grand Prix lives up to its potential.

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