Everyone covets Long Beach on eve of opener

By the time the field takes the green flag Sunday afternoon for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, NASCAR will have staged six Nextel Cup races in 2005. The IndyCar Series and Formula One will have raced three times apiece.

The Rolex Sports Car Series and American Le Mans Series will have run twice and once, respectively.

Better late than never for the Champ Car World Series, which has been operating in just-in-time mode for the last couple of years.

Yet in vintage Champ Car fashion, the talk heading into the season opener is more about off-track politics than about potential on-track action. Speculation is rife about the future of the Long Beach GP because the complicated contractual agreement between Champ Car, the City of Long Beach, and race rights holder Dover Entertainment expires after Sunday's race.

The IndyCar Series, full of confidence after the successful execution of its first street race, isn't hiding the fact that it covets Long Beach; longtime event sponsor Toyota is coyly sitting on the fence. The fate of the popular Long Beach event, which originated as a one-off Formula 5000 race in 1975 before hosting Formula 1 from 1976 to '83 and Champ Car from 1984 to the present, will not likely be known for several weeks.

"I've asked all my people to put all of their energy and attention into this year's event to make it the best it can be," stated Grand Prix Association of Long Beach President Jim Michaelian. "Once this year's event is behind us, we'll be reviewing our options and talking to our partners at Dover and Toyota, as well as the city government. We'll also be asking for input from our fans.

"We need to evaluate which series offers the chance to progress most rapidly in the coming years. But we won't begin to do that until after this year's event has concluded."

Meanwhile, a race will occur this weekend, and all indications point to it being a more competitive affair than last year's LBGP, won by Paul Tracy. The Champ Car field, while still small at 18 cars, has gained depth with an influx of talented newcomers. And several teams -- notably RuSPORT Racing and PKV Racing -- have made substantial upgrades in the offseason to boost their challenge against defending series champions Sebastien Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing. But the Frenchman's closest competition may come from within the Newman/Haas team from three-time series runner-up Bruno Junqueira.

"I'm obviously very proud of what we achieved last year, but that was last year," Bourdais said of his seven victories in 2004. "The most difficult thing is to try to predict what the others will do. RuSPORT was already pretty strong last year and they now have Justin Wilson and A.J. Allmendinger so they should be strong again. It will be interesting to see how PKV stepped up also because it seems like they invested some funds on development and they should have a pretty strong package.

"The level of competition is going to step up and it's only going to be good for Champ Car. It's going to be harder to win races for sure."

RuSPORT's Allmendinger and Wilson fought for rookie of the year honors in 2004 and now they're teamed together in Carl Russo's Colorado-based team. The two twenty-somethings should make a formidable duo, as should PKV's pairing of a pair of former series champions in Jimmy Vasser and Cristiano da Matta.

"We're going to be protagonists I'm sure," Vasser said. "Cristiano has been a breath of fresh air and with Jim McGee and some new faces involved, there are a lot more championships and race wins collectively under our roof now and it's shown in the attitude and the energy I feel. I liken it to what we had in the late '90s at Ganassi, so I'm excited and expecting great things for PKV this year."

Tracy, the 2003 series champion and four-time Long Beach winner, has been joined at Forsythe Championship Racing by Mario Dominguez, who transfers from the HVM team. HVM has hired former F3000 champion Bjorn Wirdheim and Toyota Atlantic graduate Ronnie Bremer to pilot its Lolas.

"I have been following Champ Car for several years and I can see the organization is growing stronger every year and I am confident this is the place to be with some of the most competitive racing in the world," said Wirdheim, a Swede who tested with Patrick Racing and PKV Racing. "I am very pleased to fight for the championship with HVM because they are one of the most professional teams in the series."

Rocketsports Racing, Walker Racing and Mi-Jack Conquest Racing also enter 2005 with new driver lineups. Ryan Hunter-Reay moves from HVM to Rocketsports, where he will be joined by 23-year-old German Timo Glock, a Formula 1 refugee who has been very quick in Champ Car testing.

Ousted at Rocketsports, Alex Tagliani landed at Derrick Walker's rebranded Team Australia alongside Queenland rookie Marcus Marshall. And Mi-Jack Conquest will field the youngest driver lineup, with highly-touted 18-year-old rookie Andrew Ranger joining 18-year-old, second-year driver Nelson Philippe. Dale Coyne Racing has not yet confirmed its driver lineup, while the new Jensen Racing team may make its debut at Long Beach.

The Long Beach track layout has changed several times over the years, with the latest having been made in 1999. Those modifications added a slow and fiddly bit around a fountain near the aquarium and took away some of the raciness of the short layout used through the '90s.

Several rule changes made in the offseason should simplify the racing for teams and fans. Most notably, the rule requiring mandatory pit stops within a given period have been dropped. The popular push-to-pass turbo boost feature on the Ford-Cosworth V-8s and softer alternate Bridgestone tires carry over into the new year.

The Champ Car series was bolstered by several sponsorship announcements heading into Long Beach. Ford agreed to continue as the series' presenting sponsor along with Bridgestone, while RuSPORT, PKV Racing, Forsythe Championship Racing and Newman/Haas Racing all added major or associate sponsors.

With the Long Beach race rights on the line, attendance will be scrutinized closer than ever this weekend. Champ Car is also returning to network television after a two-year absence; Long Beach and two other races will be aired on NBC, while CBS and SPEED Channel will split the remaining 11 races.

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