With less than 90 days to go, issues abound

There's a popular perception that the Champ Car World Series is on the upswing these days, and the foundation for growth is certainly there.

But there are also a lot of unanswered questions with the start of the season less than 90 days away.

Series officials confidently predict upward of 20 entries for the season-opening Vegas Grand Prix on April 8, but only five drivers had been named as of mid-January. Brand-name sponsors are still conspicuously lacking, and the future of the 5-year-old Denver race is being publicly questioned.

Twenty-five examples of the new Panoz DP01 spec car have been ordered (and 15 delivered), but a planned production run of 35 is still less than half the number of cars built by as many as five competing Champ Car chassis manufacturers as recently as 2000. And while the introduction of a new car to replace the aging Lola B2/00 is exciting news for almost everyone involved in the sport, the fact that Champ Car has degenerated into a spec formula takes some of the fun and challenge out of it.

Dan Partel, who ran Lola's U.S. operations for a number of years, commented on the spec-car plague when he received an award at the recent American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association
(AARWBA) banquet in Indianapolis.

"The lack of technical interest and competition runs the risk of alienating the segment of the racing audience which cares as much -- or more -- about the cars as the drivers," Partel said. "They are among the hardest-core racing enthusiasts, and a larger percentage of the fan base than many realize."

A week before the new Panoz hits the track at Sebring for its first open test, Champ Car announced the addition of a pair of European races to fill a monthlong schedule gap in September. A race at the Assen circuit in Holland will be followed seven days later by a contest at Zolder, in Belgium. Both are natural-terrain road courses.

The addition of the European races -- not to mention the prospect of spending time between them in Amsterdam -- certainly will make a lot of people in the Champ Car paddock happy. But with many teams struggling just to stay in business, you have to question the wisdom of such an expensive overseas venture.

What it comes down to is a series trying to forge a new identity by broadening its search for a new influx of sponsorship. That's why Champ Car is going to China in May, and also why it tried
(unsuccessfully) to break into the Korean market.

Officials from the two European tracks said they expect to announce title sponsors for their events in mid-February.

"We considered a number of options for our return to Europe and these two events will prove to be very successful for our teams, fans and sponsor partners," said Champ Car president Steve Johnson.

It's not the first time Champ Car has traveled to Europe; the series ran races in England and Germany (on ovals on every occasion except for a 2003 outing at Brands Hatch), and while they were well-attended, there wasn't enough commercial demand to give them long-term viability.

The 2.81-mile Assen circuit is famous for its motorcycle races, while Zolder is forever linked to the death of F1 legend Gilles Villeneuve there during practice for the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix.

Johnson said he believes the stronger European flavor of the Champ Car series these days will lead to a stable future for Assen and Zolder and predicted that additional European races could be added in 2008.

"We have about five times the number of European drivers as we do U.S. drivers in our series, and so we have a great number of fans in Europe," he said.

With a new car, new venues and, presumably, new sponsors and drivers to be announced in the next couple of months, this is shaping up as a transitional year for the Champ Car series -- yet one that could lead to impressive growth if it all comes off as planned.

"We are launching six new venues in one year, which has never been done before in Champ Car or before that, CART, history," Johnson said. "Things are progressing according to plan and we feel good about where we are at this stage of the preseason."

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