Champ Car and IRL's final showdown
As the IRL tinkers its steering racks to turn both ways, Champ Car’s hold on the street race market becomes crucial to its very survival

   by Cássio Côrtes
August 16, 2004

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Editor's Note: Cássio Côrtes is a young Brazilian journalist who writes for AutoRacing1.com.  Multilingual (English, Portuguese, Spanish and French), Mr. Cortes brings a fresh South American perspective to our staff.

Who will be the winner over Long Beach?

In 1929, French Minister for War Andre Maginot commissioned 2.9 billion francs to create a line of fortifications along the Franco-German and Franco-Italian borders. Having learned the lessons from World War I all too well, Maginot knew France stood in a vulnerable position to its neighbors in the east, especially as they seemed to grow ever fonder of totalitarian ideals in the late 1920’s.

When everything went wrong, when the worst-case scenario was such that France’s hopes were to dwindle by the hour, Andre Maginot’s brainchild would spare his motherland from ultimate disaster.

Yet as Sebastien Bourdais and Nelson Philippe were taught at middle school and can thus attest, what became known as the “Maginot Line” is considered one of history’s greatest military blunders. As the dark months of September, 1939 developed, Hitler’s armies simply took a detour through Belgium to avoid the Maginot, and went on to march under the Arc du Triomphe in less than two weeks.

Fast-forward to September, 2004. As the Indy Racing League revs up to road race at Watkins Glen and Infineon Raceway in 2005, a new million-dollar question arises in the open-wheel world: can Tony George put on a show similar to Champ Car’s Grand Prix of Denver? If it can, open-wheel’s landscape may look radically different in the next few years.

Street races are Champ Car’s last trump card over the IRL. They’re Paul Gentilozzi, Kevin Kalkhoven and Gerry Forsythe’s Maginot line.

The IRL’s capability to parade under American open-wheel’s Triumph Arch is not a simple question to be answered, though.

How would an IRL car deal with the narrow streets surrounding Denver’s Pepsi Center, where corner-exiting torque is king and gearboxes are strained to their limits – hardly strengths of their current package? Not to mention the fact that their engines still run circa 100 horsepower shy of a Champ Car’s.

With owners like Chip Ganassi repeatedly stating their unwillingness to spend big money on a full-version road course car (check the IRL’s minor road course alterations here), the Dallaras and Panoz G-Forces’ ability to appeal to open-wheel fans once the hit America’s road courses looks weak.

The IRL’s strategy for the moment seems simple: avoid head-to-head comparisons by racing on NASCAR’s road courses, where they’re guaranteed to lap faster than the Frances’ 1.5 ton behemoths.

But it’s no secret Tony George craves for Champ Car’s remaining crown jewel: the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. And as the event’s name itself states, he may have a major ally in the world’s second largest car manufacturer, currently one of his league’s main supporters. High Champ Car sources don’t doubt Tony George’s disposition to spend seven figures out of his and Toyota’s bottomless pockets to snatch Long Beach away from Champ Car. In that case, Champ Car would be helpless.

Long Beach is the event Champ Car fans take most pride in. Losing it to the IRL could mean the beginning of a wave which, some fear, might culminate with the loss of other successful events, such as the Denver GP itself (a race whose promotion this weekend was widely acclaimed by most within the Champ Car World Series community).

In an urban environment, Champ Car’s distinctive cosmopolitan flair is at its best. One stroll through Denver’s Mall street on the race weekend’s Saturday night shows what events like this are all about: mingling the series with the local community, in a pleasant atmosphere that lasts from Friday through Sunday. To quote a fellow scribe: “You think those guys in the IRL like to go to Nashville? This [Denver] is where they’d love to be; they’re forced to go there because of the money.”

As Andre Maginot’s naïve planning proved five decades ago, failing to strengthen your last line of defense is a recipe for disaster. If Champ Car is to thrive in the long run, its owners may think of brushing the dust off their old middle school history books, and make damn sure the engines roaring on the streets of Long Beach, Denver et al. are mounted on Lolas instead of Dallaras.

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