The Champ Cars and St. Pete

  More under the surface than on TV

 by Dave Holyoak
February 27, 2003

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Bruno Junqueira and some Brazilian fans

It goes without question that for the past several months, many have wondered what chances CART had for survival to exist as a major race series and what chances it had to continue as a forerunner in open-wheel racing. With all the speculation, criticism, team and driver departures, and subsequent arrival of new faces and places over recent weeks, it wasn't too difficult finding someone that hadn't already bought the notion CART was done for and its demise was imminent.

But before you cast CART into oblivion, it might help to share with you some of what happened this past weekend in St. Petersburg, and maybe shed some light as to how CART is holding itself up.

With the picture for CART painted as bleak as could be it seemed many were wondering if there were going to be any fans in attendance whatsoever for the season opener. I myself hadn't heard much about projected ticket sales or how many people St. Petersburg was anticipating to arrive in their community. But as you headed down Central Avenue and approached Albert Whitted Airfield, it wasn't long before one realized that you were not alone and that there were, in fact, others there for the same reason.

Rather quickly, you were able to see some friendly reminders that give us race fans that warm and, dare I say, fuzzy feeling of being in our "second home." Some of these reminders included tee shirts sporting other CART race venues from the past; hats for Fernandez, Players, and Gigante; Zanardi Donut King shirts; coolers, open beer bottles at 9:00 a.m., guys with no shirts on; Well, wait a minute. This looks just like any other race. Was this the groundwork one needed to affirm that CART was still live and kicking or was it best to continue on and search for pitfalls? I had decided to hold my enthusiasm and see how the rest of the weekend developed.

It seemed most everyone in the grandstands (myself included) weren't too sure which driver went with which car and was having difficulty memorizing the names and car logos. Coincidentally, not a single female attendee had any problems locating Alex Tagliani and his car. It was also apparent that most did not know what to expect from the new all-Ford engine package and if the cars themselves would have an altogether different look. But as the teams rolled out the cars for the first practice, assembled the wings, changed to sticker tires, then started up, the omnipotent sounds of turbo-charge, all the anxiety and fears were soon quelled to a calm and tranquil atmosphere.

Then came the aromatherapy of methanol which quickly sent the true race fans into a frenzied stupor accompanied with cheers to "punch it!" The skids were greased for us fans to spend the rest of the weekend just as we always do with the ever-continuous cycle of watching cars, stretching, trips to the processed meat counters, lemonade and soda consumption (hats off to those of you crazy enough to consume the other type of liquid in that Florida heat), and the all-too-important calls to the port-a-potty.

On a more serious note, it didn't take much for you to realize that without question, CART is struggling to bring more sponsorship and exposure to its teams. And at the same time, you also realized that the elements which helped you enjoy the series and appreciate the caliber of racing that the Champ Cars offer, those same factors are still there just as it they were yesterday.

There were a number of other pertinent events during the St. Petersburg Grand Prix that seemed to really give clues as to CART's position to improve and distinguish itself from other racing series. First and foremost, the fans didn't have to buy a separate ticket or pair of binoculars just to get a good look at some of their favorite drivers and get up and close to the Champ Cars. They both passed right through the same alleyway from the paddock to the pits shared by all that held a ticket. It says something about seeing youngsters getting a chance for an autograph rather than the parents shelling out another credit card for the same opportunity. Watching at home, you didn't get to capture the feeling of the camaraderie between the different teams and drivers. It goes without saying how evident it is to those teams how important their performance is this year, and for CART as well.

You didn't get to see CART's CEO walking up and down pit lane and sometimes in the grandstands, talking and shaking hands with anybody who knew he wasn't St. Nick on vacation. You also didn't see how after Saturday's qualifying, fans had packed shoulder to shoulder to cheer on the drivers and crews as they made their way back to the paddock. People were cheering for Darren Manning, Michel Jourdain, and welcoming Roberto Moreno now that he's back in CART. They welcomed the Mi-Jack/Conquest, Dale Coyne, PKR, and all the other new teams to the Champ Car series. And probably most important, people were scrambling to make sure Emmo still had the same hairdo.

This by no means puts CART out of the fog. But despite these details, if the critics and naysayers are correct and CART is in fact doomed, then I'd hate to see a baby take a more solid first step. And for those of you who bought into CART's impending funeral, you're late, the Funeral has already been cancelled.

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