View from the Topside
Houston postscript

   by Rick Benjamin
May 18, 2006

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Champ Car's first-ever night street race
LAT for Champ Car

Descending through the clouds back to Charlotte, home for a few days in the midst of the first of several back-to-back Champ Car weekends in 2006. The new Grand Prix of Houston is in the books and it’s an event that Champ Car can surely build around in the seasons to come, to establish a beachhead in the Southwest.

Promoter Mike Lanigan and his Mi-Jack colleagues have a lot to be proud of after this inaugural event. While many drivers were less than enthusiastic about the circuit, with its tight layout and demanding surface, to me the new track at Reliant Park produced surprisingly good racing and was fan-friendly. Few drivers or team members I talked with expected much passing but we saw Champ Car dominator Sebastien Bourdais come from fifth on Saturday night’s grid to win handily over Paul Tracy.

The most disappointed guy in the place had to be Mario Dominguez. After bagging his first pole in 65 career tries Friday, Mario seemed to have the best car for the 1.69 mile flat track, along with plenty of incentive to grab his third Champ Car victory. His Forsythe Indeck machine is carrying the new “Orgullo de Mexico” logo on its sidepods this month as a show of support to his countrymen on both sides of the Mexico/US border. Dominguez was looking forward to putting on a great show in one of America’s biggest Hispanic markets as a prelude to the season’s first trip to Mexico the coming week.

Despite his one mistake, Dominguez drove one of the best races of his career
LAT for Champ Car

Unfortunately, after running up front for more than half the show, Mario made what my broadcast partner Jon Beekhuis anticipated…an unforced error going into a left-hand corner that opened the door for the dominating Bourdais. Once into the lead, the series champion was bulletproof. Dominguez and Paul Tracy both battled hard but Bourdais and his McDonald’s squad were just too tough. It was the fifth straight time Seb scored the tour’s maiden win at a new venue, further proof that we’re seeing one of the all-time greats in action.

Bourdais’ back-to-back wins to open the season have been matched in the Champ Car Atlantic championship as well by young Andreas Wirth. As entertaining as the Champ Car event was Saturday night, the Atlantics round might have been even more so. Wirth had his hands full with both Raphael Matos and Graham Rahal, giving up the lead to Matos then coming right back to retake the top spot.

There was plenty of close, hard racing in the Atlantic show and I suspect the season-long fight between Wirth, Rahal, Matos, and young Bourdais protégé Simon Pagenaud in one of the Team Australia machines will be worth the price of admission on its own. The new Swift race car has proven fast and reliable, with a strong measure of safety added to the mix. For proof of that just ask Alex Barron, the ’97 champ and two-time IRL winner who’s rejoined the Atlantic field in a bid to revive his career.

Bourdais passed and then pulled away from  Tracy and Dominguez in Houston
LAT for Champ Car

Barron ran over the rear of another car coming to a restart midway in the event and caught major air, nearly blowing over backward. Alex fortunately walked away and his Room Store machine should be ready to go at Monterrey this weekend. Barron is one of a dozen or so drivers who should be able to run up front but who has yet to show his full ability given early-season gremlins and the strength of the grid in this revival year.

It was also a treat to have the American LeMans Series on the weekend card at Houston.  ALMS is blessed with a strong grid full of factory-backed teams along with a decent number of top privateers these days. The car count for ALMS is not nearly as strong as it was in the early part of this decade but those things are cyclical. The good news is the competition up front may be tougher than ever with the emergence of the Penske Porsche P-2 cars, close to being the fastest cars in the series. I greatly enjoyed getting the chance to renew friendships with many in the ALMS field whom I covered for several seasons, and I’d personally love to see more combo weekends with the ALMS joining Champ Car. We shall see.

Now, passports at the ready, it’s nearly time to head south again to Fundidora Park. Bruno Junqueira is the defending champ, and he’s yet to show he’s back on form after his serious injuries 12 months ago. There’d be no better time for Bruno to get back on track than this weekend. I’m betting he’ll be battling hard to the end come Sunday afternoon.

Hope you can join us for the coverage on SPEED, at 2pm Eastern. See you then.

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