Editorial

View from the Topside
A big sigh of relief

   by Rick Benjamin
June 22, 2006

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AJ Allmendinger finally wins one
LAT for Champ Car

A huge breath…maybe a stiff breeze of fresh air’s been pumped into the Champ Car World Series this week as the tour prepares for the 25th Anniversary running of the Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland. Of course I’m referring to the stunning run to victory last Sunday by AJ Allmendinger, which capped one of the wildest rollercoaster rides any driver’s faced in years.

By now you probably know the story….Allmendinger, the remaining full-time American pilot in Champ Car, had gone from being fired by RuSPORT to getting engaged to being hired at Forsythe Championship Racing in the span of five days….then came to Portland, took Friday qualifying honors, and rolled to a dominant win Sunday afternoon.

As shocking as his dismissal from RuSPORT was, AJ’s strong win Sunday was even more of a shock. We’ve seen the 24-year old Allmendinger at his best and worst over the past couple of seasons and have long respected his talent and vibrant personality. No one has doubted his considerable ability. He’s been a winner at every level until coming to Champ Car in 2004. And with RuSPORT having been built around AJ word of his release in the days leading up to Portland constituted one of the biggest shocks I’ve seen in racing in a long time.

The move by Forsythe Championship Racing (FCR) to boot Mario Dominguez and bring in Allmendinger alongside Paul Tracy was also a major surprise. Dominguez has been fast, scoring his first career pole just a month ago in Houston. Mario’s as personable as they come, a driver with a winning pedigree in Champ Car. And as the tour’s lone Mexican national, his value from a marketing standpoint is considerable. Add to that the potentially volatile mix of putting Allmendinger on the same team as Tracy and you have a scenario no one could have anticipated.

But all that seems insignificant now, in the wake of Allmendinger’s heroic drive. Racing these cars is difficult. Many drivers have come to Champ Car with considerable talent only to find themselves overmatched by the speeds, the physical demands, and the pressure. And candidly many observers were starting to think that perhaps AJ was overmatched as well. The memories of the several occasions last year when he tossed away potential victory were still strong.

Last Sunday’s dominant run by Allmendinger puts all that to rest. AJ withstood considerable pressure from his former teammate Justin Wilson, and had to know that Sebastien Bourdais was lurking in the shadows hoping to get a chance to draw close and try for his fifth straight Champ Car win to open the ’06 season. Allmendinger was more than equal to every challenge and certainly earned plenty of respect for his win.

As surprising as AJ’s divorce from RuSPORT was to those of us on the outside, this could turn out to be the kind of “trade” in sports that, as the cliché says, truly helps both teams. Both the driver and his former car owner Carl Russo now acknowledge that their partnership had gone sour and that many times the only real answer is for the parties involved to part ways and, as they say, “seek other opportunities”.

More importantly Allmendinger’s victory put Champ Car in the forefront of US racing last week in a way not seen in months. AJ bagged the first victory for an American driver in more than two years in a fashion that suggests it won’t be his last. And that, too, is great news for Champ Car.

This week, Allmendinger comes to Cleveland expecting further success. He ran second last year. More importantly his Forsythe team clearly knows what their cars need here, as Paul Tracy was the dominant winner at Burke Lakefront Airport 12 months ago. All of this should add up to an effort that can present a major challenge to the dominant Newman/Haas squad…and will make for a very entertaining afternoon on CBS Sports this Sunday. Hope you can join us, starting at 2:30 Eastern. I suspect it will be a terrific battle.

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