Cristiano da Matta at San Jose
Looking ahead to a visit to the Rockies, and another
joust in the streets for the Champ Car World Series in Denver. The
tenth event of 2006 will be Champ Car’s first since the violent
wreck in Road America testing that has taken Cristiano da Matta out
of the seat, perhaps permanently.
It’ll be a somber gathering of the Champ Car family
this weekend, I’d guess, since Shorty is one of the series’ most
popular drivers, and one of three past champions currently active.
The effect of da Matta’s collision with a wayward deer goes far
beyond the loss of a top-flight driver. The decision by RuSPORT to
withdraw the entry of their yellow #10 car this weekend costs fans
the opportunity to see one of the best in the series compete…but I’m
more concerned about the people involved.
The RuSPORT team is, like many good race teams, a family affair.
Team owner Carl Russo treats his team like family, and their paddock
and hospitality areas are full of couples, friends, and children who
work hard while also loving their time at the race track. When
RuSPORT cut AJ Allmendinger loose earlier this season I suspect it
truly was an effort to help both parties. Obviously AJ got the
bigger boost from the deal. But as da Matta settled in with his new
squad they’d made steady progress and I suspected the #10 was not
far away from finding its way to Victory Lane for the first time.
Justin Wilson will fly the RuSPORT colors in Denver alone Champ Car
I don’t claim to know Carl Russo, his family, and
his team extremely well, but it’s fair to say the injuries to
Cristiano hurt everyone at RuSPORT on a very personal level. Team
President Jeremy Dale survived one of the most violent sports car
wrecks I’ve ever witnessed, not many years ago. He well knows how
tough it is to come back from such a devastating wreck. Cristiano’s
family arrived in Wisconsin shortly after the wreck to help the 32
year old begin his recovery, and I’m sure RuSPORT and everyone in
the Champ Car family will work alongside the da Mattas to do all
they can for the 2002 Series champion.
And we know from history that losing a champion driver to serious
injury can cripple a race team. Despite a quick return to Victory
Lane in NASCAR’s Cup series, and despite Kevin Harvick’s tremendous
talent, there are few who could argue that the death of Dale
Earnhardt in 2001 didn’t put Richard Childress Racing way behind as
a team. The Goodwrench team still hasn’t returned to championship
form. And many observers have indicated that the testing death of
Tony Renna in late 2003 was a major factor in the travails of Chip
Ganassi’s open-wheel team in 2004 and 2005.
So while we await positive news on Cristiano’s recovery, we’ll also
be watching to see how RuSPORT performs this weekend…with hopes that
Justin Wilson’s CDW team will be able to carry the flag well for
their fallen colleague.
Sebastien Bourdais won in Denver in 2005 Champ Car
On track it’ll be hard to argue against the chances
of the Newman/Haas team, particularly Championship leader Sebastien
Bourdais. Seb has won two straight in Denver, starting with his
amazing back-to-front drive to win two seasons back. That was the
first time Bourdais showed us he was just as good rallying from
trouble as he is running up front all day. He’s a master of
street-circuit qualifying and likes the Denver layout. His teammate,
Bruno Junqueira, still needs to find race-long consistency as he
apparently battles to keep his ride for 2007. Bruno is also a
two-time winner at Denver and this would be a perfect time for him
to recapture some of his Rocky Mountain magic.
But my eyes will also be on three other drivers: Dan Clarke, Nelson
Philippe, and Oriol Servia. All three were very impressive at San
Jose. And now that CTE-HVM has found consistent speed, I think we
could be on the verge of seeing both Clarke and Philippe battle for
victory in the late laps, when these races are won and lost.
Watching their progress will be fun. Servia appears to now be
settled in at PKV, working with new Team Manager Mark Johnson. While
he rode an alternate fuel strategy to lead late at San Jose, he had
no real chance to win. Perhaps this week they’ll solve the final
parts of the equation and get PKV’s second victory ever. Now that
would be a fitting tribute to da Matta, who bagged their only win
thus far last year at Portland.
Of course the Tracy/Tagliani middleweight scrap at San Jose will be
much discussed this weekend as well, and watching how those two
treat each other on and off the track will be interesting. Last year
Denver was one of the places where PT admitted overdriving while
running up front, when he ended his day with the 3 car wrecked
against a Jersey barrier. Both of those Canadian stars need good
weekends in Denver, and you can bet both will be closely watched by
Champ Car VP Tony Cotman.
We’ve got all the elements of a very hot weekend on track, plus the
raging battle for the Atlantic title. We’ll have all the coverage
for you on SPEED. Hope you can join us.
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