Editorial

View from the Topside
Who will have rides in Champ Car in '07?

   by Rick Benjamin
November 29, 2006

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The 2006 Champ Car season is over and the postseason awards have been handed out in Indianapolis. Now, the focus for Champ Car and its teams is on 2007, and preparing for what should be a landmark season.

It was a treat to be on hand in Indianapolis to celebrate a record-setting campaign for now three-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais and his McDonald’s team. It was also a night to remember for young drivers like Nelson Philippe, who won his second straight Most Improved award, and Will Power, the Roshfrans Rookie of the Year. Power also collected the Bridgestone award marking his accomplishment of running the fastest cumulative lap over the entire season.

Power survived the year’s second-hardest wreck, the often –seen slide through the grass at Edmonton that culminated in a huge impact with the Jersey barriers protecting one of our TV cameras, not to mention one of our key camera people. It’s a testimony to the strong leadership of Derrick Walker that Power was able to come back from a wreck that would have slowed many drivers and actually gain speed as the second half of the season unfolded.

In my view, Power and Philippe are among the Champ Car drivers to watch come 2007. Philippe has already had his breakthrough win, and I won’t be surprised at all if Power joins him atop a Champ Car podium early in the new year. The combination of at least four new tracks in ’07 with the brand new Panoz race car will make for a reshuffling of the Champ Car deck like never before.

Dan Clarke and Katherine Legge also fit that mold. We’ve noted Clarke’s rapid improvement in the second half of the season just past. While I think he’s still got a ways to go before he’s ready to win, Clarke’s maybe the most entertaining guy out there, a somewhat more raw version of Paul Tracy, with an even more quirky personality. Legge, though still struggling to find a way to overcome inevitable rookie mistakes, showed good speed at times this year and survived the wildest ride of the season, her car-breaking flyer at Road America. Her grit and strength in the face of that huge hit was in inspiration, and I’m among those who can’t wait to see Katherine gain a bit more consistency. Those qualities, I believe, will give her a great shot at becoming the first woman to win a major event outright (for our purposes, I’m not putting drag racing in the same category).

I’m hoping that Andrew Ranger and the underrated Charles Zwolsman can find seats for 2007 and beyond as well. Ranger sounded optimistic at Mexico City about the prospects of keeping his Canadian-based WalMart backing, whether that’s with Mi-Jack Conquest or elsewhere. Ranger is still a teenager, still very talented, and owns the looks and personality of a guy who can be a major star. Zwolsman got quietly better during the second half of the season as well and can become a factor in the right situation.

But the bulk of the attention in the new season will rightly go to Newman/Haas. All indications are Champ Car’s champions will bring the most-heralded new American driver into the series in years in young Graham Rahal. While it’d be a stretch to think he’ll be ready to win next year, podiums surely won’t be out of the question. Expect young Rahal to be fast early and to learn his craft well at Newman/Haas, quickly becoming a driver to account for at any venue.

And Sebastien Bourdais has earned all the accolades and attention he’s received, while remaining hungry for more. He’s the leader of the sport’s top team, a team that wants to make more history next year by winning their fourth straight title. And they’d love nothing more than to become the first champions of Champ Car’s new era wheeling the Panoz chassis. Bourdais, with his well-documented abilities to qualify up front and adapt quickly to new tracks, will go into the ’07 season as the favorite. And rightly so. Some are saying he’s the best driver Newman/Haas has ever had. I’m not going to argue.

Enjoy the holidays. We’ll be watching Champ Car testing closely these next several weeks. Can’t wait until we go racing again, in early April.

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