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
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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