Champ Car on verge of significant announcements

View from the topside
by Rick Benjamin

February 28, 2007

The thunder is about to return to the Monterey Bay. Champ Car teams are getting their transporters ready for the return to one of the series’ most beautiful, most competitive, and most storied venues, for a pivotal test at least if not for an actual race. We’ll be pulling into the paddock area at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca come the middle of next week for our first look at nearly a full field of the new Panoz Champ Cars, plus a packed cadre of Champ Car Atlantics.

Word is we’ll hear and see at least eight announcements regarding the growth and future of Champ Car, announcements dealing with new sponsor partnerships, marketing agreements, television, and new driver and team combinations. We may also get confirmation of a couple of schedule shifts for the new season, changes that should make the year’s travel schedule more efficient and cost effective for all the teams in the series.

While at the moment 8 drivers are set with full-season rides, I’d anticipate seeing another 8 or more cars on hand with as many as six new driver deals set for announcement next week. Indications are that Dale Coyne Racing will bring both Katherine Legge and Bruno Junqueira to the party once again, and I’m of the view that means both will end up driving for DCR this Champ Car campaign. That gives Coyne a very strong lineup, with two drivers who are fast and proven winners, one in Atlantics, the other in Champ Cars. I’m excited to see what that pair can accomplish since all of Champ Car’s teams are starting from square one with the new Panoz/Cosworth combination. I think we’ll also learn where drivers like Nelson Philippe, Mario Dominguez, Robert Doornbos, and Oriol Servia will work their magic this season.

What’s even more positive is the indication that Champ Car will see another two to four cars on the grid when we get to Las Vegas for the season opener Easter Sunday. With the arrival of Pacific Coast Motorsports there’d been expectations of a grid of 20 or more cars in 2007. While that might be optimistic for the near future, I think the depth of competition will be very strong, and the racing will be fantastic.

There are also indications that one of the series’ biggest assets is in line for a major boost, with that announcement also slated for next week.

The Champ Car Atlantics portion of the paddock will also be full. Indications are that more than two dozen of the 300+ horsepower machines will take advantage of the final official days of testing before Las Vegas. Testing has been a revelation for many of the teams, as the Atlantic’s youth movement is in full swing. Five drivers who are 18 or younger should be on the grid this year, led by 15 year old John Edwards, who handles himself like a veteran. Returning standouts like Ryan Lewis, JR Hildebrand, and Jonathan Bomarito will be contenders all season, but there are plenty of indications that the Sierra Sierra squad may well have the strongest hand. They’ve expanded to two cars, bringing back Rafael Matos and adding Portland ’06 winner James Hinchcliffe alongside. They know how to win and could well be the team to beat in the new year.

I was on hand a few years back when Mazda announced they were becoming the naming-rights holder at Laguna Seca, back when I was the broadcaster for the American LeMans Series. Now, Mazda is the engine-brand partner of the Champ Car Atlantics, and there are indications the manufacturer may well be on the verge of taking on a larger role with Champ Car.

And I think the return to Laguna is significant on another level entirely. The hilltop race track is an iconic American facility. The history there, for Champ Car and for racing, is hard to match anywhere else. The natural beauty of the Monterey Bay area is amazing.

Bringing Champ Car back to Laguna represents a real homecoming for the series in my view. While the track probably doesn’t fit well any more with Champ Car’s business plan of staging three-day festivals of speed in urban markets, it’s terrific that the series will reestablish a beachhead just up the street from Carmel.

We’re all ready to go racing in this landmark season for Champ Car. Next week’s Spring Training event signals that the time to fire ‘em up is at hand. We’ll let you know how things shake out when we get to Monterey.

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