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Can Stoddart take Champ Car to next level?
HOUSTON — Paul Stoddart (pictured left in photo to right) walks down the stairs of his transporter at the Grand Prix of Houston at Reliant Park, blending instantly into his surroundings — meaning he’s right at home with grease and car parts. He looks as if he just finished a transmission rebuild. Or maybe a full engine swap.

His beard, a Stoddart trademark, may have been created in the make-up department of “Lost.” He wears a team uniform, but it certainly wasn’t tailored to his body. His stomach hangs over his belt. His eyes are bloodshot, and he seems tired. In a sea of mechanics, Stoddart fits in — yet he’s far from a mechanic.

He walks about as unaccosted as a pro dart player at a football game. Now team owner of a Champ Car team running here at Houston and for the rest of the season, he has no aura about him. Even hardened race fans don’t give him a second look.

When asked about him, Carl Haas, car owner of front-row starter of the Grand Prix today and last year’s Grand Prix of Houston, blinked and said, “Who?”

Yet his team, Minardi, has a storied past and is one of the most significant arrivals since Nigel Mansell came to Champ Cars in 1993. And he made so much noise in Formula One two years ago, that many team owners or managers wished aloud that he were gone. As one of the most flamboyant team owners in the F1 paddock, he spoke his mind and pointed out the obvious and absurd of established racing tradition. Perhaps short on diplomacy, he’s certainly long on honesty. And his comments definitely act to create discussion. And now he’s in Champ Car.

Said his driver Robert Doornbos, who drove for Stoddart in Formula One and now drives for him in Champ Car, “I know in F1 he had many stunts,” smiled the Dutchman. “He has to grow into his role here and my job is to make him a happy team boss and to give him wins.”

Winning would be a happy change for Stoddart. Before selling Minardi International in Formula One to Red Bull, his team had no wins. Far from it.

Minardi’s weekend was successful when it finished anywhere but last. Yet most fans saw Minardi as a team of regular Joes, an any man’s team, an Everyman’s team. And when things went badly, it was indicative of a larger conspiracy to get rid of low-budget teams. A sentiment Stoddart cultivated and certainly played to. Perhaps pushed out, many now see him as one man who can take Champ Car to the next level.

“I was out of F1 and missing it badly. This accomplishes my goals. These are a great bunch of people, socially approachable and friendly outside of racing,” said Stoddart in between puffs on his cigarette. “Can I make a difference (in Champ Car)?” he thinks about it. “We look at it slightly differently. This is our first year. Yeah, I was vocal for what I believe in. That’s an Australian state of mind I guess. This year, too, I need to learn how things work. If I see something I disagree with, sure, I’ll speak up.”

So far, what he sees are positive things. So far, what he sees makes him comfortable. And quiet. But when he has things figured out, this little unremarkable and unpolished man will certainly make himself known. At least to everybody in Champ Car.

Doornbos starts his No. 14 Muermans Minardi 13th for today’s race; Stoddart’s other driver, Dan Clarke, the second Minardi driver, starts his No. 4 Minardi in 12th spot. The Galveston County Daily News

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