Champ Car must deal with visibility issue

So, you've heard of Sebastien Bourdais, the polite Frenchman who wears those red glasses and is the only driver to win the San Jose Grand Prix.

You also probably know Paul Tracy, the risk-taking Canadian who treats races like his own personal bumper-car ride. When last spotted one year ago on Almaden Boulevard, he was brawling with another driver after causing a wreck.

But name some more Champ Car competitors? Well, there's this guy from some other country. Then there's that woman driver. Or how about, uh . . .

Truth is, most drivers who will be roaring through the streets of downtown San Jose this weekend aren't exactly household names – maybe even in their own houses. Will Power, Robert Doornbos and Neel Jani may be top-flight racers, but they also are unlikely to make spectators' heartbeats race with anticipation.

The No. 1 star in Champ Car isn't even a driver but rather a team co-owner: actor Paul Newman. One of his signature lines from the film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," when the two outlaws were being chased by a posse, might best sum up the lack of marquee names on the open-wheel series.

"Who are those guys?"

Eight rookies have raced this year, a big number considering only 17 cars line up on the starting grid. That driver turnover hasn't made it any easier for Champ Car, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2004, to gain traction in the American sports landscape.

"It's definitely difficult to sell," said driver Alex Tagliani, the guy who fought with Tracy last year. "Champ Car is in transition and is doing some things well. But clearly we need to do something with the driver lineup. We need more consistency."

Champ Car lost a featured attraction when San Jose's A.J. Allmendinger, who broke out with five victories in 2006, jumped to NASCAR. Allmendinger bolted because he saw no signs that open-wheel racing, now split into two rival series, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, would ever reunify.

"It came down to the uncertainty in open-wheel racing, and I hate saying that because I loved my time in Champ Car," he said. "I loved racing through city streets. But it doesn't change the fact that the two series are struggling and it's not working the way it is."

Other driver departures also have given the impression of instability in Champ Car.

Sponsorship problems left Nelson Philippe, who finished fourth last season in the points standings, without a ride this year. Veteran Oriel Servia began the year without a regular seat; when he got one, it was at the expense of promising driver Mario Dominguez. (An injury to rookie Tristan Gommendy means Dominguez will be a substitute driver this weekend.)

"There's probably some drivers who should be out here who just didn't have the budgets," said Jimmy Vasser, the Morgan Hill native and retired driver who co-owns the PKV Racing team. "But I think when people get a chance to watch some of these drivers, they'll see that they're not really rookies. They deserve to be here."

For instance, Doornbos.

The Dutchman has made a memorable debut, already winning one race. He was leading the season points standings until Bourdais took Sunday's race in Edmonton and dropped Doornbos into second place.

But because he came from Formula One, the European-based series considered the pinnacle of motor sports, Doornbos also understands that most Americans have no clue who he is.

"It's true, and people have difficulty pronouncing my last name," he said. (If you want to impress your friends, it's DORN-bose.)

"I know fans have to look at our biographies to find out what we have done. We have drivers who aren't famous here. When I tell people that I raced F1, they look at me and say, `OK, whatever.' I just hope they enjoy the racing. That's the most important thing – putting on a good show."

Before Sunday's Edmonton race, Champ Car CEO Steve Johnson said attendance was up 16 percent and television ratings had increased 11 percent this year. But he acknowledged the problem posed by the lack of name recognition among the drivers.

NASCAR has ridden the popularity of drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. The IRL has Danica Patrick. Champ Car has no one who garners that sort of exposure. Well, except when Tracy is punching someone.

"One of the challenges we have is building stars," Johnson said. "It doesn't happen overnight. It's made more difficult when you have drivers changing teams or in the series one year and out the next. But Robert Doornbos easily could be a star in the U.S."

Champ Car executives also believe they have a rising star in Graham Rahal, the 18-year-old son of Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. He's also one of only two American drivers, along with rookie Alex Figge, in Champ Car.

"We don't have many Americans," said Bourdais, Rahal's teammate. "That's why it's important we have Graham to market the series."

Bourdais is among those who believe this is the best crop of driving talent Champ Car has had in years. He goes out of his way to praise fellow Frenchman Simon Pagenaud and Jani, a Swiss driver who got a deal with PKV because he had financial backing from energy drink-maker Red Bull.

But most of the new drivers remain anonymous in this country. Doornbos hopes he can help change that.

"You never get a second chance to leave a first impression," he said. "Maybe people will soon recognize me at every track." San Jose Mercury News

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