Champ Car wheels fall off

Blame bad luck and a wet track for the opening-lap pileup that cut the field of competitors at the Toronto Grand Prix from a tenuous 17 cars to a bush-league 12 in the first minute of the proceedings. And chalk up the scene outside the gates yesterday – where the scalpers were surrendering to an apparent glut of supply with the words "Half price!" – as an anecdotal observation.

But if you needed yet more evidence that Hogtown's annual festival of revs was in anything but unrecoverable decline, you might have noted that race organizers gave out no less than 5,000 gratis three-day passes at the Argos' season opener a couple of weeks back. So while the shills were parroting an impossible-to-verify statistic that the race brought $50 million in "economic activity" to the GTA this past week, and while the grandstands looked full enough considering the weather, the 22nd annual race by the lake raised at least a couple of intriguing questions. Who, for one thing, actually paid to get in? (The powers that be refused to release paid attendance figures, which is never a good sign.) And more to the problem, now that the Champ Car World Series has fallen into a holding pattern of underwhelming mediocrity in both technology and talent, who actually cared?

The fastest of the eight cars that actually kept running until the finish of yesterday's not-so-big race, it turned out, belonged to an Australian named Will Power. And you weren't alone if you've been requiring plenty of same to keep yourself interested in a once-beloved brand of racing that hasn't exactly been writing itself a compelling storyline these days. A year ago, the Grand Prix descended on the lakeshore amid the promising buzz of reunification in North America's fractured open-wheel racing sphere. It seemed at least possible that the long-estranged cousins, Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, might be walking on common ground for the first time since the 1996 split opened the door for NASCAR to race off into the sunset as this continent's speed fix of choice.

But that optimism has since been silenced. And so Champ Car limps on, lamer than it ever was. There are promoters who'll tell you that the quality of the product doesn't much matter – that it's the food and the beer and the hired girls in too-tight tank tops who bring in the throngs. But Champ Car, in dealing with issues of its very survival, has gone far too long without the influx of young and exciting talent that every sport requires to keep the viewers glued.

So while Formula One, thanks to the emergence of Lewis Hamilton, is as popular as it's ever been, Champ Car – which was never an F1 rival but at its best a home-soil alternative – keeps trotting out a lot of the same old suspects. Montreal's Alex Tagliani, who finished eighth yesterday, is 34 years old. Toronto's Paul Tracy, who crashed out on yesterday's first lap, is 39. And the best driver in the loop, France's Sebastien Bourdais, seems destined for an F1 exit.

It's not an intriguing picture. And if you're among those who don't turn up a nose at the once-a-year noise by the lake, you can only hope that it's cyclical; that Champ Car is making as much progress as a business as it says it is; that better days are ahead. It's hard to imagine summer in the city without the legal laying of rubber at the Ex. But it's not hard to fathom a day when scant public interest in an increasingly uninteresting form of motor sport brings this city a silent July.

[Editor's Note: Clearly this journalist is being fed negative information by those who want to see Champ Car fail. Why else would a Toronto newspaper publish such a negative article to cut the city's own throat? Given the torrential downpours on Sunday morning, the fact that the grandstands were largely full, and remained that way throughout the race despite the rain during the event, says a lot about the race's popularity. Contrast that with the IRL race at Watkins Glen that was, for the most part, a ghost town.]

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