Saturday, April 19, 2008

Champ Car on my mind

In regards to this weekend’s Long Beach Grand Prix being the Champ Car World Series farewell event, I was recently asked if (when) ‘lil Napoleon’s takeover, Err, merger of Open Wheel Racing occurred, would I still watch Indy Cars?

Having been a fan of CART/Champ Car for a very long time, I replied that; YES, I’d still watch the series, but I just wasn’t a fan of Ovals… Which inevitably leads to that timeless debate of which came first; The Chicken or the Egg? The Road Runner or the Coyote, Oval tracks or Road Courses, but I digress, since I’ll be watching’ the “Live” broadcast of some ‘lil ‘Ol Street race.

Yet this never ending question between Ovals vs. Road Courses led me to ponder the following? Wasn’t CART full of Oval races? As I recall watching some real doozies on the high banks of Michigan as well as Fontana and ironically, my haziest, early memories of motor racing in general are the yearly summer rides in the back seat of my Grandfather’s white Buick Riviera to the summer cottage on the peninsula, where while the others played on the beach I was busy watching those glorious taped delayed World Wide Sports episodes of the Indianapolis 500 hosted by Jim McKay and Chris Schenkel during the early 1970’s.

It would be nearly another two decades before I’d be re-united with the wail of Open Wheel Racing cars, upon a fellow co-worker informing me about the yearly Championship Auto Racing Teams event at Portland, Oregon, which I first visited in 1987.

Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to watch the majority of the Open Wheel “greats,” with names like; Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Mears, Sullivan, Fittipaldi, Zanardi, Montoya, Mansell and Villeneuve to name just a few.

And for several years I was even more fortunate to have two race events per season to attend with the addition of the temporary street circuit venue in Vancouver, BC, where unfortunately I witnessed Willy T Ribbs darkest racing moment.

Yet, to be fair, I did attend the 1994 Phoenix Oval race, where Jacques Villeneuve tried to impale himself on the Goodyear pedestrian overpass, a la the Flying Franchitti, but the constant circling of the one mile bullring did little to sway me towards the allure of Oval track racing, as Formula 1 and the Pacific Northwest road racing scene had already firmly affixed it’s grip over me.

But alas, part of what made me so fond of CART and subsequently Champ Car was the variety of circuits they competed on each season; Permanent Road Courses, Temporary Street Circuits and a variety of Ovals, i.e.; Super Speedways and Bull Rings, like the long discarded Nazareth and Phoenix venues. Yet, unlike F1, there were always a multitude of potential victors, instead of just the usual Red cars vs. Silver (Ferrari vs. McLaren) drubbings… Although I did quite enjoy Michael Schumacher kicking der arsen-holes for several seasons!

And I still can remember the bitter distain towards Tony George and his rival Oval only Indy Racing League as one fans T-Shirt in Vancouver, BC read; this is your brain (CART venues) and this is your brain on DRUGS! (IRL Oval track venues) split side by side on the back of the T-Shirt; CART on the Left side and IRL on the Right!

And what truly must be the darkest years of this PATHETIC Split in Open Wheel Racing can be summed up by the following recollection.

Walking to my nearby grocery store in 1998 just hours after the completion of that years Indianapolis 500, while in the check-out line the cashier noted my sundrious racing apparel and asked me wasn’t there a race today? Yeah, the Indy 500 I replied. So, who won? Eddie Cheever, Eddie WHO?

And I swore that I would NEVER set foot in Indianapolis, specifically Tony’s sandbox at Sixteenth and Georgetown, better known as the Brickyard. Thus, while holding fast to this silly mantra, I recalled crowing about how the first seven drivers across the yard of bricks in 2000 were all CART alumnus…

Yet as the years went by, with no end in sight to the pathetic War of Northern Aggression, my stranglehold against Tony faded, as I finally relented and visited the Speedway for the very first time in 2001, albeit for the second running of the United States Grand Prix, NOT the Indy 500, which I still held in low esteem, as I believe I even proudly wore my CART T-Shirt on the property. But, hey Mary Ellen, DON’T tell anybody that you took my picture while I sat in the “Earle” chassis in the Hall of Fame museum that year…

Then I made a second return to Indy for the 2006 USGP, where my “Hero,” Herr Schumacher became the very first driver to ever win at the Speedway five times… Before last summer’s FANTASTIC experience of sitting behind Davey Hamilton in the Sinden 2X Seater, which even if only at 75% throttle, gave me an entirely new respect for Ovals…

And while I still continue to hold 1995 as the last TRUE season of Open Wheel Racing in the US, I hope to attend my very first Indy 500 next year on the centennial of the venerable Speedway’s opening...

Yet, while pondering the future Roadification of the Indy Car World Series that some of you fret about, I decided to look up some past CART season calendars, choosing 1998; since it was 10 years ago, (Circa A.T.S.) While obviously I’d also pick 1995 since I regard this as the last truly great Open Wheel Racing season, as previously mentioned. (Circa B.T.S.)

(A.T.S. = After The Split; B.T.S. = Before The Split. HMM? Has a nice Kingdom-Come ring to it, eh?)

While I do indeed hope for the coming glory and renaissance of Open Wheel Racing, rest assured that Tony ‘N Co. will truly be hard pressed to bring Open Wheel Racing back to the promised land. But (OUCH!)) let’s give him a chance, to potentially right the Good Ship OWR.

Although I will greatly miss my yearly trek to Portland this summer as it’ll be the first time since 2005 that I’ve not partaken in the Open Wheel race, albeit foregoing the worst two years of Champ Car (2003-04) at the Portland venue, thus I’ve already experienced the rebuilding phenomena once and hopefully the 2009 Calendar will have some semblance of the past’s greatest variety of racing venues, including Portland, as Y’all know; it too will be celebrating its centennial in motor racing…

1995 CART SeasonMiami; Surfers Paradise; Phoenix; Long Beach; Nazareth; Indianapolis; Milwaukee; Detroit; Portland; Elkhart Lake; Toronto; Cleveland; Michigan; Mid Ohio; Loudon; Vancouver, BC; Laguna Seca.

1998 CART SeasonHomestead; Motegi; Long Beach; Nazareth; Rio de Janero; Gateway; Milwaukee; Detroit; Portland; Cleveland; Toronto; Michigan; Mid Ohio; Elkhart Lake; Vancouver, BC; Laguna Seca; Houston; Surfers Paradise; Fontana.