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Champ Car Finds Urban Oases

Times Staff Writer

No one is hotter than NASCAR’s Tony Stewart, although Sebastien Bourdais’ three consecutive victories in the Champ Car World Series aren’t bad. Also on a hot streak is the series itself.

With apparently no chance of open-wheel reunification, shrewd moves, spearheaded largely by Kevin Kalkhoven, are responsible for the turnaround of a series that many thought would be dead by now, a victim of Indy Racing League owner Tony George’s deep pockets.

“It was doom and gloom for a few years, but the energy has done a complete 180 in the paddock,” said driver Jimmy Vasser, whose job was saved in January 2004 when Kalkhoven, Gerald Forsythe and Paul Gentilozzi purchased Championship Auto Racing Teams’ assets out of bankruptcy. “There are drivers who are really wanting to get into Champ Car. It’s the new hot place to be.”

With its formula of racing in urban environments, Champ Car’s last four races averaged 165,000 fans. The series is likely to average 150,000 for the first time.

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“They have a string of events now that could only be characterized as very successful,” said Jim Michaelian, president of the Long Beach Grand Prix Assn., which announced this month that Toyota -- which hasn’t raced in Champ Car since 2002 and is getting out of open-wheel racing in America after 2006 -- would be the title sponsor for the next five years.

The series is also on a hot streak in the boardroom.

Champ Car ensured long-term stability with Kalkhoven’s purchase of Cosworth, the engine maker, and Pi Research, which supplies race software and electronics.

Able to control engine costs, the potential exists for future manufacturers to enter the series without spending a fortune on development.

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Vasser, aware that 15 of 22 cars in the IRL have owners who were previously in Champ Car, says change is afoot.

“There are some very significant owners looking at coming back in,” he said. “I would bet everything I own that there will be a few more from that side come over, and we’ll have 22 to 24 cars. It’s only a matter of time.”

Other notable moves: Kalkhoven’s group bought the Long Beach Grand Prix, and three weeks ago announced a $2-million award for next year’s Formula Atlantic champion to be used toward a Champ Car ride. Thirty new Atlantics have since been ordered for the support series.

This week Champ Car announced a 15-race schedule for 2006, the earliest schedule since 1986. Last year’s wasn’t released until November. A television package is promised shortly. Teams are finally getting the time to properly approach potential sponsors. Though Kalkhoven hopes to re-create a family-oriented fan base, an international grid girl competition to find the “Face of Champ Car” -- a beauty pageant at several events -- seems less appropriate than following NASCAR’s lead: putting that energy toward promoting drivers and racing for the long-term good of the series.

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Kalkhoven’s five-year business model called for 16 to 18 races and 20 to 24 cars in 2007, the first year for the next-generation chassis. He said “the likelihood is high” that Champ Car will achieve those top-end estimates.

“We’ve only had the series for 18 months,” Kalkhoven said. “Imagine where we’ll be in another 18 months.”

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Southland Scene

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Second-place Damion Gardner of Concord, Calif., trails Rip Williams of Yorba Linda by 34 points, having cut the deficit from 104 points a month ago, and will try to draw closer Saturday as the USAC/CRA Sprint Cars compete in the Jeff Bagley Classic at Perris Auto Speedway.

Late models and West Coast pro trucks are among the five series competing Saturday at Irwindale.... Costa Mesa Speedway rider Mike Faria will try to win his sixth consecutive scratch main event Saturday at Orange County Fairgrounds.

Kent Santos of Buena Park, Lance Haselrig of West Los Angeles, and Steve Tustison and rider Jeff Hansen of San Juan Capistrano were class winners at the APBA Long Beach Sprint Nationals in Marine Stadium on Sunday. Mike Follmer of Fountain Valley won the personal watercraft championship with a victory in offshore endurance.

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Last Laps

NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series top-fuel driver Tony Schumacher set a national speed mark last week at Brainerd, Minn., 337.58 mph. Before this season, the record was 331.41.

Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman, under the banner Hall of Fame Racing, will field a Nextel Cup car next season backed by Texas Instruments.

They’ll be getting help from an old rival. Washington Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs, who won titles with Stewart and Bobby Labonte, will provide cars, engines and personnel.

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Former Champ Car champion Paul Tracy won’t debut this weekend in the Nextel Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, despite a successful test for owner Richard Childress.

It remains likely, however, that Tracy will make his stock car debut before season’s end.

Kraig Kinser, son of 19-time World of Outlaws champion Steve Kinser, won the prestigious rain-delayed Knoxville Nationals for the first time on Sunday. Tonight, he makes his debut in the ARCA Re/Max series at Michigan International.

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Shav Glick is on vacation.


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