Champ Car picks up steam heading into Houston


The Champ Car World Series came out of its first two races of the
2007 season looking pretty good. The focus shifts south this weekend for the Grand Prix of Houston (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN).

After a promising inaugural event in Las Vegas, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was a particularly strong event for Champ Car, with noticeably larger crowds than in recent years and a generally competitive race that featured a number of compelling story lines.

The Long Beach Press Telegram estimated race-day attendance at 90,000 and it seemed like there were almost as many people at the seaside circuit on Friday as there were on Sunday. Race organizers credited a coupon giveaway in the Press Telegram and an effective Verizon Wireless text message activation program.

The savvy California sports car crowd also appreciated the addition of a drifting competition and an American Le Mans Series race and showed it by keeping the stands packed until 6 p.m. on Saturday.

"When we sit down and count the numbers, I think this will be the most successful weekend since 2002," said Long Beach Grand Prix Association CEO Jim Michaelian. "We had a full house. I thought all in all it was a fabulously successful weekend."

The challenge for Champ Car now is to spread some of that Long Beach magic to less established venues on the calendar -- starting this weekend with the second running of the Grand Prix of Houston. Champ Car returned to Houston last year after a five-year absence, and though the temporary racetrack was ridiculously bumpy, competitors generally liked the new venue at Reliant Park more than the bland downtown layout used from 1998 to 2001.

Course architect Martyn Thake promises significant improvements for 2007, including a re-profiled corner sequence to start the lap. Those corners will eliminate the makeshift 35-mph chicane that was added last year to address a dangerous lack of runoff area at the end of the pit straight.

Fans will notice easier access to the track and most of the grandstands have been moved to the inside of the circuit to add convenience.

The changes to the Houston track should only enhance what was a solid inaugural effort. Sebastien Bourdais surprised himself by winning from fifth on the grid, beating Forsythe Championship Racing teammates Paul Tracy and Mario Dominguez.

"In the warm-up, I thought, 'My god, this thing is going to be a parade,' " Bourdais recalled. "I really thought it was going to be impossible to pass. And then it turned into one of the best races in a while.

"But that's racing. You expect the unexpected."

Dominguez grabbed the pole, but spun out of the lead while under pressure from Bourdais. Meanwhile, Tracy was upset after the race, claiming he was illegally blocked by Bourdais.

Dominguez arrives in Houston again under pressure in 2007, because it's the third race in his three-race contract with the Forsythe team. Lead driver Tracy is out for an indeterminate period of time with a back injury, but based on the way he performed in a substitute role at Long Beach, Oriol Servia should have the inside line for a full-time ride with FCR even when Tracy returns.

Gerald Forsythe questioned the choice of Servia to replace Tracy right up until the start of the race, reasoning that "Supersub" Roberto Moreno had logged plenty of miles as the Panoz DP01's chief development driver. But canny pit strategy lifted Servia up into second place and he used his experience to maintain the position to the end.

A third-place finish at Long Beach for Will Power proved that his win in Las Vegas was no fluke, and the continued speed of his rookie teammate Simon Pagenaud demonstrated that Team Australia definitely has a handle on setting up the new Panoz.

"Basically we're just going to continue on with what we're doing,"
said the championship leader. "I think Houston's going to be a little bit more bumpy, but we're going to take a similar car there and I'm confident we'll be strong there as well."

The RuSPORT/Rocketsports merger into R-SPORTS created some sleepless nights for Justin Wilson, who was projected to be a championship contender this year. Like Bourdais, Wilson had a terrible weekend in Las Vegas to open the 2007 season, but the tallest driver in the Champ Car series rebounded with a solid run to fourth place at Long Beach. The result came at the expense of teammate Alex Tagliani, whom Wilson passed on the final lap.

"We made the most of a difficult weekend," said Wilson, who qualified seventh. "Our car was fast and if we had qualified where we should have, I think we could have finished second."

Tagliani notched his second top-five finish of the season but was sad to see a second consecutive trip to the podium slip away in the last couple of laps as he was passed by Wilson and third-place runner Will Power.

"Leaving Long Beach second in the points isn't all that terrible, but we need to do better on street courses," he said. "Our car is not as quick as the guys up front and we need to do a better job saving our rear tires on long runs."

One of the best subplots in the Champ Car series is the race for rookie of the year honors, with nearly half the 17-car field helmed by rookie drivers. Graham Rahal finally got a full Champ Car race under his belt at Long Beach and looked smooth, qualifying fifth before dropping to ninth in the race with fueling problems.

Robert Doornbos leads the rookie standings after two races thanks to his second-place finish at Las Vegas, while Tristan Gommendy has outclassed his better-known teammate Neel Jani at PKV Racing. But the most impressive rookie to date has been Team Australia's Simon Pagenaud -- the 2006 Atlantic series champion who qualified well for both races but hasn't posted a finish yet.

Having rookies running at the front and finishing on the podium is one sign of the way things are changing in the Champ Car World Series. Another is the way smaller teams are challenging the likes of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and Forsythe Championship Racing.

Bruno Junqueira has run comfortably in the top six in both races to start the season in a Dale Coyne Racing entry. That's a strong indication that the new Panoz has indeed gone some way toward leveling the Champ Car playing field.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.