Commentary

Demise of San Jose GP just latest setback for Champ Car

The termination of the Champ Car World Series San Jose Grand Prix is just the latest blow to the struggling open-wheel series, writes John Oreovicz.

Updated: September 13, 2007, 9:36 AM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

The Champ Car World Series has certainly had its share of hits over the years. Unfortunately, most of them fall into the "You Sank My Battleship!" category.

Three has definitely emerged as the over/under number when it comes to predicting long-term success for a Champ Car race. Since the turn of the century, six CART or Champ Car-sanctioned events were run three times or fewer.

Some races that survived the CART bankruptcy lasted five or six years, like Denver, Montreal and Monterrey, Mexico. But they're the exception to the rule and they are all off the Champ Car schedule now. In all, a whopping 13 events have come and gone since Y2K, including traditional stalwarts like Milwaukee.

Certainly street races are hard to put on, but based on my experience at Long Beach -- which is now back to the level of year 2000 attendance numbers -- you can make them into great events.

Champ Car's Kevin Kalkhoven

And that number doesn't even include non-starters like Korea, China and Phoenix. Or the Hawaiian Super Prix, for that matter.

The latest blow to the struggling open-wheel formula is the termination of the San Jose Grand Prix after a bumpy three-year run. Series and city officials announced Tuesday that the controversial downtown street race has been run for the last time, adding that Champ Car would reinstate its event at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca road course about an hour to the south.

"We're pleased that Champ Car will be able to maintain a strong event in northern California," said series president and CEO Steve Johnson. "We enjoyed three great years in San Jose and certainly anticipate that the fans there will head south to enjoy Champ Car racing at the beautiful Monterey Peninsula's Mazda Raceway circuit."

Laguna Seca hosted Champ Car races from 1983 to 2003, and at its peak in the mid-'90s, the event attracted race-day crowds of 65,000. But as so many other tracks can attest, the open-wheel split of 1996 caused attendance to drop and corporate sponsorship to evaporate.

The famous road course was perceived as too narrow for modern open-wheelers and some observers complained about no passing and follow-the-leader races. Laguna Seca still provided many memorable moments over the years, topped by Alex Zanardi's unorthodox last-lap pass of Bryan Herta at the Corkscrew turn for the victory in 1996.

"Needless to say, we are thrilled to announce during our 50th anniversary season that Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca will once again host a Champ Car World Series event," said track CEO/general manager Gill Campbell.

No date has been set for the Laguna Seca race, and Champ Car does not expect to release its 2008 schedule until late October.

From the moment he entered Champ Car racing as the co-owner of PK Racing, Kevin Kalkhoven had alternate ideas for the northern California market.

"I'd like to work toward having a Silicon Valley Grand Prix where I could bring some of my background and contacts together," Kalkhoven remarked in January 2003. "There are a couple of airfields there -- Moffett and a couple of others -- and it would be neat to bring a race right to the heart of American technology."

By the time he emerged as the driving force behind the entire Champ Car series after the CART bankruptcy a year later, Kalkhoven took the idea a step further and took the race to the streets of San Jose. It was a difficult struggle that, after three years, seems to have not been worthwhile.

The first running of the San Jose event was a disaster. The track was ill-conceived and was not ready on time. Cars were launched a foot in the air over railroad tracks and there was a dangerous lack of runoff area.

The event became a hot potato in local politics as lawmakers debated subsidizing the race to the tune of $4 million. Matters weren't helped when it was learned that attendance figures provided by the San Jose GP had been fudged by a factor of two.

The bottom line is that closing city streets and creating a temporary racetrack is infinitely more expensive than running a race on an existing, purpose-built racetrack. That was the lesson learned in San Jose, and that's why the Champ Car season finale scheduled for early December in Phoenix never got off the ground.

San Jose organizers told Champ Car they believed development around the 1.5-mile street course would impact the event.

"The reality of racing on a temporary street circuit that change happens continuously and this is especially true in a dynamic and growing city center like downtown San Jose," said SJGP president Dale Jantzen.

We've learned that Europe really likes us, so we'll push on there, and we've learned that there are other parts of the world where, as Formula 1 departs, they have a great interest.

Kevin Kalkhoven

Phoenix shares the same promoters as Las Vegas, and the losses incurred staging the inaugural Vegas GP were substantial enough that they didn't want to gamble on Phoenix. Now there are disturbing reports out of Las Vegas claiming that race is also in jeopardy, despite protestations to the contrary by Champ Car management.

Portland, a 20-year market, is also in danger of being dropped by Champ Car due to a lack of fan and sponsor support.

Perhaps all too aware of Champ Car's dismal record with new urban events in recent years, Kalkhoven bristled in a recent interview at the notion that Champ Car is a street racing series. "If you have looked at our schedule in the past, we have never had a majority of street races," he said. "It's not factually true.

"We've always had a balance between different types of road racing," he added. "Certainly street races are hard to put on, but based on my experience at Long Beach -- which is now back to the level of year 2000 attendance numbers -- you can make them into great events."

Without actually saying it, Kalkhoven hinted that Champ Car's business plan is to stage more races overseas and reinvent itself as a premium international brand before attempting to relaunch itself in America. For the series' recent races in Belgium and the Netherlands, Champ Car was promoted as "the American Formula 1."

"We've learned that Europe really likes us, so we'll push on there, and we've learned that there are other parts of the world where, as Formula 1 departs, they have a great interest," Kalkhoven said. "They like the American approach to it. They like the open paddock, they like the accessibility of the drivers, and they like the fact that it's American. Because of political issues we tend to forget that when it comes down to it, people like American drinks, they like American television and movies and they like America."

With dominant multiple-champion Sebastien Bourdais departing for F1 and interest waning on every level at home, ceding the USA to the IRL and going international might be Champ Car's best hope for survival. But despite the recent setbacks, Kalkhoven remains bullish that Champ Car will remain a viable form of racing in 2008 and beyond.

"We've come a long way and we've made mistakes," he said. "For too long I think we've had the ability to overestimate some of the things we're trying to do. They're hard. But we have come a long way, and I think '08 will prove to be another step forward.

"Our commitment is still there to do it. We have to back up our commitment with solid facts this time. The critical things are to get a schedule that works and solid teams."

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