- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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It's hard to deny these are tough times for American open-wheel racing, no matter what the spin doctors say. It's somewhat logical for multiple Champ Car titlist Sebastien Bourdais to graduate to Formula 1. But the fact that Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. -- the last two Indianapolis 500 (and overall IndyCar Series) champions -- are shifting their focus to NASCAR suggests that all is not well in the world unencumbered by roofs and fenders.
With that in mind (and with a nod to Kevin Kalkhoven), let's try to look at the glass as half-full. The U.S. open-wheel scene still has a lot to offer in terms of personalities, venues and technological interest.
So here are a dozen people, places and things that American open-wheel racing fans can be thankful for heading into 2008. Individually and collectively, they help keep things interesting and entertaining:
• Over the last couple of years, Paul Tracy might have gained a few pounds and lost a tenth or two on the track, but he is still Champ Car's only recognizable star -- not to mention its most popular driver. PT probably doesn't have another championship in him. But recovered from the broken back he suffered in April and properly motivated, he still has a few race wins left in him. More importantly, he has an uncanny ability to rile other drivers, whether with his well-chosen words or his legendary "chrome horn." And that translates into strong fan loyalty. If Champ Car loses Tracy to the IndyCar Series, it would be a defining moment in the 12-year American open-wheel split.
• The excellence of Bridgestone/Firestone means tires are taken for granted in both the Champ Car and IndyCar series -- in the best possible way. Unlike in stock car racing, where tire failures happen on a routine basis almost every weekend, you almost never hear about any kind of tire-related issues with Bridgestone's or Firestone's open-wheel tires. And Bridgestone has spiced up what has become a spec series in Champ Car with the introduction of the red-sidewall high-grip "option" tires. The company is working hard to perfect a risk/reward compromise between speed and wear to make the option tires a more significant strategic element of a Champ Car race. The concept of being able to visually differentiate between tire types was copied in modified form by Formula 1.
• If American open-wheel racing were to magically come together, a strong argument could be made for naming Tony Cotman as chief steward. Cotman has restored confidence in the way Champ Car races are conducted and officiated, and with so many former CART teams now in the IRL, he also garners respect in the IndyCar Series garage area. Having Cotman as the racetrack sheriff of the mythical unified series would allow IRL president Brian Barnhart to assume a higher-level managerial role.
• The inaugural IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway was popular with fans and participants. Even though the race itself was a follow-the-leader affair, the consensus was that Rusty Wallace and his cohorts had gotten the track just right. With a revised wing package, the racing should be much better at the 7/8-mile bullring in 2008. They should be building more grandstands because they likely won't have trouble selling additional tickets.
• If the IRL race at Iowa showed that open-wheel racing is a good fit in the heartland, the Champ Car race at the TT Circuit Assen in the Netherlands demonstrated the international appeal of American open-wheel racing. Thanks to a well-orchestrated promotional effort (and the fact that Dutch motorsport fans are "Nutters," according to local driver Robert Doornbos), Assen drew 61,000 fans to its inaugural Champ Car event, and race day packed a buzz lacking at Champ Car events for the better part of the last decade.
• Drivers in every form of racing should be thankful for the SAFER Barrier, technology for which the Indianapolis Motor Speedway does not receive its fair share of credit. IMS CEO Tony George encouraged and funded efforts to develop soft-wall technology to reduce car damage and driver injury in an oval-track crash. Every major speedway in North America now uses the SAFER Barrier, and most oval crashes are no longer the bone-breaking affairs they were in the past.
• Tony Kanaan is not the most recognizable IndyCar Series driver to the man on the street. But among racing insiders, Kanaan is the genuine article -- a man who happily divides his time between his engineering, fan, media and sponsor responsibilities while giving every one of those groups more than they expect or sometimes deserve. TK will have his hands full leading Andretti Green Racing's diverse four-driver lineup in 2008, but the bulldog Brazilian will undoubtedly be up to the task.
• Conversely, Helio Castroneves has suddenly become an off-track celebrity whose love life is being scrutinized by the tabloids. That can only be good news for the IndyCar Series, because it will take some of the attention and pressure off of Danica Patrick, who functioned as the series' focal point for the last two and a half years. Castroneves' success on "Dancing with the Stars" could result in a popularity bump for the IndyCar Series -- and it might prove once and for all that Tony Stewart didn't invent or trademark climbing a fence in victory.
• If Bridgestone's option tire program was one variable thrown into Champ Car's brand of spec racing, the Cosworth Power-To-Pass function was another. Having an additional 50 horsepower available at the push of a button helped create passing at tight street circuits like San Jose and Surfers Paradise, but limiting the amount of overboost time available forced the drivers to use it sparingly and wisely. Champ Car experimented with 100 horsepower of P2P for the season finale at Mexico City and may do so more often in 2008.
• Honda's normally aspirated IndyCar Series engine doesn't allow for a dedicated "overboost" function. But Honda did offer its competitors 100 percent reliability in the first year that the IndyCar Series mandated 100-percent ethanol fuel. IndyCar officials shouldn't take Honda's consistent excellence for granted, because the company's decision to remain in open-wheel racing may be based on whether the future formula will encourage innovation and bring outside competition from another manufacturer.
• Let us all praise Mario Andretti, who was recently honored with the FIA's prestigious Gold Medal for Motorsport. No individual cares more about the fate of American open-wheel racing, and no one has tried harder in the last couple of years to create some kind of synergy between leaders from Champ Car and the IRL. Mario's efforts haven't resulted in any sort of progress -- yet. But I doubt he has stopped trying.
• Finally, Champ Car fans can be thankful that the series is once again racing at Road America. There's nothing like the sight of a potent open-wheel car being manhandled around America's fastest and most challenging natural terrain road course. And the confirmation that there will again be a co-headlining American Le Mans Series sports car race makes Road America's August twin bill a road racing fan's dream weekend. See you there!
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.