LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The message that emerged from the Champ Car World Series two-day season preview is that the open wheel league formerly known as CART is alive. But we won't know how well it will fare until the 2004 season opens with the 30th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 18.
Only 12 car/driver combinations were confirmed to the media over the course of two days of announcements at the Westin Long Beach. The Herdez Competition Team is expected to nominate its second driver -- possibly American Ryan Hunter-Reay -- within a week, bringing the total to a baker's dozen.
That would have left the series five cars short of the 18-car field promised by Paul Gentilozzi, owner of Rocketsports Racing and one of the three new owners that saved the series from going out of business. But Adrian Fernandez announced on Thursday that he is pulling out of Champ Cars in favor of competing in the Indy Racing League, shrinking the number of confirmed Champ Car entries for 2004.
Gentilozzi is well aware that CART often tested the patience of its fans, sponsors, manufacturers and teams since the split that tarnished open-wheel racing in 1996. While recognizing that the jury will remain out until well into the 2004 season, he believes that he and series co-owners Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven have a winning formula for the future.
"We have to prove first that we can put on a good event," Gentilozzi said. "We want to convert the issues into positive alternatives and not make the mistakes CART made again."
"Our goal for this year is to establish credibility for the Champ Car World Series," Kalkhoven added. "In 2005 we'll be building a business and building teams in collaboration with new sponsors. That is the year that extends the business reach. After that, it's developing and expanding and not losing sight of the fact that we are in the entertainment business."
The first test will come at Long Beach, where the race promoter said that ticket sales for the April 18 event were strong. More than 3,000 people turned out for a Fan Fest Tuesday evening to see the cars and get autographs from the drivers.
"So far, it's exceeded our expectations," said Grand Prix of Long Beach Association president Jim Michaelian.
Although the revelation that Patrick Carpentier is on the outside looking in at defending series champion Forsythe Racing was shocking, the news coming out of Long Beach wasn't all bleak. With a little help from co-owner Paul Newman, Newman/Haas Racing has inked a multi-year deal with McDonald's to sponsor speedy second year shoe Sebastien Bourdais.
And despite the lack of a free-to-air network presence, Champ Car's television package should enjoy a greater reach than it did for the last two years. All races will be televised in a Sunday 4-6 p.m. slot on Spike, a cable channel said to reach 87 million homes, and the high-tech nature of Champ Car racing will be emphasized by the fact that all races will be shot with High Definition equipment and aired on HDNet.
In addition, all on-track activity (including the Toyota/Atlantic, Trans-Am and Formula BMW support series) will be offered in streaming video for $9.95 a month on the Champ Car World Series Web site.
On the down side, the 16-race schedule features two TBA dates and venues and most of the final third of the campaign will be waged outside of the United States. At present, there is only one oval race -- at the Milwaukee Mile -- though an event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway could close the season Nov. 14 or 21. A temporary road course near the Strip is more likely.
"We will be at Long Beach with a full field of cars and we will have a full event schedule for 2004," Gentilozzi stated before Fernandez announced his withdrawal from the series. "Most of our event contracts call for 16 to 18 cars and we're going to have 18 cars. Listen carefully, because I'm guaranteeing it."
Gentilozzi and Kalkhoven are both expanding their own teams in 2004, with Rocketsports signing 17-year-old Frenchman Nelson Philippe, who will become the youngest driver to ever compete in a Champ Car event. Kalkhoven's team has been renamed PKV Racing to herald the co-owner role of No. 1 driver Jimmy Vasser, who will be joined by Mexican rookie Roberto Gonzalez. PKVR unveiled a pair of snazzy Lolas with backing from NII Holdings, which operates Nextel's international operations.
"I'm bullish on this series," said Vasser, the 1996 CART champion. "I had opportunities to go elsewhere but I held out for a Champ Car ride because I believe so strongly in this form of motorsport. There was nothing wrong with this series in 1995 and I think the new owners have the right plan to build it back up to where it was."
The series' only new team is the Colorado-based RuSPORT organization, which is the first team to step up from the Toyota/Atlantic Championship since 1995. A.J. Allmendinger, rated by many as America's top open-wheel road racing prospect in more than a decade, has a chance to make a serious impression and is the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors.
Returning drivers include 2003 series champion Paul Tracy, who will be partnered by Rodolfo Lavin at Forsythe Championship Racing. Alex Tagliani continues with Rocketsports, while Bruno Junqueira is back for his second campaign with Newman/Haas. Michel Jourdain Jr. will be a strong championship contender in Team Rahal's singleton entry, while owner/driver Fernandez had been working hard to put together a second Fernandez Racing entry in time for Long Beach. Now, Fernandez will compete only in the Indy Racing League, where he already campaigns a car for Kosuke Matsuura.
Carpentier, whose salary will be paid by Forsythe, is expected to land a drive in the second Fernandez car or with Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing. Emerson Fittipaldi, the 1989 CART champion, is looking for backing and a team to run Argentine Gaston Mazzacane, while other drivers in play include Mario Haberfeld and Oriol Servia. Geoff Boss could land back at Dale Coyne Racing, which is reportedly close to announcing a deal for Irishman Michael Keohane.
Herdez, meanwhile, plans to stage a shootout between Formula One refugees Justin Wilson and Ralph Firman as well as Alex Sperafico for its open seat if the team is unable to come to terms with Hunter-Reay.
On track, minor rule changes should add an element of strategy for the teams as well as make the racing easier to follow for fans. They include the abolishment of the controversial pit window rule, which has been replaced by a mandate of two or three green flag pits stops, depending on the length of the race. Most races will be formatted with a 1-hour, 45-minute time limit, down half an hour from 2003.
"The mandatory two or three green flag pit stops will make the race easier to follow and allow additional flexibility for the teams," Gentilozzi said. "The idea is to create drama for the fans. Later in the season, Bridgestone is working on softer tires that will allow teams to take more strategy risks."
In addition, Cosworth has developed a push-to-pass feature for the turbocharged XFE engine that will provide the drivers with an extra 2.5 inches of boost (say, 50 horsepower) with more than an 85 percent application of the throttle. Each driver will receive 60 seconds of push-to-pass ability in every race in a system pioneered by the Formula Palmer Audi series in Europe. Television viewers will be kept abreast of each driver's remaining push-to-pass time.
"This new push-to-pass system, when combined with the other competition rules in place for 2004, will make for very exciting racing," said Champ Car's Executive Vice-President of Operations John Lopes. "We have developed all of our rules for 2004 with the racing fans in mind as well as the drivers and teams and we feel that we have come up with a package that will make for a great on-track product this year."
John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.