Fan support strong, but is it enough?
LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Sebastien Bourdais claimed he wasn't sandbagging on Saturday, when his streak of 15 consecutive top-three starts came to an end. And he insisted that he wasn't toying with his Champ Car opponents over the first 30 laps of Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach as he ran in fourth place.
A third of the way into the 81-lap race, it was logical to conclude that Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing had simply missed on the setup and were driving for points with the big picture in mind. Instead, the defending Champ Car series champion sprang to life. A quick Lap 31 pit stop by the McDonald's crew got Bourdais ahead of Mario Dominguez, and he made a clean move to take the lead from pole winner Paul Tracy on Lap 38.
"I didn't even use the push-to-pass," Bourdais said with a grin, referring to the button in each car that provides 50 additional horsepower for brief spurts. "I came on the radio to the team and said, 'How about that!'"
From that point, it was smooth sailing and the 25-year-old native of Le Mans, France, won by 4.138 seconds over Tracy and Bruno Junqueira before a sun-baked Southern California crowd estimated at 75,000.
"It looks great, doesn't it?" said Jim Michaelian, president of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach.
Champ Car staged a competitive race and all signs suggest that the oft-maligned series is solidly on the upswing after a couple tenuous years. It begs the question that if Champ Car can draw like this at Long Beach as it emerges from an acknowledged down period, how will it do when the series' new management has more time to implement its rebuilding plans?
But what's on everyone's mind after this race -- and one didn't need to be a mind reader, since drivers openly spoke about it -- is whether race rights holder Dover Entertainment will invite Champ Car back next year or replace it with the IndyCar Series.
The latter move could be seen as a risk.
Although the IndyCar Series successfully proved last week at St. Petersburg that it is capable of staging a street race, that was still just one race. St. Pete marked the first and only time that the IndyCars managed to match Champ Car's attendance at a former CART venue, with a three-day total estimated near 70,000.
Officials estimated Champ Car's three-day fan total at Long Beach in the 175,000 range.
Cynics say that the Long Beach weekend would draw six figures if the Toyota Pro Celebrity race was the main event. But for a public company like Dover, event attendance is crucial to the bottom line. Some, such as Bourdais, believe that a backlash could occur if Champ Car is dumped by Dover.
"If they switch series this event will definitely not be the same," Bourdais said. "In the IRL, they give away a lot of tickets, but we are selling a lot of tickets because people want to be here. The fans love our racing and the exchanges between the drivers and the fans. This is pure racing and I think that's what they want to see in the future."
After Sunday's race at Long Beach, Tracy and Junqueira poked some fun at some IndyCar drivers who got a little bit carried away with their platitudes after the IRL's street racing debut at St. Pete.
"We heard some IRL drivers say last week that they set the standard for street course racing, but I think we set a new standard here," Tracy deadpanned.
"We definitely set the standard for passing for first place without hitting each other," Junqueira added with a chuckle, noting Sunday's three on-track passes for the lead.
Tracy made his Champ Car debut at Long Beach back in 1991, and the Canadian has won the Seaside race four times in his career. Now an elder spokesman for the series, Tracy offered a poignant argument after this year's race why Dover should renew its contract with Champ Car.
"I saw more excitement this weekend and more enthusiasm from the crowd than I have seen in a long, long time," he said. "This was probably one of the best events that the Long Beach Grand Prix and (Champ Car) have run. The fans were here to support it, the drifting was a huge hit and the support series are strong. There is not much else that Champ Car can do -- they have put their best foot forward and did everything they can do to try to keep this race.
"Unfortunately it's not up to the fans or the drivers or Champ Car," Tracy said. "It's going to turn into a political money fight now, and that's what it has been since the whole split with the IRL. I just hope that we're going to be back and I would feel very ashamed if this was my last time here."
Back when Long Beach was still a Formula 1 race, event organizers began taking the top three drivers around the track in the back of a Toyota pickup truck for a victory lap. With the fate of the Long Beach race in the balance, Sunday's open-air tour of the track was particularly memorable for the podium finishers.
"That was by far the most exciting victory lap of my Champ Car career, and I've had 22 podiums," said Junqueira. "The fans were still in the grandstands cheering for us and that means it was a very good race. Last night it took me more than half an hour to get a taxi back from dinner and all over the city, people have been telling me how good the race is for hotels and restaurants and how much enjoyment the race generates.
"I hope the city and the race organizers see that and don't want to take a risk by changing the series," he said. "Our series is just getting better and I hope we are here next year to put on an even better show."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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