- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The complexion of the 2006 Champ Car World Series changed dramatically with A.J. Allmendinger's midseason team switch and his subsequent victory for Forsythe Championship Racing last weekend at Portland International Raceway.
But the American star and his cohorts had little time to celebrate because the Champ Cars take to the track again Friday morning when practice starts for the Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank.
It's always a pleasure to watch a master like Sebastien Bourdais in action, but in truth, the Champ Car series needed the shakeup that Allmendinger's win at Portland provided. It demonstrated that America still has a pulse in open-wheel road racing, and it showed that given the right circumstances, Allmendinger -- along with his current teammate Paul Tracy and former teammate Justin Wilson -- could still give Bourdais some competition as the Frenchman tries for his third consecutive series championship.
In this rejuvenated state, the Champ Car series heads to Cleveland for one of its signature events. First run in 1982, the Cleveland GP is contested on the runways of Burke Lakefront Airport. The 2.104-mile layout is wide, fast and bumpy and is generally conducive to some of the best racing of the season. It also provided the genesis for Champ Car's highly successful Edmonton airport race that debuted in 2005.
At 204 miles (if it goes the scheduled 97 laps), Cleveland is one of the longest road races on the Champ Car schedule. It's astonishing to think that the first two Cleveland races ran 310 miles; the 1983 race, held in 100-degree heat and won by Al Unser, was a marathon worthy of any 500-mile oval race.
Hot or wet weather shouldn't be a factor this weekend, so it's back to the usual story line: Can anyone beat Bourdais, a two-time (2003-04) Cleveland champion? The man himself downplays his chances.
"Cleveland has provided a challenge for us the past couple of years," Bourdais admitted. "We had a very good car the first year  and I never have been as happy with the car since. Last year was particularly frustrating but I think we made some nice improvements on bumpy tracks and hopefully it will turn the results around."
Allmendinger went from the outhouse to the penthouse in 10 days and is suddenly Champ Car's hottest star. At Portland, he turned in the kind of performance former owner Carl Russo had been seeking for the last two years and salvaged a fading reputation. Now that he's a winner, Allmendinger must make sure the success doesn't go to his head. He insists he'll be all business this weekend in Cleveland.
"Unfortunately now all that does is make me want to win more races because now I know how it feels," Allmendinger remarked. "It gave me a lot of confidence. In Cleveland, if I'm running second or third early in the race, now I don't have that mind-set like, 'God, I've got to get to the lead right now, because that's what I have to do to win a race.' Now I can sit back, let the race come to me.
"And, after I got done in Portland, my whole team told me, 'Now we're actually going to a track we're good at.'"
Indeed, in addition to winning at Cleveland in 2005 for Forsythe, Tracy ran second to Bourdais in the classic 2003 night race. The Canadian also won at Cleveland during his breakout 1993 season while driving for Penske Racing.
Back in the moment, Tracy needs to reassert his No. 1 driver status within the Forsythe team with a strong performance this weekend.
"Obviously I want to see A.J. succeed, but first and foremost I'm going to concentrate on what I need to do," Tracy said. "We need to start getting top results right now."
Meanwhile, Wilson turned RuSPORT into his team without even trying over the last year and a half. Team boss Russo hopes that teaming the Englishman with former series champion Cristiano da Matta will put an end to the dominance of Bourdais and Newman/Haas Racing.
"I expect it to be a tough race," Wilson stated. "It should also be very competitive with Sebastien, Paul, A.J. and Cristiano. I think they're all going to be quick, and I hope that the CDW team can do a better job and come out on top."
"I have unfinished business in Cleveland," da Matta said. "I've always been very fast there but still haven't won. It's time to fix this problem!"
Then there's Bruno Junqueira, whose 2006 season finally got on track with a pole position and a fourth-place finish at Portland. The Brazilian, along with Alex Tagliani of Team Australia Racing, figures to make up the second wave of contenders. The improving CTE Racing-HVM cars driven by Nelson Philippe and Dan Clarke could also vie for the podium.
On the event's 25th anniversary, Champ Car is hoping for an upswing in attendance and attention at Cleveland. Mi-Jack Promotions, which also staged the Grand Prix of Houston in May, has taken over the promotion of the Cleveland race.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
What A.J. Allmendinger's win did was put some spark back into the Champ Car series as it heads to Cleveland for one of its biggest events, writes John Oreovicz.