Champ Car hits 'home run' in Edmonton

Updated: July 16, 2005, 2:56 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to

EDMONTON, Alberta -- For the better part of 20 years, people joked that the "C" in CART stood for Canadian, based on how popular the sport of Champ Car racing is up north of the American border. Judging by the local response to the first day of action at the inaugural West Edmonton Mall Grand Prix of Edmonton, things haven't changed much in a new Canadian locale with a new promoter.

Race officials announced a Friday attendance of 55,722, and for once, it was a believable claim. The grandstands erected around Finning Speedway -- a 1.973-mile temporary road course that runs around Edmonton's City Centre Airport -- were full, and fans were lined up eight-deep in the beer garden along the fence at the apex of the first turn.

And not just because they were queuing up to get another cold one. In fact, unlike at the other Canadian Champ Car races at Toronto and Montreal (plus Vancouver from 1990-2004), Molson has no part in the sponsorship and promotion of the Edmonton event, though it wisely snapped up beer-pouring rights.

Some might argue that Edmonton is a fairly easy market to crack, that there's nothing to do there except go sit on the indoor beach at West Edmonton Mall (yes, really) or make fun of provincial neighbor Calgary. But Champ Car got exactly what it was looking for -- a city logistically suited to running a road race in the middle of downtown, laced with knowledgeable and enthusiastic sports fans.

"The series and the promoter here, they've hit a home run," opined Canadian hero Paul Tracy. "It was just amazing today to see the grandstands completely packed today for qualifying, I don't know how many people were officially here, but it looked like the stands were sold out, the suites were sold out, and the infield by the trucks is packed. It's a great feeling to come to a new venue and have the kind of support we've had."

It helped that Champ Car came to Edmonton directly from the established Toronto race, so the sport was fresh in fans memories and media coverage was already in high gear. The national papers had a busy week, what with Gerald Forsythe threatening to fire Tracy's crew after running its driver out of fuel a week ago, and Tracy himself lashing out in the press about his pit lane incident with rival (and championship leader) Sebastien Bourdais.

Prospects for the rest of the weekend were boosted by eventful day on the track Friday. Tracy's teammate, Mario Dominguez, controversially ran Quebec teenager Andrew Ranger into the wall during the morning practice session, and even Bourdais was caught out by the concrete walls that line the track. He wiped out the left-front corner of his McDonald's Lola in qualifying and only managed 10th on the provisional grid.

The RuSPORT team picked up where it left off in Toronto, but on Friday, A.J. Allmendinger stole a march on teammate (and Toronto winner) Justin Wilson by claiming the overnight pole. The 22-year-old Californian hustled his Western Union Lola around the track in 58.628 seconds for an average speed of 121.150 mph. Wilson was more than three tenths of a second slower, while third placed Tracy was 0.869 second back.

"If you're given a good car right away, and that's what my team did for me today, it just makes it easier to learn the track because you can attack the track a lot quicker," Allmendinger said.

Not surprisingly, the drivers likened Finning Speedway to Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. But they said Edmonton poses an additional challenge because the walls are much closer to the racing line.

"This track kind of gives you the feel of Cleveland because the corners are so fast, but if you make a small mistake, you've got a wall there on the edge and the consequences are high," Tracy observed. "You saw how many guys hit the wall today.

"At places like Cleveland or Elkhart Lake, you're really committed to the high-speed corner, but you have some fudge room to drop a wheel off a track," he added. "Whereas, here if you make a mistake, there's a wall right on the edge, like a street course. You're going 120, 130 miles an hour in some of these corners. You've got to be right on perfect and have a lot of trust in your car."

Tracy also noted that the pit lane exit has some sight-line problems and there is at least one other point on the racecourse that could potentially be a safety hazard.

"I had one moment at the last corner, the chicane onto the pit straight," he said. "I turned in there and I had the back jump out on me sideways. I caught it but the thing straightened up and I was going straight head on for the wall right there and there was only one set of tires up against the concrete wall. I was probably going 160 at that point and I was like, 'Well, that doesn't look too safe to me.'

"I thought that corner was going to be pretty easy flat but it's not. It's really bumpy on the entry. The car jumps around a lot because the cars are so stiff because of the high speed. We probably could use some more tires there."

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