- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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EDMONTON, Alberta -- Maybe it's appropriate that West Edmonton Mall was the title sponsor for the inaugural Champ Car Grand Prix of Edmonton because it had a little bit of everything, albeit under sunny skies rather than a roof.
On offer was skillful precision driving, numerous on-track passes for the lead, a few costly bonehead mistakes, and even a bit of shoplifting, in the sense that Sebastien Bourdais basically stole his second victory of the season.
It all took place before an enthusiastic crowd that set an attendance record for a Champ Car race in Canada. More than 78,000 fans packed Finning International Speedway (nee City Centre Airport), bringing the three-day weekend total to 200,052.
"I have to applaud the whole city of Edmonton for everything they have done for Champ Car and our sport," remarked third-place finisher Paul Tracy, who led 30 laps and was one of at least three drivers who were saying they could have or should have won the 88-lap contest. "This was an unbelievable event."
RuSPORT Racing's A. J. Allmendinger and Justin Wilson couldn't believe they weren't celebrating a 1-2 victory after dominating qualifying and much of the race. But both young chargers made crucial mistakes on a high-speed airport circuit that required commitment and consistency from the Champ Car drivers.
"This track bites you hard and if you make a mistake, you're going to pay full price for it," said Bourdais, warming to the retail theme. "I'm sure A.J. is devastated. He probably deserved this one."
To recap, Allmendinger led the first 18 laps from his first career Champ Car pole before a misstep while lapping Marcus Marshall allowed Tracy to nip past into the lead. The Canadian hero held the top spot through the first round of pit stops, but he flat-spotted a front tire a few laps into his second stint and Wilson barged into the lead on the 49th tour.
Wilson drove away from Tracy like he was standing still, but having short-fueled on his first stop, he was into the pits much earlier than his competitors. That allowed Allmendinger to resume at the front in front of Wilson. By the time a yellow flag flew for Bjorn Wirdheim's crash with 15 laps to go, the RuSPORT duo led third man Bourdais by more than 20 seconds.
Bourdais' weekend got off to a bad start when he crashed during Friday qualifying and started a lowly 10th. He picked off several cars early in the race to get to fifth, but after losing a position and getting stuck behind Alex Tagliani for the second stint, Bourdais thought his chances for even a podium finish were shot. But he stretched his second load of fuel far longer than anyone else, and when he finally made his final pit stop, he emerged in third just ahead of his Newman/Haas Racing teammate, Oriol Servia.
The yellow for Wirdheim's minor accident put Bourdais back in the race, and then the RuSPORT pilots handed it to him on a silver platter. First Wilson spun while running behind the pace car on lap 79, dropping him to the back of the pack.
"I made a mistake trying to warm the tires up," Wilson admitted. "I'm disappointed and sorry for the team because I probably gave away a race victory. We'll try to learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again."
When the green flew, Allmendinger zipped away at the front, but he clipped a curb at turn 8, which pitched his Western Union Lola into the outside wall at the exit of turn 9. A couple corners later, he spun out thanks to a flat left-rear tire and damaged suspension. After trundling into the pits, Allmendinger remained in his car with his helmet on for several minutes before alighting to face the music.
"I just threw it away -- I can't say any more than that right now," stated the Californian, whose fastest race lap was a second and a half faster than any of the podium finishers. "The event was amazing but I can't describe my feelings right now."
Bourdais reeled off the final eight laps to claim his 12th and perhaps most unlikely Champ Car win, leading Servia to the line by 0.596 second for a Newman/Haas 1-2. The defending series champion extended his current championship lead over Tracy to 21 points at the halfway point of the 14-race Champ Car season.
"I really couldn't believe it when I saw Justin spinning under yellow in front of me and then A.J. making a really small mistake," Bourdais commented. "I know how it feels to chase your first win and not achieve it. But we pretty much just collected ourselves today and just took the benefit of everybody's mistakes. That was just unbelievable."
After the first race in a five-year contract, Champ Car and Edmonton race officials were virtually glowing. "We've quickly come to learn why they call this the city of champions," said Champ Car's vice president of promoter relations, Joe Chrnelich. "This event was electric, which is the highest praise I can find. There was a tremendous outpouring of support and it shows that there is a demand for Champ Car's product. Edmonton showed cities that have our races or want our races just how strong they can be."
July and August are particularly strong months for Champ Car, with three highly successful Canadian races and the Grand Prix of Denver, which has grown into one of the top American events on the schedule. Next up is the inaugural Grand Prix of San Jose, where race officials have scrambled to add extra grandstands and suites to meet demand.
"Our plan for downtown motor racing festivals works," noted Champ Car co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven. "These folks have done a remarkable job and San Jose has sold out all its grandstands. If you really want to promote a race, Toronto and Edmonton are pretty good examples. It works, simple as that. People want to come to downtown events."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.