Planning, not effort, was the problem
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Champ Car's inaugural Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose weekend got off to a shaky start, but by Friday evening, many of the problems had been forgotten by more than 40,000 patient fans on hand.
Track activity was scheduled to start at 7:45 a.m. local time, but to put it politely, the new 1.448-mile street course in the heart of downtown San Jose just wasn't ready. The first support series finally took to the track at high noon, followed at 1:40 p.m. by the headlining Champ Car World Series. To its credit, Champ Car and San Jose GP organizers quickly issued a revised schedule and accepted blame for the tardiness of on-track activity.
"I've been involved in enough Silicon Valley startups to know that things go wrong," said Kevin Kalkhoven, who in his former life prior to taking a controlling interest in Champ Car was the CEO of San Jose- based JDS Uniphase. "It's best to be honest and get it out early.
"[The organizers] tried their darndest to minimize the impact on the stakeholders here in San Jose," Kalkhoven added. "They probably got it wrong by a day. It's as simple as that."
"Quite a few people worked all night," added San Jose GP general manager Bob Singleton, who coordinated Champ Car's Molson Indy Toronto race for more than 15 years. "When you do a first-year event, you're not always right. It took a little longer to get the track together than it should have, longer than we thought it would. We'll start a little earlier next year."
At the appointed starting time, some work crews were frantically erecting walls and fences to create the tight chicane that serves as the first turn of the San Jose course, while others were doing concrete work trying to make the four sets of VTA light rail tracks that the circuit crosses as smooth as possible.
Even at that early hour, fans began filing in. "I got to the track at 7 o'clock this morning and I couldn't believe how many people there were," said Oriol Servia of Newman/Haas Racing. "Well, half of them were workers."
The delay gave the Champ Car drivers all morning to ponder things like a funneling 155-mph chicane to kick off the lap, an astounding lack of runoff area at the end of the main straight, where the cars slow from 170 mph to 30 mph for a tight hairpin, and the absurdly narrow run up the short chute from turn 4 through another single car-width chicane leading onto the back straight.
The drivers didn't stage any sort of an organized protest about the track's safety shortcomings, but they did use respected veteran Jimmy Vasser to communicate their concerns to series management. Changes are expected overnight.
"We do listen to them and make as many changes as are practical," noted Kalkhoven. "But in the final analysis, get in and drive, guys. You're all on the same track."
Championship leader Sebastien Bourdais was reportedly one of the less happy drivers upon seeing the circuit. But he publicly took the high road and focused on the positives.
"The guy who is going to look best coming out of this weekend is the guy who stops complaining and starts working on his car," said the Frenchman. "There is no point to criticize the circuit. It certainly isn't perfect but they worked very hard to make it happen. The crowd is good and people are excited about the race and that's what matters.
"Plenty of things about the track can and will be fixed," he added. "The organizers will take care of that. We just have to go out and put on a show for the fans."
The biggest trouble spot is the first chicane, which was intended to be wider and slower than the layout that finally emerged Friday morning. Given that most of the drivers were negotiating it without lifting -- even though it traverses two sets of light rail tracks -- further modifications are likely to be introduced on Saturday.
"It's still flat and we're doing 155 mph through that small opening," Bourdais noted. "They might as well just make it bigger."
Then there is the hairpin, which is the same radius as the tight right-hander that traditionally ends the lap at Long Beach and is the tightest corner the drivers face all year long. But there is a significant difference at San Jose.
"At Long Beach, you approach the hairpin in third gear, whereas here you come in at top speed," Bourdais observed. "The problem is that you go in there pretty well out of control. It's quite a challenge, especially when you come in with all four wheels locked up, and I think it's going to banzai corner in the race. I'm quite afraid of that."
If anything, the new circuit did a good job of somewhat shaking up the established order. OK, Newman/Haas ran 1-2, but rookie Timo Glock was third on Friday for the struggling Rocketsports team, sophomore teenager Nelson Philippe ran fourth for Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing, and rookie Ronnie Bremer ran P7 for Dale Coyne Racing.
"The track has so many bumps it's hard to find the right line on the straights," said Glock, a 23-year-old German who ran a handful of Formula 1 races in 2004 for the Jordan team. "I have to learn a new track every weekend, so it's nice that everyone else has to here as well. I think that worked to our advantage at Edmonton where we had a good race."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.