San Jose should be better second time around

Originally Published: July 31, 2005
By John Oreovicz | Special to

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As a car race, the inaugural Taylor Woodrow Grand Prix of San Jose was not an artistic masterpiece. But as a first-year event, Champ Car's Silicon Valley debut was a huge success.

Let's get the bad news out of the way first. The challenges offered up by the downtown street course, from bumpy railroad tracks to narrow construction zones, created a processional race in which the only major overtaking move occurred in the pits. The tricky track also created heavy attrition, as only half the 18-car field was running at the finish, with just six cars on the lead lap behind race winner Sebastien Bourdais.

Yet no one was complaining. The drivers sucked it up and put on a show, and the 62,371 fans on hand responded with enthusiasm, even if it took half an hour to get across to the other side of the track. Local businesses were happy too; the San Jose Marriott hotel reported record cash receipts for the last two days.

"The attendance was remarkable for a first race and they all had a good time," remarked Champ Car co-principal Kevin Kalkhoven. "The drivers will probably need a lot of Preparation H after all those bumps, but that's OK. Next year I think we'll find the track and some of the facilities will be significantly better.

"But what we've got here is an event. It's not just a motor race. The city and the community have come around to really enjoy this and I'm sure it's something that will be around for a long, long time, like Long Beach."

The original Long Beach track turned onto a radically steep run down Pine Street, where the cars briefly got airborne. The video images of Champ Cars jumping over the San Jose light rail tracks, especially in the early laps on full tanks, were absolutely spectacular. Frightening is a more accurate description of the trackside viewing experience.

Asked if he had seen video of the cars running over the tracks, Bourdais quickly responded, "No, I didn't want to scare myself! But it's a very good representation of what a Champ Car is like. It's not an easy car to drive anywhere, and when you put it in different situations, it really emphasizes how tough it is to drive these cars and how much they can take.

"In a Formula One car, the first time you would have driven across the tracks it would have ripped the four wheels off," he continued. "The whole suspension would fall apart and there would be carbon fiber all over the place. The truth is, we have a bit more flexibility with these cars. Obviously, there are limits, but it was still raceable and we had a good premier. It's easy to underestimate what is needed, but there were lessons learned here and they will make the track better for next year."

The Newman/Haas team put an unusual amount of effort into its pre- race preparation for San Jose, completely stripping the cars of Bourdais and teammate Oriol Servia down to the bare tub. "They were even here later than the RuSPORT team!" joked Bourdais. But the long hours paid off with a 1-3 finish, split only by that pesky nemesis, Paul Tracy.

"I'm just really happy that the car held together and that's all due to the McDonald's team," Bourdais said. "The car was like a tank. Yesterday I was really worried because the engine started to go through the underwing. That's never a good sign when you are starting to wear out the engine block. In fact, it's kind of scary. But we measured a 4,000-pound hit when the car landed on the rails.

"The fact is, the cars are not designed to do that. But we did it. We kept breaking things on the car, but that was part of the game. There is nothing to prevent you from raising the ride height. If you rode around with a six-inch ride height, you'd be trouble-free, though it would look funky! But that was the ultimate solution. We ran the car higher and softer than we expected. You had to make compromises to help the car get through the race."

Tracy fought with all his might, but in the end, he just wasn't quick enough to beat Bourdais, though a quick first pit stop by the Forsythe Championship Racing crew helped him come home ahead of Servia.

"It was a good day for our team," Tracy said. "We got ahead of Oriol on the first stop, but were never close enough to Sebastien to try to get by him on the other pit stop. He was quick at the end and we just decided to take second place. It was a great day for San Jose and we'll come back and put on a better show next year."

The San Jose weekend attendance of 153,797 pushed Champ Car over the 1 million mark for the season after just eight races. The series was also buoyed over the weekend with the announcement of a new Swift chassis and Cosworth engine for the Formula Atlantic feeder series. Kalkhoven said that Swift had already accepted 20 orders for the new chassis within the first 24 hours.

"That's just another sign that things are growing well for Champ Car," Kalkhoven noted.

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