- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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After a four-week break, the Champ Car World Series whirls back into action this weekend with its only superspeedway race of the season.
Like so many others in America, the Champ Car community is reaching out to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, and Saturday night's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been renamed the Champ Car Hurricane Relief 400; Champ Car's proceeds from the race will be donated to the Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund.
Series presenting sponsors Bridgestone and Ford have stepped up their charitable efforts for the weekend, and Champ Car is also running an online memorabilia auction on the series' official Web site (www.champcar.ws) with proceeds from the sales directed to the Red Cross Hurricane Relief Fund.
Items up for bid include race tickets, pace car and Champ Car two-seater rides, magazine subscriptions and autographed copies of Alex Zanardi's book, "My Sweetest Victory." The deadline for bidding on most items is Tuesday.
By then, the Champ Car championship could be all but decided, assuming things go Sebastien Bourdais' way this weekend. He heads to Vegas with a 61-point championship lead, nearly a two-race cushion with four events remaining in 2005.
And there is no reason to expect anything other than a front-running performance from the Frenchman. Despite his limited oval experience, he is the defending Las Vegas race winner and is 2-for-2 when racing a Champ Car using the relatively high-downforce wing package mandated for superspeedway racing these days.
Champ Car's Las Vegas debut in 2004 was not surprisingly a two-man race between Bourdais and his Newman/Haas Racing teammate, Bruno Junqueira. The Brazilian is still sidelined by the injuries he incurred earlier this year in the Indianapolis 500, but stand-in Oriol Servia should provide an equally worthy challenge for Bourdais Saturday night.
Even though its drivers, Bourdais and Servia, rank 1-2 in the Champ Car standings, Newman/Haas was still flat-out in the month of September during the schedule break. Servia carried out top-speed testing at the Transportation Research Center's 7.5-mile oval in Ohio with an eye toward this weekend's Las Vegas race, while Bourdais competed in the Richmond International Race of Champions round and ran a private test at Road America for Newman/Haas in preparation for the series finale on the high-speed Mexico City road course.
Newman/Haas no doubt benefited from a Champ Car test day at Las Vegas earlier this year, when Bourdais and Paul Tracy of Forsythe Championship Racing ran laps to determine the final aerodynamic and Bridgestone tire specification that will be used this weekend. Bourdais and Tracy also tested the Push-To-Pass function, which will be used by Champ Car on an oval for the first time since its introduction prior to the 2004 season.
Each burst of Push-To-Pass is good for about 50 extra horsepower. But the system has been slightly modified for the Vegas race, with the drivers limited to six, 10-second chances rather than a set amount that they could divide up to their liking.
"The new Push-to-Pass procedures are certainly going to add a lot to the race, because you are basically going to have cars passing other cars every time they use the button," reckons Las Vegas resident Alex Tagliani, who lies seventh in the championship standings for Team Australia. "You are definitely going to need to save some for towards the end of the race, but it will also be important to stay with the leading group of cars who will be doing a lot of drafting. The race has the makings of being one of the most exciting of the year and I think the Vegas fans are in for a real treat."
The attendance numbers are something that Champ Car, LVMS and Las Vegas city officials will be closely watching. The LVMS Champ Car race was conceived last year as an add-on race to an already-established NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series date. Desperate for an oval race, Champ Car paid the track a handsome fee (reportedly upwards of $500,000) to piggy-back on to the NCTS race.
Last year, about three-quarters of the 80,000-strong truck crowd stuck around for the start of the Champ Car race, which didn't flag off until nearly 10:15 p.m. local time. But most of them headed for the exits during a lengthy full-course yellow when Champ Car officials got embroiled in a timing and scoring issue.
Simplified rules and a new chief steward (Tony Cotman) should prevent that scenario from occurring again, and Champ Car hopes to get its race under way by 8:30 p.m. in an effort to encourage more folks to stick around.
Left unspoken is Champ Car's desire to move its race closer to the Las Vegas strip, ideally on some form of street course. The uncertainty about the future venue in the Las Vegas market is represented by an asterisk on the 2006 Champ Car schedule.
"[LVMS general manager] Chris Powell and I agreed we would hold off until we talk after this year's event," Champ Car executive vice president of development Joe Chrnelich said. "We've only had one year and we had some hiccups last year in terms of the transition between the events. The track has worked very hard to make sure that transition time is minimal so we get right into the Champ Car event.
"We will sit down afterwards, talk about it and see how it performed, and we need to talk about the economics of it from Champ Car's perspective. But at the end of the day, Champ Car will be in the Las Vegas market long term. It's a market we are in and will stay in."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
Vegas is the place to bet big, but odds are the Newman/Haas team of drivers will decide the outcome of Saturday night's Champ Car race.