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Champ Car returning to popular Wisconsin venue

11/29/2005

INDIANAPOLIS -- A couple of weeks ago during a Q&A session with engineering students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), two-time Champ Car World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais was asked about his favorite places to race.

"Road America is my favorite track in America and it's unfortunate that we are not racing there," he quickly responded. "Hopefully it's just an au revoir and not a definite goodbye."

Bourdais and his fellow Champ Car drivers were no doubt smiling Tuesday as Road America president George Bruggenthies announced the return of the Champ Car World Series to the legendary road course in Elkhart Lake, Wis., after a one-year absence. Champ Car will co-promote the three-day event set for Sept. 22-24, 2006 that will feature the finale of the revamped Formula Atlantic as the top support race.

To make room for the revived Elkhart Lake event on its 14-race slate, Champ Car dropped the Las Vegas Motor Speedway round scheduled for that weekend.

At its peak in the early to mid-'90s, the Road America Champ Car race attracted 75,000 fans on race day and was billed as the largest sporting event in the state of Wisconsin. A litany of factors -- the open-wheel split caused by the formation of the IndyCar Series and the eventual downfall of CART, bad luck with the weather, high ticket prices and a general lack of promotion -- together resulted in a massive drop in attendance.

By 2003, only the direct personal involvement of Mario Andretti kept the event on the Champ Car schedule and disappointing attendance in the '03 and '04 races led to some legal unpleasantries during CART's bankruptcy process.

But like so many others in the racing world, Bruggenthies found that under its new ownership and management, Champ Car is a significantly different entity these days.

"I wouldn't say there was bad blood -- it was all legal stuff with attorneys involved," Bruggenthies said. "The new management team is able to make decisions quickly and through the right processes. We think the new Champ Car has a successful future and we're buying into that.

"We always loved the open-wheel product of the Champ Car World Series. It belongs at Road America and that's why it's back."

Champ Car president Steve Johnson said that since he joined the company in September, the most common thing he heard from fans was a desire for the series to return to Road America. That wish was shared by the series drivers, who love the fast and flowing 4.048-mile layout, and by crews and series personnel, who enjoy the comfortable charm of the nearby village of Elkhart Lake.

In his prior job as president of the Sports Car Club of America, Johnson already had a comfortable working relationship with Bruggenthies and that speeded up the process of putting together a deal that made sense to both sides.

"We have been in ongoing discussions with Road America working towards a solution that provides a reinvigorated race weekend and potential win-win situation," Johnson said. "Our new agreement gives us both a chance to rebuild the event to its former level of popularity and financial success. When we decided not to renew with Las Vegas Motor Speedway it provided the opening to finalize our deal."

Champ Car and Road America currently have a one-year deal, but both sides expressed confidence that a multiyear agreement will be forthcoming.

The return to Road America comes at the expense of Champ Car's short-lived event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Champ Car paid a six-figure fee to LVMS in 2004 and 2005 to piggy-back onto the track's existing NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race, but a lack of fan support for the late-night contest led to its demise. Though the series won't be back to the LVMS oval, Champ Car officials hope to develop an event featuring a temporary road course in the Las Vegas market as soon as 2007.

"We hugely prize that market and we want to be there," said series co-principal and Rocketsports Racing owner Paul Gentilozzi. "A lot of people have tried to put on a street race in Las Vegas in the past and when it is done properly, it will be very rewarding. We're going to keep working on it until we succeed."

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