- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Perhaps the greatest field of drivers ever assembled for a Touring Car race has converged on Surfers Paradise, Australia, this weekend for an event unique in the world of motorsports.
The Armor All Gold Coast 600 is the evolution of what started out nearly 20 years ago as an Indy car race. But the only vestige of that American open-wheel heritage that will be on display Sunday is a group of past and present Indy car drivers, including reigning Izod IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti, his Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon, and the Team Penske triumvirate of Helio Castroneves and Australian heroes Ryan Briscoe and Will Power.
To say they're excited about to returning to Australia is an understatement.
"I've had a few highlights in my career, including winning the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series championship," Franchitti said. "But one of the days I remember most is winning the Indy car race in the Gold Coast in 1999.
"I'm really looking forward to getting back there this year and I think the fans are going to experience something really special."
Other names familiar to American fans that are slated to compete are Scott Pruett (a former Indy car winner on the Gold Coast), Alex Tagliani (who met his wife Bronte while competing in Australia), Jacques Villeneuve and Sebastien Bourdais.
"The way they've approached it is if they can't have Indy cars, they wanted to bring in a bunch of drivers who are accomplished on a world scale," said Dixon.
In all, 18 international stars -- including Touring Car maestros Yvan Muller, Alain Menu, Fabrizio Giovanardi, Andy Priaulx and Gianni Morbidelli, plus sports car aces David Brabham, Mika Salo and American Patrick Long -- will team up with 30 regulars from the V8 Supercars Australia Series to truly create a Race of Champions.
But unlike the annual exhibition competition of the same name, the Gold Coast 600 is a real race -- a points-paying round of the V-8 Supercar championship. The inclusion of the international stars is sure to throw a wild-card into the competition for the V-8 title, currently being contested between Australians James Courtney and Jamie Whincup.
"I think all the international drivers want to try and come here and do a good job and help the team you are racing with because it's part of the championship," Dixon said. "So there is a lot of pressure and it's something that you've got to take seriously."
Many of the international stars had prior experience on the tricky Surfers Paradise street course thanks to their Indy car exploits. CART and Champ Car staged races in Australia from 1991-2007, and the IndyCar Series put on a non-points exhibition race in 2008 but elected not to return to the Gold Coast. By then, the popular V-8 Supercars had become co-headliners for the Surfers race and the event was able to continue as a stand-alone round of the V-8 series.
But even if the international drivers know the track, they'll still have to adjust to the unique characteristics of the V-8 Supercars -- Holden Commodores and Ford Falcons taken straight from the production line and converted into race cars with 650-horsepower engines and sequential-shift six-speed gearboxes.
The IndyCar contingent didn't fare too well in the first of the twin 300-kilometer races, perhaps proving that Touring Car experience was more important than knowledge of the track. Garth Tander and Cameron McConville drove to victory. Priaulx, a three-time World Touring Car champion, partnered Craig Lowndes to second place; Long was fourth and Brabham fifth, while eighth place for Bourdais represented the best result for the open-wheel set.
Surfers Paradise is a tough place to learn a new and foreign car, even though the course has been shortened from 2.8 to 1.8 miles. A pair of the track's trademark chicanes, including a spectacular, curb-hopping sequence on the backstretch that includes no fewer than five apexes, remain intact.
"As a driver you always want to search for your limits, but at this place you can't afford to find your limits because you'll find yourself in the wall," said Villeneuve, who competed at Surfers Paradise in 1994 and '95 while driving in the CART-sanctioned Indy car series.
The sport down there of V-8 racing is huge anyway, but this brings in some more excitement, and for me, I get to give a few paybacks after my few years of racing in Australia.
”-- Scott Dixon
"Sitting on the wrong side of the car and using my left hand to shift is going to be very different," he added. "That's something that is a bit of a worry and a stress but it should be fun out there. They're big, fast, powerful cars -- a bit like a NASCAR basically. I've been speaking with [two-time V-8 Supercar champion] Marcos Ambrose in America a little bit about them and I'm very excited."
For Briscoe, Power, Brabham and even Dixon (who was born in Australia but raised in New Zealand), the Gold Coast 600 offers them a rare opportunity to race at home after their careers ultimately took them to Europe and America.
"Having the chance to race a V-8 Supercar in Australia is always a special experience for me," said Brabham, who competes in the American Le Mans Series for Highcroft Racing. "I think the concept for the Armor All Gold Coast 600 is fantastic and I cannot tell you the interest it has generated in the US and Europe, not only within the driver ranks, but the general media."
"The sport down there of V-8 racing is huge anyway, but this brings in some more excitement, and for me, I get to give a few paybacks after my few years of racing in Australia," added Dixon.
"It's a high-speed street circuit, which is going to be extremely tough," he continued. "They're not easy things to drive, but we're going to get a test day so we'll get a few hours in the car. I drove one in 1997 for about 20 laps at Calder Park, so it's been a long time. It's going to be interesting and I'm sure there will be a few destroyed cars."
Briscoe and Morbidelli participated recently in the Bathurst 1000, the biggest and most popular race in Austraila, and the anchor of the V-8 Supercar Series. Among the international crew, Muller, Brabham, Menu, Priaulx, Tagliani and Giovanardi have also previously competed at Bathurst; in fact, Muller is a past race winner in V-8s, co-driving with three-time series champion Craig Lowndes to victory in the 2005 Sandown 500.
"They're different beasts -- a lot of fun to drive," said Power, who strongly considered returning full-time to Australia to compete in V-8 Supercars prior to signing for Team Penske's IndyCar Series effort prior to the 2009 season. "It's actually quite difficult to get pace out of them. It's going to be fun down there. There will definitely be a few guys hitting the wall. It's going to be really tough with the walls."
Power claimed pole position in both Champ Car and IndyCar-sanctioned races at Surfers Paradise, and he has also raced in the support series accompanying the Australian Indy car events.
"I don't think I'll be as competitive as I was in an Indy car, but I think they're excited to see an international field and it's a pity that IndyCar isn't going down there anymore," he said. "The Gold Coast race is my favorite event over my entire career and I have some unfinished business to take care of."
The Gold Coast 600 format includes two drivers per car, with each two-car team getting one international driver. The team will place the international driver with one of its regulars, while its second car will be driven by the team's other regular driver and another driver selected at the team's discretion.
The final 300-kilometer race is scheduled for Sunday.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
With the likes of Dario Franchitti and Will Power running, the true "Race of Champions" may be at Surfers Paradise this weekend for the V8 Supercars Australia Series races.