The Champ Car World Series takes off Sunday in Florida
Detractors never thought Christopher Pook could resuscitate it, but Championship Auto Racing Teams apparently will live, breathe and spit out exhaust for another season. And roll into Portland for a June 22 race.
Pook, the energetic spin master who became CART's chief executive officer before last season, has streamlined operations, cut costs and offered teams part of the governing body's booty Ñ pre-empting a booty call, if you will.
He has played up the series' positives Ñ the international appeal, the speed and the array of tracks Ñ and refused to slosh around with the negative.
Out of all that came the Champ Car World Series, surrounded by the obligatory sponsors, Bridgestone and Ford.
So during Wednesday's CART Town Hall meeting at the DoubleTree Columbia River at Jantzen Beach (7 p.m. to 9 p.m.), you can congratulate the Pookster. He deserves it. Driver Jimmy Vasser also will be there.
Now, what can we expect this season, other than the fear of blown engines, rookie mistakes and races full of attrition that could reduce some fields to single digits?
Here are some things to watch for:
The Newman-Haas team lost champ Cristiano da Matta to Formula One but could feature the two fastest cars, with drivers Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais.
Junqueira, who finished second last year and seemed content with being second-best to da Matta, has been called the preseason favorite. Bourdais should be the top rookie. The Frenchman has the equipment, the support and the flair.
Player's Forsythe should be the other formidable team, although it has switched from Reynard to Lola chassis.
If Paul Tracy can't win this year, with all the rookies Ñ nine at last count Ñ will he ever capture the CART title? He has the speed, the dare and the backing with Player's Forsythe. But does he have championship moxie and patience? We'll see.
It's all systems go for the Portland G.I. Joe's 200, set for 12:30 p.m. June 22. It will be one of seven CART events shown live on CBS television, just what promoters don't want you to know, of course. Go buy a ticket!
The Champ Cars take to the St. Petersburg, Fla., streets Sunday in the season opener. Other highlights are the night race at Cleveland, the two-stop European swing to England (famed Brands Hatch) and Germany (an oval). The Mexico City race will be the homecoming for five Mexican drivers.
Off the schedule: Chicago, a poorly run event with little fanfare and puny crowds.
A Swede, Stefan Johannson, forms a CART team and flies the American flag. Go figure.
He's hired Vasser and rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will be the only homeboys to race in the series Ñ until somebody wises up and hires Memo Gidley or Bryan Herta. Other young Americans are waiting in the wings, but the signal has been clear: CART doesn't necessarily care to appeal only to Americans.
The power plant
Gone are Toyota and Honda. Pook negotiated a two-year, exclusive deal with Cosworth, then offered to help teams with the costs. All indications are that the deal has been win-win, with the cheaper Cosworth engine holding up in testing and producing speeds comparable to last year, and Pook able to attract many of the 13 teams by opening CART's wallet.
The engine change certainly levels the playing field. Still, will the Cosworth be dependable all year? What happens if it fails some teams? As of now, the series has only 19 cars, the minimum, and breakdowns would hurt competition.
The rookie factor
That there are only 19 cars, with nine rookie drivers, has the makings of poor competition, especially with new rules eliminating traction control devices.
There should be some wild and woolly racing. That makes for good TV and fan spectacles, but it won't help team managers who try to keep costs contained.
There could be attrition in some races and fields dipping to eight and nine. Yawn.
NOTES: Emerson Fittipaldi has returned to the series as an owner of Fittipaldi-Dingman Racing, with Tiago Monteiro in the cockpit. Mario Andretti now sits on the CART board. É The Trans-Am Series returns as support racing and will feature former two-time champ Scott Pruett, the former CART driver. É Another driver to watch: Oriol Servia. He has the backing now with Pat Patrick. É Another Unser is coming. Al Unser III, son of Al Jr. and grandson of Al, makes his pro debut in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, another support series.