Allmendinger puts U.S. back on Champ Car map
All hail the conquering American hero, A.J. Allmendinger. Harking back to yesteryear, when Americans won races in the Champ Car World Series, Allmendinger captured the Grand Prix of Portland in dominating fashion Sunday.
It was quite the week for the loquacious and personable Allmendinger, who got fired from RuSport and hired by Forsythe and then beat former teammate Justin Wilson and reigning star Sebastien Bourdais to the finish line at Portland International Raceway.
The 24-year-old California native, named after famous Indy driver A.J. Foyt, became the first American to win the Portland race since 1995 (Al Unser Jr.) and the first American to win at Champ Car in two years (Ryan Hunter-Reay). An American has not won the series title since Jimmy Vasser in 1996. You get the picture.
A rebuilding Champ Car has been searching for its identity in the United States, especially since the open-wheel split in 1995 and subsequent exodus of high-profile teams and drivers, plus NASCAR's domination of motor sports and most especially since the former CART went bankrupt in 2004.
Newman-Haas' Bourdais has made news from his performance on the track since then, but maybe Allmendinger, the lone American, will help buoy the fledgling series in the States.
'I hope so,' he says. 'But, it's not for me to say yes or no. I do this for myself and Forsythe, (sponsor) Red Bull and everybody who supported me. If I have success and it helps the series and the country gets behind the series, fantastic. I love Champ Car and what it's about.'
The headstrong Allmendinger, who got engaged this week, landed in the Forsythe cockpit after failing to win in 31 starts with RuSport. He said all the right things last weekend, including thanking the Forsythe guys for making him feel comfortable.
'When you're relaxed and having fun, it makes your job easier,' he says.
Everybody played nice - RuSport owner Carl Russo called it 'poetic justice' that Allmendinger and Wilson battled for the win.
Unhappy with the start, in which pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira inadvertently slowed down and hindered the pace of drivers behind him, Bourdais fumed all race long. He shook his hand at the starter during many laps. He pushed hard, but finished third - ending his quest for five wins in a row. He mockingly played with the dainty crystal third-place trophy and hinted at conspiracy by saying that 'if they don't want Newman-Haas to win, they should just say it.' The team has won 50 percent of its races since 2002.
'If they don't want to be a target, they should stop winning,' Allmendinger says.
Bourdais leads the series with 162 points to Wilson's 132 and Allmendinger's 102. The confident, almost cocky Bourdais says: 'It's all about consistency, and if we keep finishing races, they won't have a chance. That's the truth. No magic, it's math.'
The big secret
Everybody points to Newman-Haas' suspension as the key to its success. But for the past two years, a rule has allowed competitors to buy the system, called Dynamic Suspensions and developed by Carl Haas Auto.
'A lot of people made inquiries, but not bought them that I know of,' Newman-Haas General Manager Brian Lisles says. 'It's a substantial investment to change over, and then to get intellectual understanding.' Ah, the brains to go with the brawn …
Newman-Haas rules the roost, but Lisles prefers more competition. 'It's up to the other guys to beat us down, and for us to not make mistakes,' he says. 'We would prefer to be a big fish in a big pond.' He even intimates that Newman-Haas might look to the Indy Racing League, but 'it's extremely likely' the team will have an entry in Champ Car in 2007, despite the fact that 'we're not profitable.'
Speaking of assets, Newman-Haas has Bourdais secured under contract for 2007, Lisles says, unless the driver gets hired by a competitive team in Formula One. 'I'd be very surprised if he wasn't here,' the general manager says.
Bourdais sounded off on the Champ Car-IRL split. 'I get a lot of crap for being negative, but they need to fix this,' he says. 'I'm sick of hearing that 'everything is going to be fine.' It won't be fine.
'People are sick of losing money,' he adds, alluding to even Newman-Haas' lack of profitability. 'The truth is, it's a live or die situation for teams.'
Lisles voices the opinion of many by saying the split isn't about contracts, scheduling, sponsors and chassis and engine deals, et al., but more about Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven and IRL's Tony George and others being too power hungry. 'It's less of a business problem than a personality problem,' Bourdais says. 'Everything is negotiable … and can be resolved by senior officers.'