2007 marks a significant reinvention for the Champ Car World Series. Though the season is still several months away, any trace of its former self has long since departed. The series has forged its own path that continues to widen from its open-wheel rival, the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series.
The dead horse has been beaten every year since the split of 1996, with the topic of reunification always discussed by somebody at some point, but with nothing accomplished and the two still on divided terms. While many feel that two into one is best, it increasingly grows more improbable as time passes.
Mainly, Champ Car is focusing on the "world" in their series name. This was once a distinctly American sport, comprised of primarily American drivers and races on American soil. NASCAR had not yet hit its peak but was in the midst of a rapid ascension that only grew with the unending open-wheel rift. The best drivers split up, and a more present batch of European and Latin American drivers showed up on American soil. Hard to believe, but it has been ten years already since Champ Car's last American champion, Jimmy Vasser, who hasn't officially announced his retirement but has likely driven his final full season of competition.
Two of Vasser's teammates exemplified that worldly flare that first took Champ Car (formerly CART) by storm in the late '90s. Alex Zanardi won a pair of titles and endeared himself to fans with his signature victory celebration, the invention of "donuts". When he left for F1, a fiery Colombian named Juan Pablo Montoya stole the show winning the series championship in his rookie season. A year later he was winning the Indianapolis 500, and another 12 months after that lighting the F1 world on fire. Yet as Montoya returns to the states in 2007, it is not for an open-wheel comeback but rather to drive the 3400-lb taxi cabs better known as stock cars. Montoya is one of several ex-Champ Car drivers to commit to a complete season of NASCAR racing joining other former CART racers who have taken up the NASCAR challenge including Robby Gordon who owns his own team.
Champ Car has never been good at hanging onto its stars since the split. There were some tragically taken away from us, the undeniably talented Greg Moore for instance, at the ripe age of 24 after a devastating accident at Fontana in '99. Others left in their prime, notably two-time series champion Gil de Ferran. The Brazilian joined Roger Penske's operation in the midst of the barrage of teams jumping ship to the IRL. Penske set the trend and others, like Ganassi, Andretti Green, Fernandez, and Rahal Letterman followed.
Those teams took former race winners and prominent personalities such as Helio Castroneves, Michael Andretti, Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Kenny Brack, and Adrian Fernandez, among others with them. Cristiano da Matta left for F1 after winning the 2002 series crown, and by 2003, though Paul Tracy had won a deserved first championship, he was beating about ten quality drivers and eight career mid-fielders in various leagues.
American Ryan Hunter-Reay won a pair of races but found himself out of work in late 2005. Champ Car co-owner Paul Gentilozzi petitioned for him to stay in the series, fielding a second car, but ultimately without the necessary resources to run it to the potential needed. Finally, there was the man who gave three-time champ Sebastien Bourdais the biggest run for his money this year and now who joins the list of Champ Car alumni: A.J. Allmendinger.
A career open-wheeler, Allmendinger won a Barber Dodge crown and then had an entire team created around him, RuSPORT, with whom he won an Atlantic title and then followed up with the Champ Car Rookie honors in '04 without winning a Champ Car race. He only lit up the scoreboard upon his unexpected release. And by Surfer's Paradise, his heart may have still been in the sport but his head wasn't, and he was off to NASCAR as well.
Champ Car has soldiered on, though how well is a matter of opinion. The last three years has seen admittedly weaker fields and one man win all three titles. For each race there were still anywhere between 16 and 19 cars, with some good competition and some quality moments. Increasingly the series has deviated from the formula it was founded on in 1979: a mix of circuits, chassis, and engines.
The 2007 season will be contested solely on road and street courses, after years where it was the only major racing series to run on ovals, super speedways and the aforementioned two types of circuits. Ironically enough, IndyCar's 2007 schedule includes all four types and many of which were previously Champ Car strongholds, such as revived stops at Belle Isle in Detroit and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. And of the 16 confirmed cars, 11 are from prior Champ Car teams.
Champ Car is going international with a new event in Zhuhai, China, after two failed attempts at running a race in Ansan, South Korea. The series is currently holding the month of September open with the intent of racing a pair of events in Europe, likely at Assen in the Netherlands and Zolder in Belgium. They are also adopting some international rules, officially switching to timed events over predetermined lap totals and adding standing starts for select events. Their driver lineup, though mostly unconfirmed at this point, should include a bevy of pilots from outside North America.
At the moment, the only confirmed American driver on the 2007 grid is Alex Figge, a rookie who will compete in the new Panoz DP01 chassis for the Pacific Coast Motorsports operation's move from Atlantic racing to Grand American sportscar racing and now back to open-wheel for their Champ Car debut. Graham Rahal, the teenage standout from the Champ Car Atlantic series, is likely to join the field. But that's the list, barring another Vasser one-off or some other worthy American getting a chance.
Champ Car's new identity is that of an FIA-style series, without the stringency and technology of the sanctioning body's premier series, Formula One. But everything that was once great about the series is gone in this writer's opinion. I was even younger than I am now when I first discovered the sport, and I saw a wide variety of drivers, tracks, chassis, engines and tires that was unrivaled in any other form of racing. And in my youth, it was hard to miss a Champ Car race for those reasons.
IndyCar may be trying to bring that style of racing back to life, but the time has passed. I read an article in a magazine a while back where the author noted that while both Champ Car and IRL felt their schedules were strong and filled with enticing events, they lacked the cohesiveness and overall best events that were once comprised in one middle to late '90s open-wheel schedule.
Ultimately, times change and during my fandom and now writing career, open-wheel has tried to fix its product to keep up with NASCAR's ascendance. While diehards remain true to the sport, the new racing fans are increasingly beginning to follow NASCAR and rarely acknowledge the other series that exist.
Champ Car's major overhaul of its product for 2007 is just another chapter in the "trying to catch NASCAR" book and probably will produce the same results. I'll be watching but I'm not sure who else will be.