It's that time of year again - football is in full swing both professionally and in college, sweltering summer temps are subsiding to cooler fall weather, and American open-wheel racing has seen their two competing series, the IRL IndyCar Series and Champ Car World Series, conclude their U.S. portions of their schedules.
As American open-wheel suffers from a rash of defections to NASCAR, often money-driven, it is apparent the A1GP series is looking to solidify its presence as one of the world's premier open-wheel classes. A1 has secured the support of Ferrari for the next six seasons as dual chassis/engine provider and gives validity to the unique concept of countries racing versus each other for national pride. The fact it may extend to become a feeder series directly to Formula One will entice a majority of drivers looking to advance to the world's most prestigious open-wheel division to try their hand at A1GP.
Primarily comprised of young hopefuls, A1 has also seen a number of somewhat well-known Champ Car and IRL drivers to the field during this year's first couple of races. Former Champ Car race winner Michel Jourdain Jr. made his debut for Team Mexico this past weekend at Brno while the other North American nations are represented by former Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice (USA) and Atlantic drivers James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens (Canada). Switzerland also fields Neel Jani of Champ Car alongside rising female driver Natacha Gachnang, who has competed in Star Mazda this season.
If drivers want to stay in open-wheel and make a decent name for themselves, or race for national pride, then A1GP appears to be the best avenue to take. The IndyCar Series has announced a new revenue-sharing structure that should entice new teams to the field but hinders the front- runners who will likely see their amount of money poured in reduced. The bonus structure to all races but the Indianapolis 500 will see the winner receive $35,000 for first, $25,000 for second with prizes all the way to 5th ($10,000) in addition to the contingency money each team receives at the beginning of the season. The '500 however sees its overall purse increased from $10.7 million this year to over $13 million next season.
While at least they appear to have a direction for how to advance their product as well as keep their manufacturer, Honda, interested, it looks as though Champ Car is at a dead end. The finances are not pouring in at any rate, there have been three much-publicized cancellations of races this season and another one farmed out to Laguna Seca in May (more on that later) and a rotating driver carousel that keeps spinning wildly out of control. The series' soon-to-be four-time consecutive champ Sebastien Bourdais is off to F1 next year and rumors abound the other driver with major sponsorship, Justin Wilson and CDW, will also not be back to answer the bell for 2008.
Fellow IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champions Jacques Villeneuve and Sam Hornish Jr. will join Franchitti in contending for Rookie-of-the-Year honors in NASCAR's top series. Each has already attempted their Cup debuts this year, Villeneuve the first to make the field by starting 6th and finishing 21st at Talladega. Hornish is 0-for-4 so far.
Villeneuve making his debut in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is equivalent to the irrevocably overpaid Alex Rodriguez leaving the Yankees and his obscene $25 million a year salary to play on their Double-A farm team. Hornish's open-wheel career has consisted mainly of transforming dour cars into rocket ships and doing so in as apathetic a state as possible, a la the great Rick Mears. But in a third entry for Roger Penske, Hornish should ask A.J. Allmendinger, last year's heavily scrutinized open-wheel convert, how hard it is to get into races when you're outside the top-35 in owners points.
"I know Roger wants to see how it goes and so do I, and I'm very fortunate to have an owner who can give me these options," Hornish has admitted. "I think at my age it's better for me than maybe some other guys (i.e. Franchitti and Villeneuve). You see people get complacent in sports and it's always good to be challenged and push yourself."
Besides these three, French-Canadian Patrick Carpentier is also off to NASCAR next year. Carpentier will compete for ROTY honors with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, a couple years out of open-wheel racing, and gives NASCAR another major Canadian presence. He has competed in CASCAR, a few Busch races and made his Nextel Cup debut at Watkins Glen where he led a few laps and finished 22nd.
Though not officially in NASCAR, Scott Speed is also off to stock car racing next year in the ARCA Re/Max division. F1's first American in 13 years, Speed was dumped from Scuderia Toro Rosso after failing to live up to unreasonable expectations. He may not have the proper wardrobe for minor-league stock car racing having been teamed with Tonio Liuzzi the last two years, but he has some talent and finished 7th on his debut in Talladega.
These aforementioned pilots are the latest in a long line of drivers to jump ship, because it seems the vast majority of them have accomplished everything significant there is in American open-wheel these days. It seems unfathomable drivers with any of their credentials would give it all up to run mid-pack in NASCAR. However, at this stage, they still have the desire to further their careers and acquire the best financial position and right now that is running mid-pack in NASCAR. It may not be popular but it is a sign of the times.
The season has seen a laundry list of bungles and blunders; cancellations at Denver (pre-season), China (blocked by the FIA), Phoenix (never got off the ground), and San Jose (city development) have already been discussed ad nauseum. Going back to Laguna Seca with Grand-Am in May seems a bit ridiculous given the scuttlebutt over the Long Beach weekend where these two partnered in 2006, and all but eliminates the prospect of Champ Car teams racing in next year's Indianapolis 500.
The last two races of the Champ Car season have been in recent years, a haven for one-offs, debuts, and money-driven replacements. Loyalties aside, the peso is talking and so we have David Martinez and Mario Dominguez in seats replacing Oriol Servia and Ryan Dalziel. That was bad enough and there was another change as Jan Heylen's money well ran dry at Conquest Racing and therefore he is out for Nelson Philippe.
Heylen finished a legitimate 2nd last race at Assen and was key to the Belgian race in Zolder's success; however it speaks volumes if a series looking to expand internationally is potentially burning its own bridges before Bernie Ecclestone and/or the FIA comes through to do so. Replacement Philippe proved himself worthy with his win in Australia last year, but still was considered a ride-buyer previously and it is somewhat ironic now he is only racing now at another's expense - pardon the pun.
Gerry Forsythe, MIA in the paddock since April, promotes the Mexico City race and word is that the event is nowhere near as popular as it once was, given the growth of the NASCAR Busch Series event there. The amount of Mexican drivers and sponsorships has all declined the last couple years. Only Roshfrans still supports the series, while famous brands like Tecate, Herdez, Gigante and Telmex have all pulled the plug. Unlikely these two late substitutions to the already pathetic field of 17 cars will do that much to save open-wheel south of the border either.
About all set in stone for next season in Champ Car on the driver front is that year's Atlantic champion and $2 million recipient, Raphael Matos, will join the field. Matos has hinted he could make his debut in either of the two final races but that seems an unlikely proposition at the moment. He will not make the leap with Sierra Sierra Enterprises and will join an existing team, potentially PKV Racing.
The few team owners who have expressed interest in advancing up the ladder for next season are at a standstill. Parts are at a premium for the new car and can only be made available once a new line of five cars is produced; however, with no interest or orders, there are no new cars. Proposed efforts by the mysterious and/or controversial AVN Racing and at least one Atlantic team owner are unlikely to come to fruition simply on the basis there's no equipment available - or ROI whatsoever.
For a dozen years open-wheel racing in America has been a sport in decline but now it is officially a sport in crisis. It's a shame because these are some of the most technologically advanced cars in the world, even as spec cars, and are now off to collect dust for an extended period of time.
Of course, with football and NASCAR's Chase for the Championship now in full swing, it's not like anyone has been or would be tuning in to watch open-wheel anyway -- witness both of their microscopic domestic television ratings. Change cannot occur without the withdrawal of hubris and stubbornness from the series' owners, and at their current rate both IndyCar and Champ Car have much work ahead of them on the road back to respectability.