Carl Russo didn't intend to enlarge his fledgling Champ Car World Series team from one entry for rookie A.J. Allmendinger, winner of the Toyota Atlantic Championship Series as a rookie last year. That would have been quite enough, thank you, with a brace of Lola chassis undergoing preparation for the 2004 campaign since the fall of last year.
The 27-year-old Mexican, who began his Champ Car career in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 1996 as the youngest driver to ever start a race of that caliber at 19 years, 6 months and 12 days of age, decided not to join Rahal on the all-oval IndyCar Series trail and, with sponsor Gigante by his side began to look for the right team with which to ally.
RuSPORT became that team with the announcement today that they will field a second Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone entry for Jourdain. "We are very excited to have a championship contender join our team," Russo declared. "The opportunity to have Michel join us was too good to pass up. We had to stretch our resources to do this," because a two-car Champ Car team, while certainly on his radar screen wasn't in the cards for this season.
There were some clues that an affiliation was in the making, particularly during the first Champ Car open practice session on the 1.2-mile Sebring test track last week. When 21-year-old Allmendinger developed a nasty case of bursitis on his elbow, Jourdain went around the paddock and borrowed suit and helmet from his friends and filled in for the Californian.
"I started my Champ Car career at Long Beach and A.J. will be doing the same," Jourdain continued. "For me it was a big dream come true and I'm sure he'll do very, very good and impress everybody" in the first race of the year, set for April 16-18 on the 1.968-mile seminal street course.
"For sure my goal is to win races and be competitive this season," Jourdain explained. "The first couple of races we will learn from one another but by the end of the season I am hopeful we will be fighting for the championship."
A second car would never have been part of Russo's 2004 operation had the driver and sponsor not been Jourdain Jr. and Gigante, the large Mexican retailer whose operations are similar to those of Target. "We were committed to racing one car and we're running two only because Michel was available. It was kind of a gift from God," he said. "Gigante has been a great supporter of Michel and the Champ Car World Series and we're committed to assisting them" in attaining the ultimate goal of a championship.
New RuSPORT teammate Allmendinger is excited to have Jourdain by his side. "I'm extremely happy to have a championship contender like Michel onboard," Allmendinger crowed. "Having a teammate who is as competitive as Michel is going to help as I learn the car and setups. I'm even more anxious to get on the track and see what we can do!"
RuSPORT did look at all of their options, taking a glance at the Indy Racing League prior to deciding to move up to the Champ Car World Series. "Champ Car is a good choice for our team. Their events have extraordinary turnouts and the fan base is loyal." From a commercial standpoint, "This is the best business place to be. We looked at the IRL; we are a race team, after all. We would race wheelbarrows if it came down to that!"
As a successful businessman, Russo takes a commercial approach to building his team. "Racing is both a sport and a business," he said. "We look for fair advantages and try to be good sports people, to be a good addition to any paddock. We've studied all paddocks for the right formula and we believe in symmetry." Russo also said he "believes in a two-car team but it's really a stretch for us this year."
Dale, the former sports car driving ace who was a big part of the Barber Dodge Pro Series when Allmendinger won that crown two years ago recognizes that RuSPORT will have to apply some personnel changes because the team hadn't planned for a two-car entry in this year's Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.
Scott Wulff, who has been RuSPORT director of operations and team manager continues with the group and oversaw last week's Sebring test. RuSPORT have also acquired the services of David Brown, architect of Formula One World Championships for Frenchman Alain Prost and 1993 Champ Car titleholder Nigel Mansell to head up the engineering side. "Most of the Atlantic guys are still with us and because of them, we're capable of going to the Champ Car World Series," Dale admitted.
Putting a second team and car together in time for the start of practice at Long Beach April 16th will be "tough," Jourdain acknowledged. "I was in the car last Friday in relief of A.J. so the team could get their test miles in." A second set of Lola cars has been ordered for Jourdain's side of the Denver area RuSPORT shop facility, according to Dale.
"Our trucks are en route now from Florida to the shop. We expect to test both cars at Fontana [California Speedway] the week leading up to Long Beach. We won't be in quite as comfortable a position as we'd like for Long Beach because cars are not available," Dale said. "We expect to have two cars ready in time for Monterrey," the second round of the series that takes place on May 23rd.
Russo chose to base his operations near the Mile High city of Denver despite the challenge of getting people. "You'd be surprised by the number of people in the Champ Car paddock who come from Colorado," Russo and Dale noted as they explained that there are plenty of supplier entities in the area. "People want to come here. There's an advantage in isolation," Russo said, citing the location Penske Racing shops in the backwater of Reading, PA.
"We just have to stay focused on what we do and nothing else. It's easy to be distracted," Russo explained. Having Michel Jourdain Jr. on his fledgling Champ Car World Series team will "help us ramp up. Michel has a feel for the cars and almost won the championship last year.
"He's got more than 100 races at this level and he brings the mindset and philosophy" of a champion in addition to his setup abilities, honed through eight years of competition, with Team Scandia, Dale Coyne, Payton Coyne, Bettenhausen Motorsports and Team Rahal.