CART Champ Car World Series point leaders look to break logjam as series heads to historic night race at Milwaukee Mile
INDIANAPOLIS (May 27, 2003) - Two exciting races with packed grandstands, the emergence of new championship contenders and the emotional return of former champion Alex Zanardi to the driver's seat were all highlights of Champ Car's European swing - a swing that saw a number of changes in the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford. The biggest change came at the top of the ladder as Paul Tracy's (#3 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) 26-point lead in the series was swallowed up by the rest of the field.
The series comes back to its stateside home for this weekend's Milwaukee Mile Centennial 250 Presented by Miller Lite, but returns to a home that will look unlike anything it has seen before, despite the fact that the CART Champ Car World Series has been to The Milwaukee Mile more often than any other racetrack in existence.
The venerable 1.032-mile oval at Wisconsin State Fair Park will gleam under the brilliance of Musco Lighting for the first time ever as the Champ Cars will light up the night for a Saturday-night shootout. The refurbished Mile will feature many new amenities, including the construction of brand-new grandstands, and will give the event an entirely new look and feel.
But the improvements outside the track will have little bearing on what goes on inside the walls as a new generation of Champ Car drivers will look to put their names alongside legends such as Andretti, Mears, Jones and Unser as drivers that have won at Milwaukee.
The contingent of first-timers that will test their skills on the quick Milwaukee oval is led by Sebastien Bourdais (#2 Lilly Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) of Newman/Haas Racing. Enlightening critics that had not followed the exploits of the FIA International F3000 champion, Bourdais showed that he had the race speed to match his early-season polewinning performances by snaring the first two race wins of his career on the European sojourn. He won Brands Hatch in a flawless effort, and then used every inch of race track to deny a pair of rivals that filled his mirrors on the way to the EuroSpeedway finish line.
Bourdais vaulted from 16th to fourth in the points chase with his two wins and took a commanding lead in the rookie standings over Walker Racing's Darren Manning (#15 RAC Ford-Cosworth/Reynard Bridgestone), who earned a career-high seventh-place finish at Brands Hatch, and then bettered that with a sixth-place run in Germany. But the rookies will have not only to overcome an unfamiliar track, but also a slew of veterans that have tasted the sweet suds of Milwaukee success if they are to climb the victory podium.
Series co-points leader Tracy will enter the weekend as the man to watch as the Canadian looks to reprise his successful run on the Wisconsin oval a year ago. Already a three-time race winner this year, Tracy returns to the track that saw him lead 184 of 250 laps last year en route to his third Milwaukee victory. The winner of the prestigious Driver of the Quarter award after his scorching season start, Tracy will look to rebound from a trip to Europe that saw him earn just two points in the two races.
Tracy's woes allowed Bruno Junqueira (#1 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) to claim a share of the points lead as the 2002 series runner-up erased what had been a 26-point deficit in the title hunt with a pair of top-five finishes. The Brazilian has enjoyed success on short ovals such as Milwaukee, having won his first Champ Car pole on the tight Nazareth track and earning his first top-five finish in his initial Milwaukee visit in 2001.
Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) sits directly behind the two co-leaders and returns to the track that propelled him into the series points lead for the first time in his eight-year CART career last season. Jourdain completed a run of four straight top-five finishes with a fifth-place effort at Milwaukee last season, moving him into the points lead. Last year was the first time in seven starts that Jourdain has even scored points on The Mile, but he comes off a podium finish on the EuroSpeedway oval and is just 10 points shy of leaving Wisconsin with the points lead again.
Losing the lead at the drop of the green flag last year despite having earned the pole is a fact that will stoke the competitive fire of 2002 Milwaukee runner-up Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who will look to better last season's run by one spot. Fernandez has earned five consecutive top-10 finishes at Milwaukee including last year's second-place run from pole, and has led laps in two of the last three trips to Wisconsin State Fair Park.
The only other driver to hold a Milwaukee Champ Car win will be the least-rested of the 19 men in the field as Jimmy Vasser (#12 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) will come to Milwaukee on the heels of his Indianapolis 500 run for Team Rahal. Vasser, who won the 1998 Milwaukee race from the fifth starting position and was the only Champ Car driver to compete in this year's Indy 500, scored points in each of his first seven trips to the West Allis oval and will be looking for a strong finish to keep himself in the points race.
The same can be said for sophomore surprise Mario Dominguez (#55 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), who finds himself in the thick of the title trip for the first time in his two seasons. The Mexican earned back-to-back podium finishes for the first time in his career in finishing third at Brands Hatch and second at EuroSpeedway and gave Herdez Competition consecutive podium placings for the first time in its long history. Dominguez does have a strong history at Milwaukee from his years in CART's Ladder System, having earned podium finishes in 2000 and '01 while in Indy Lights.
The driver directly behind Dominguez has already etched himself into the lore of The Mile as Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) comes into the weekend as the track-record holder, having set the single-lap mark with a blistering orbit of 185.500mph (20.028 seconds) in 1998. Carpentier won the 1998 pole with that record-setting lap and has a third-place run in 2000 to his credit, although he has not scored championship points in either of his last two visits.
A pair of fourth-year drivers will be looking for their first Milwaukee successes as well as a foothold in the championship chase as Alex Tagliani (#33 Johnson Controls Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Oriol Servia (#20 Visteon/Patrick Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) will try to capture their first top-10 finishes on the mile oval. Servia suffered one of his biggest disappointments last year when his PacWest squad came to Milwaukee but elected to fold their tents, leaving the Spaniard temporarily out of a ride. He comes to Milwaukee on a high note this year, having collected a pair of top-five finishes on the European swing and vaulting into the top 10 in the season standings. Tagliani scored just one point in his first three Milwaukee trips while with Player's/Forsythe, but will look to give his new Rocketsports Racing team another podium to match the effort from Monterrey.
Two more drivers can call up their experiences from the Champ Car Ladder System to aid their causes this week as Ryan Hunter-Reay (#31 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) and Rodolfo Lavin (#5 Corona Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) will try and mount an assault on the rookie title. Hunter-Reay rolled to the pole in last year's Toyota Atlantic race but suffered a mechanical failure that ended his day. Lavin, who scored his first Champ Car points two weeks ago in Germany, scored a career-best second-place finish in last year's Atlantic race at Milwaukee and had a second-row starting spot in 2001 before ending up 14th.
Many of the future stars of the series will be on display for the Milwaukee fans as the Champ Car Ladder System will take to the track as well in the form of the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship and the Barber Dodge Pro Series. All three races will take place on Saturday, with the BDPS race starting at 2:30 and the Atlantics leaving the grid at 5 p.m.
The Milwaukee Mile Centennial 250 Presented by Miller Lite will take place on the night of May 31, and will be broadcast live by SPEED Channel at 9 p.m. Eastern. The race broadcast will be preceded by live qualifying coverage on Friday night, with SPEED Channel's broadcast team taking the air beginning at 9:30 p.m.