CHAMPCAR/CART: Rookie-of-the-Year contendors shine

The Future of Champ Car Looks Bright as New Stars Begin to Shine INDIANAPOLIS (October 11, 2004) -- Last year it was Sebastien Bourdais ( ...

The Future of Champ Car Looks Bright as New Stars Begin to Shine

INDIANAPOLIS (October 11, 2004) -- Last year it was Sebastien Bourdais (#2 McDonald's Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), this year it will be a new name and a new face as the season comes to an end and the Rookie-of-the-Year battle crowns a new rising star in the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford.

The talent was widespread amongst this year's rookie drivers. It did not matter their age, their previous racing background, or their nationality; they were all fighting for the same thing: a successful first year and the Jim Trueman Rookie-of-the-Year award.

One of the brightest young stars in American open-wheel racing, A.J. Allmendinger (#10 Western Union Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone), is the current points leader in the rookie battle. With an uneasy start to the season during the first two races, the 2003 Toyota Atlantic Championship Series champion qualified fifth at Milwaukee on his first oval, in only his third race in a Champ Car.

He would continue qualifying in the top-ten for the remainder of the season, with the exception of Vancouver, where he started 11th. However, that run turned out to be his best of the season, as he maneuvered his way through the field with the style of a veteran to finish third on the podium alongside teammate Michel Jourdain Jr. to hand over the first 2-3 podium finish for rookie team RuSPORT.

Sitting seventh in the overall Championship battle, Allmendinger is the only rookie to have a podium finish this season.

"I'm really pleased with the season overall," said Allmendinger who only needs to obtain one more point over Justin Wilson (#34 Mi-Jack Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) to win the Rookie-of-the-Year award. "The RuSPORT team just came together really quickly as a whole and even though Michel came on late, he's been helpful for me. As a team, we set goals along the way and we've met them ahead of schedule. First we wanted to be competitive, and we were pretty quickly. Then we aimed for top five and we've done that and gotten podiums along the way. After we knew that we were, in fact, capable of finishing in the top five, we focused on making those finishes consistent. I think if you look at the last half of the season, it shows that we're knocking on the door every weekend and I'm really happy about that.

I am still disappointed in myself somewhat because I have made a couple of stupid mistakes that cost us solid finishes and probably a couple of podiums. My team has really delivered for me with pit stops and a great race car and now I've just got to learn from those mistakes and give back to them what I know I'm capable of doing. So, overall though, I'm pleased with my performance for my first year. Champ Car is the best series out there in my opinion. It's really competitive and doesn't allow for mistakes and I'm pleased that I've proven I can race with some of the best drivers in the world."

The young American also earned his first front-row start of his young Champ Car career when he took the green flag on the outside of Sebastien Bourdais in Montreal. Wilson is the only other rookie to have accomplished that feat when he earned his first-front row start earlier in the season at Cleveland. These two drivers are also the only rookies this season to have led laps during a race. Wilson led his first lap during his second Champ Car race in Monterrey, Mexico; Allmendinger paced the 18-car field for ten laps during his visit to Montreal.

Wilson held the points lead before hitting the halfway point and now sits in second, 34 points behind Allmendinger in the Rookie-of-the-Year battle. With his experience in Formula One, this Brit has proven to be a good qualifier by starting in the top-ten eight times this season. The Mi-Jack Conquest Racing pilot's best finish was in Portland where he crossed the stripe fifth, producing one of his six top-ten finishes this season.

"I was expecting good racing, a good level of competition, fun and challenging cars to drive and a good atmosphere and that's exactly what we've got," Wilson said about his expectations during his rookie season. "I really like the series, I really like the championship and how it works and it's a good place to be."

Unlike his fellow rookies, Roberto Gonzalez (#21 Nextel Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) did not make his Champ Car debut at the season opener in Long Beach. With a chance to get his feet wet in a pair of events during the 2003 season with Dale Coyne Racing and Herdez Competition, the Mexican earned his first full-time ride with PKV Racing this year, thus his rookie status. He has earned five top-ten finishes, with his best start of tenth in Las Vegas and his best finish of seventh in Cleveland.

"I think the season has been a positive experience for me and the PKV Racing team," said Gonzalez, who stands third in the Rookie of the Year battle with 117 points. "Although the numbers might not show it, I believe we've come a long way this season. We've struggled at times, but have either reached, or come close to reaching our goal of running in the top-10 all year."

Previous to his Champ Car debut in Milwaukee, Gaston Mazzacane (#19 American Medical Response Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) was a full time driver in Formula One. His familiarity of a high-tech open-wheel racecar allowed him to demonstrate his talents early on in a Champ Car. In only his fourth race with Dale Coyne Racing, he produced a sixth-place finish in Toronto after starting 16th. One of only two rookie drivers who have gained positions in every race they have successfully completed, this Argentinean has bettered his position in seven events out of nine starts.

The other driver who has gained positions during the races he has completed is France's Nelson Philippe (#14 Mi-Jack Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Upon taking the green flag during the 2004 season opener, Philippe became the youngest driver to compete in a Champ Car race at the age of 17. He has made ten starts, earning his best start of 13th in Montreal driving for Mi-Jack Conquest Racing. Finishing a Champ Car career best ninth in Las Vegas marked the third time this season the Frenchman has finished in the top-ten.

The final rookie currently challenging in the 2004 field is Guy Smith (#17 Rocketsports Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Making his Champ Car debut at Road America, the 2003 24 Hours of Le Mans winner stepped into the cockpit of a one seater following several years of sportscar racing. He has made five starts with Rocketsports Racing earning his best start of 14th at Laguna Seca. Not only did that event mark his best Champ Car career start, but also his best finish as he gained five spots to finish ninth.

These drivers are the future of Champ Car racing. One thing that is important to a series is having new drivers come up through the ranks and make a name for themselves. Who would have thought, 2003 Rookie-of-the-Year Sebastien Bourdais would be chasing the Championship title in only his second year racing in the series. Just as he impressed many during his rookie season, Bourdais is as equally impressed with this year's rookies.

"As was the case last year, the rookie field is pretty big and strong again this year," said Bourdais as he reflected on his Rookie-of-the-Year winning season to compare it with this year's rookie class. "We have a Formula One driver with Justin Wilson and a reigning Toyota Atlantic champion with A.J. Allmendinger as well as the other drivers so this year there has been a pretty intense battle between the rookies. For sure winning Rookie of the Year last year was a big honor for me and it led to a better season this year. I wish the best to the winner this year. Maybe he will have as good of a year as I have had this season."

-ccws-

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