CHAMPCAR/CART: Scene at Long Beach

The 1.968-mile track in Long Beach street course wends its way around marinas and through the Aquarium of the Pacific's entryway. During the media day that celebrated Formula Drift, one of the side shows that accompany the 31st annual Toyota...

The 1.968-mile track in Long Beach street course wends its way around marinas and through the Aquarium of the Pacific's entryway. During the media day that celebrated Formula Drift, one of the side shows that accompany the 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, one of the Japanese drivers came a wee bit too close to the fountain and shredded newly planted flowers. Track supervisor Dwight Tanaka said the cost was in the middle four figures to appease the city.

Formula Drift is gaining fans throughout the paddock this weekend as their scent of rubber and tire smoke leave a distinct and different foggy view for the fans on hand. The smell of burning rubber even permeated the media center inside the convention center on the ground floor.

American Rhys Millen, driving a bright yellow Pontiac GTO waltzed away with the Toyota Pro-Celebrity race earlier in the day and then went out and drifted his way around the Long Beach track. There were quite a few wall- smacks by the drifting dudes but only sheet metal was impacted.

Grand Prix at Long Beach officials are pleased with the turnout these first two days for the 22nd visit by CART/Champ Car to the circuit. As usual, while most fans sat in their seats or wandered trackside for final qualifying, many more visited the many vendors lining the circuit for, yes, another beer or t-shirt.

It's been Chamber of Commerce weather here on Saturday after extremely windy conditions prevailed on Friday. It's customary for the wind to come up around mid-afternoon, but Friday afternoon and evening trees were felled about the city and some lost power during the evening.

Brakes are a true "wear" item on the Long Beach track, with its high-speed straights and tight wall-bracketed corners. While most teams use standard issue fans normally put in front of the driver during practice to help keep calipers, rotors and pads cool, it's apparent this long Champ Car World Series off-season gave the Newman/Haas Racing team incentive to build their own very nice aluminum brake cooling devices. By any indication, they're the hit of the weekend.

This time last year, most Champ Car World Series may have wondered if they'd be back to Long Beach in 2005. This year they all appear a good deal more relaxed and certain of their destiny with a firm 14-race campaign on the docket. The sole unfortunate circumstance is the scheduling of the first race this late in the racing season and the fact that the next race doesn't occur until May 22, a full six weeks away.

Even Gerald Forsythe and Kevin Kalkhoven, whose dollars are saving Champ Car from being swallowed by the Indy Racing League looked happy this weekend. They've got a full complement of 19 cars - one more than last year - and well-formed teams.

Forsythe's lead driver Paul Tracy is the two-time defending champion at The Beach and is looking for a hat trick on Sunday. No wonder Forsythe is beaming.

Champ Car's 19th entrant Jensen Motorsport announced it would be part of the series just a few weeks ago and hired Italian Fabrizio Del Monte a day before practice began. The Jensen Motorsport team spent much of the morning practicing pit stops; as a Toyota Atlantic Championship entry the past few years, they've never had to complete that sub-20-second dance.

Dale Coyne's lineup wasn't final until Thursday either, but the appearance of Oriol Servia in Coyne's #19 Lola should come as no surprise after the Catalonian driver performed so well for Coyne during the 2004 season, giving his team their first podium since 1996. Well-traveled Ricardo Sperafico drives the #11 car after competing with Coloni in the 2003 F3000 series. Thus far in the weekend, Sperafico has spent more time against barriers and in the pits than on circuit.

All that rubber laid down by Formula Drift didn't do much for the Trans-Am challenge cars that had their final practice immediately following final Champ Car qualifying. The "line" used in drifting is way different from that employed by circuit drivers who are trying not to drift their cars through these turns. No problems for Boris Said, the Trans-Am polesitter, who knows the best line around Long Beach is the one in front of Paul Gentilozzi.

The pits at Long Beach are notoriously tight. Pit boxes themselves are of standard length but the area behind those pits has space for just about ten people maximum. That lack of real estate stops no one who wants to be seen from crowding the pits where the top drivers are stationed: there's a no passing zone behind the pits of Alex Tagliani (#15 Aussie Vineyards Lola), Tracy, PKV's #12 Lola for Jimmy Vasser and the #21 Lola for Cristiano da Matta.

Da Matta's family is with him this weekend as they have been since his early days in the Dayton Indy Lights Challenge. Vasser's father Jim is on hand as well, as is Sebastien Bourdais' father Patrick who flew in from France to watch his son race. Nelson Philippe's father is here, as is Jose Junqueira, who regularly follows son Bruno's pace at the Champ Car races.

Bigwigs from Cosworth Ltd in Northampton made the trek to Long Beach for this race including former commercial director Bernard Ferguson, who uses any excuse to drink fine California red wines. Bruce Wood, charged with the development of Champ Car's XFE turbo engine is also in town, as is Ian Bisco, who runs the rebuild center in nearby Torrance.

Most talk in the paddock centers around the future of this race, as both Toyota Motor Sales and Champ Car World Series contracts expire with checkered flags on Sunday afternoon. In an unscientific tally the local Press Telegram newspaper discovered that more than 70 percent of the people in Long Beach would prefer to see the Champ cars remain in town each April.

Toyota will likely remain with the race that is contracted to take place through 2010, according to both the race organizers and city fathers. Some say the Indy Racing League will be here in 2006, but rumors are floating about concerning Toyota's IRL participation after this year. Will the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach become a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series stop? It could happen.

Use of the Reynard chassis in Champ Car is a thing of the past. Every one of 19 cars entered for this race is a Lola B2/00, the chassis first seen in Y2K that has won the last three championships with Newman/Haas Racing (2002, 2004) and with Forsythe Championship Racing in 2003. Martin Birrane, the owner of Lola Cars is in Long Beach to witness his company's complete takeover of the Champ Car grid.

There are two sets of alternate tires allocated to each car for this race and painted a distinctive red on the sidewall. Many drivers chose to use the alternate for qualifying, including 1996 CART champ Vasser who noted, "It has more grip and that was one of the biggest factors in our improvement" Saturday afternoon.

And back to Drifting...
Formula Drift has the crowd excited here at Long Beach as it’s the first time anyone’s drifted legally on city streets. Driver Tyler McQuarrie in the Jasper Performance Supra Turbo noted the drifters use a completely different slip angle exiting the corners from the Champ Car, Toyota Atlantic and Trans-Am cars: “We get in the marbles at corner exit and might actually clean them off for the other cars. Those guys are gonna love us after we clean the track for them on Sunday,” he said.

After winning the Toyota Pro-Celebrity race on Saturday, Rhys Millen was asked which discipline he preferred: “They’re both fun,” said the second generation driver, son of off-roader Rod Millen. “And they’re both so very different it’s hard to compare.” Millen is one of the more sedate drifters in the paddock, but at least he speaks English. A translator is on hand to assist the balance of the Formula Drift contingent, who all seem to enjoy one another’s company, no matter what language they speak.

McQuarrie and Millen agreed the best part about Formula Drift is the camaraderie. Everyone gets along in this type of racing and most share equipment when the occasional prang occurs.

The 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach takes the green flags shortly after 1PM PDT Sunday afternoon and is being televised live by NBC. Promoter Jim Michaelian is extremely pleased the race has returned to network television after being broadcast on cable the past couple of years.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Boris Said , Jimmy Vasser , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Oriol Servia , Rhys Millen , Sébastien Bourdais , Gerald Forsythe , Jim Michaelian , Nelson Philippe , Rod Millen , Kevin Kalkhoven , Dale Coyne