Columns - Big Al

Don't think that Champcars are second division stuff


Grandstand seats for Saturday's CART race at Rockingham cost one hundred pounds apiece, but even with a race shortened from its planned 208 laps to just 140, most of Britain's bedrock motor racing fans will have joined the long queues from the car parks with broad grins on their faces.

The key to the success of the US series' maiden visit to the brand new British oval track was twofold. Firstly, the racing itself offered gripping entertainment. Secondly, the race fans could get close up to the cars and walk the paddock cheek-by-jowel with the star drivers.

Granted the names of Gil de Ferran and Kenny Brack may not be as familiar to the man in the UK street as Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard. Yet there was none of the Colditz mentality which is now such an integral part of the British grand prix at Silverstone where formula one's stars retreat from the gaze of the race fans to an exclusive inner paddock behind electronically controlled turnstiles.

That said, it was good to see Coulthard present at Rockingham as a spectator in the paddock. Two of his closest friends are de Ferran, originally a team-mate 12-years ago in Paul Stewart's Opel Lotus team of junior league single seaters, and fellow Scot Dario Franchitti who finished a disappointing ninth in Saturday's race.

"I love Champcars," said Coulthard who last year flew straight from the Malaysian GP to spectate as de Ferran clinched the CART title in the final race at California's Fontana speedway. "But I don't think I'd ever try them because I'd be too frightened."

Coulthard said it with a grin on his face, as anybody who regularly sits it out wheel-to-wheel with Schumacher's Ferrari might well do, yet the subliminal point was made. Being a driver, he has more first-hand evidence on which to base a professional respect for his Cart colleagues than some formula one team owners who tend to be dismissive of the US series as a second division category.

Yet Juan Montoya's decisive victory for the BMW Williams team in the Italian grand prix at Monza eight days ago may well force a recalibration of this viewpoint. The Colombian driver spent two years in CART, winning the championship in 1999 and posting a dominant victory in last year's Indianapolis 500, the ultimate oval racing event which falls within the orbit of the rival Indy racing league.

It's also perhaps worth mentioning that Montoya dead-heated on points with Franchitti in 1999, taking the Cart title thanks only to more race wins that his Scottish rival.

What oval racing taught Montoya was the need for absolute precision, pin-sharp judgement and mutual respect amongst rivals. With 21 cars jostling for position on the 1.5-mile Rockingham track on Saturday afternoon de Ferran and Brack spent almost the whole race threading their way through traffic as they battled to make fractions of a second on each other.

In this sort of environment, where the consequences of a wheel-banging episode do not bear thinking about, there is no room for the unruly weaving which Michael Schumacher has made his speciality and which the sport's governing body has sanctioned as a legitimate maneuver. In CART the racing is conducted with surgical precision and absolute discipline.

Ironically, the category is struggling to survive in the face in the face of rivalry from the Indy racing league. Despite having a much poorer series in the USA with less professional teams and largely amateur drivers, the IRL has the Indianapolis 500 as the jewel in its crown and Indy president Tony George, who owns the track where the US grand prix takes place next Sunday, knows he holds the ace card.

CART will eventually have to capitulate and amalgamate with George's series for the greater good of US domestic motor racing. Hopefully not before the Cart competitors return to Rockingham next season. To offer the paying public a reminder of what real motor racing is all about.