Today is the first day of the rest of the Champ Car Series' life. The Grand Prix of the Americas in Miami will unveil the format for the 2004 season under new ownership for the series.
Open Wheel Racing Series LLC's proposed takeover of CART is almost a foregone conclusion, and the format of the series will change drastically in an effort to revitalize open-wheel racing in America. Paul Gentilozzi, one of the principals in OWRS, also owns the Trans-Am sedan series, which will run as a support event at most Champ Car races.
The Trans-Am title sponsored is MotoRock, a promotional company for rock and roll concerts, and the new Champ Car format will marry racing with rock to entice younger fans in the 18 to 25 age group. In Miami the race will be mated with concerts by Kid Rock and the Queens of the Stone Age as well as Elton John (for the baby boomer CEOs that are being courted for sponsorship money). Also featured will be the Motorock CafAc hospitality areaa an enclave for sponsors, high rollers, their families and associates to mingle while enjoying a prime seat for the race. If successful, this dramatic marketing effort could have the same effect on open-wheel racing that R.J. Reynolds' Winston brand brought to NASCAR in the early 1970s.
Another sideshow will add to the hoopla of this weekend's Miami race. The crime drama CSI: Miami will use the race as a storyline in an upcoming episode. In the story a murder will take place at the racetrack, and the CSI detectives will work with the Champ Car teams to solve the crime. Several of the Champ Car teams will have featured roles in the episode.
In addition, a member of the Unser family will be a participant in the event. Cody Unser, daughter of Al Unser Jr., has been wheelchair-bound since contracting transverse myelitis at age 12. Now 16, she has been to a number of Champ Car races and was entranced when she saw Alex Zanardi drive a Champ Car in Germany a year after his horrific accident that took both his legs.
Cody will drive a Ford truck equipped with hand controls on the ceremonial victory lap following today's race. She is particularly pleased to be able to do this in Miami, where she has spent much time working with The Miami Project on overcoming mobility challenges. She will also use the event to publicize the Cody Unser First Step Foundation, which was founded to help people with mobility issues. Ironically Cody's father abandoned the Champ Car series three years ago to drive in the rival Indy Racing League.
Of course, there are a couple of other minor races taking place today, Winston Cup at Talladega and the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been cleared to drive at Talladega after suffering a concussion and sprained right foot in a crash last weekend at Dover. Earnhardt joked with reporters, saying the ice he was using on his foot was just to keep his Budweiser cold. "Little E" will attempt to win his fifth straight Talladega race, extending the DEI team's domination of restrictor-plate races over the past several seasons.
At Indianapolis, the schedules have been moved up to accommodate European TV audiences. The USGP has now become the second largest event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway behind the Brickyard 400 Winston Cup race. The Indy 500, once the premier motorsports event in the world, has fallen to third at its home track.
This year's USGP promises to be exciting not only for the race itself but for the World Championship. The title chase, which has been a Michael Schumacher benefit for the past few seasons, is a tight race among three contenders. Ferrari's Schumacher, Williams/BMW's Juan Pablo Montoya, and McLaren/Mercedes' Kimi Raikkonen are separated by a mere three points. Both the Drivers Championship and the Constructors title are still up for grabs.
Both Montoya and Raikkonen denied feeling any extra pressure, but Schumacher was the epitome of cool, taking some time off to spend with his wife Corinna in Las Vegas. If Schumacher wins the Drivers Championship this year it will be his sixtha a record that is unlikely to ever be broken.
Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist.