Vegas gamble pays off for Champ Car World Series

LAS VEGAS -- Two things stood out about the Champ Car World Series' season-opening Vegas Grand Prix:

• 1. The solid foundation established by the inaugural event.

• 2. The notion that this year's Champ Car series looks like it's not going to be another Sebastien Bourdais-Newman/Haas Racing runaway.

First up, the Las Vegas event itself.

Inaugural Champ Car races can range from the sublime to the ridiculous -- that was demonstrated in the space of two weeks in July 2005 with the superb Edmonton and the subpar San Jose.

To its credit, San Jose was vastly improved for 2006. But Vegas is already much closer to the standard set by Edmonton and that bodes well for the season finale in downtown Phoenix, which is also being promoted by the duo of Dale Jensen and Brad Yonover.

Chris Kneifel's 2.44-mile Vegas layout looks like just another street course on paper, but that doesn't show the elevation changes created by the use of a pair of freeway underpasses. The track was wide and smooth, and race organizers were able to keep the locals reasonably happy by shutting down track activity for periods on Friday and Saturday to allow limited normal traffic flow.

Perhaps more importantly, cars took to the track Friday morning exactly on schedule and there were no significant problems with the layout throughout the weekend. A major bump that launched the cars into the air just before they headed into the underpass at the end of a lap was dug up and resurfaced on Friday night.

The event essentially took over the Fremont Street downtown area and the circuit encompassed some 14,800 hotel rooms. Technically, the race was a free event, because spectators were free to roam the course, but black vinyl netting obstructed the trackside view in most places.

Vegas GP officials said that all of the $60 grandstand seats were sold out as of 10:15 a.m. on race day. But they refused to divulge a number, saying only "tons" or "tens of thousands."

The Las Vegas Review Journal estimated total race day attendance as 40,000-plus.

"There were a lot of people here today," said event manager Jim Freudenberg. "It's tough to determine how many because we made it a free event. Our issue is not the number of people, which exceeded our expectations.

"We know the grandstands we built were oversold," he added. "We need to add seats next year and we were very pleased with our attendance on Easter weekend."

Aside from inevitable complaints about noise, most gripes were about access. The only way to get from the Fremont Street area ("Zone 2") to the pits and the main straight ("Zone 1") for most fans was by shuttle buses, which by Saturday afternoon featured long lines. Credentialed workers were able to walk alongside the track, but it was still at least a mile walk to the pits from most downtown hotels.

Race organizers said their plan for a large spectator bridge crossing a set of railroad tracks that bisect the track into the two zones was quashed less than a month before the race.

"Come hell or high water, there will be a bridge over the tracks next year," Jensen vowed. "I hate lines, so we're going to work on ingress and egress and make it very easy for people to get in and out of the area in a pleasant way.

"I can promise you that this was the worst Vegas Grand Prix."

What are the odds?

A week before the Vegas Grand Prix, three-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais was listed as an overwhelming 9-to-5 favorite. Will Power rated 5-to-1 odds while Robert Doornbos was a 22-to-1 long shot.

What surprising results the opening weekend of the Champ Car season produced. Power won, Doornbos finished second and Bourdais struggled and crashed in qualifying, then struggled and crashed in the race. All winter long the Frenchman fretted about the first three races of the season with the new Panoz-Cosworth and his premonition came true.

It looked like without a familiar Lola to work on, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing was out of its comfort zone at Las Vegas. Bourdais' primary car continues to suffer from repeated electrical problems, while Graham Rahal crashed his primary car on Saturday morning and had to race a backup. That race lasted all of 100 yards before the 18-year-old was forced offline on the curving pit and into a concrete wall.

"In the end, we hope that consistency will once again be our strength, and after four years in the series, I hope to be able to lean on my experience."
-- Sebastien Bourdais

Bourdais lasted 30 eventful laps that included two punctures and at least one wall scrape before the Turn 4 accident that wiped out the left front corner of his McDonald's Panoz.

Meanwhile, Paul Tracy, who had a mostly miserable winter of testing, had a Forsythe Racing car that went the distance and the 2003 series champion was a potential race winner until fueling problems relegated him to third place at the flag.

"Back in the '90s, we had a new car every year and we'd have these niggling problems every year," Tracy said. "You would have a gearbox issue, wheel bearing problems, all kinds of things that you'd have to work your way through. So that's part and parcel with working with a brand-new car. There's problems you have to work through.

"Obviously we've been able to get our car figured out for the most part mechanically. It's just today our fuel rig didn't want to put the fuel in the car. That's just one of those things that we need to work on."

NHLR's problems are compounded by the fact that the series' new spec formula forces it to change the very basics of how it goes about racing. In the past, if a component on a new car failed, NHLR would generally design and manufacture its own replacement part. Now the rules prevent it from doing so. Plus, when a problem does pop up, NHLR is at the mercy of Panoz (and Cosworth, Hewland and Pi Electronics) to provide a fix for it and every other team on the grid.

"Everyone has the same equipment and you really can't change much on the car," Bourdais said. "So for a team that likes to develop the car and experiment, this is a disadvantage.

"In the end, we hope that consistency will once again be our strength, and after four years in the series, I hope to be able to lean on my experience."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.