Champ Car hits 'home run' in Edmonton

EDMONTON, Alberta -- For the better part of 20 years, people joked that the "C"
in CART stood for Canadian, based on how popular the sport of Champ
Car racing is up north of the American border. Judging by the local
response to the first day of action at the inaugural West Edmonton
Mall Grand Prix of Edmonton, things haven't changed much in a new
Canadian locale with a new promoter.

Race officials announced a Friday attendance of 55,722, and for once,
it was a believable claim. The grandstands erected around Finning
Speedway -- a 1.973-mile temporary road course that runs around
Edmonton's City Centre Airport -- were full, and fans were lined up
eight-deep in the beer garden along the fence at the apex of the
first turn.

And not just because they were queuing up to get another
cold one. In fact, unlike at the other Canadian Champ Car races at
Toronto and Montreal (plus Vancouver from 1990-2004), Molson has no part in the sponsorship and promotion of the Edmonton event, though it wisely snapped up beer-pouring rights.

Some might argue that Edmonton is a fairly easy market to crack, that
there's nothing to do there except go sit on the indoor beach at West
Edmonton Mall (yes, really) or make fun of provincial neighbor
Calgary. But Champ Car got exactly what it was looking for -- a city
logistically suited to running a road race in the middle of downtown,
laced with knowledgeable and enthusiastic sports fans.

"The series and the promoter here, they've hit a home run," opined
Canadian hero Paul Tracy. "It was just amazing today to see the
grandstands completely packed today for qualifying, I don't know how
many people were officially here, but it looked like the stands were
sold out, the suites were sold out, and the infield by the trucks is
packed. It's a great feeling to come to a new venue and have the kind
of support we've had."

It helped that Champ Car came to Edmonton directly from the
established Toronto race, so the sport was fresh in fans memories and
media coverage was already in high gear. The national papers had a
busy week, what with Gerald Forsythe threatening to fire Tracy's crew
after running its driver out of fuel a week ago, and Tracy himself
lashing out in the press about his pit lane incident with rival (and
championship leader) Sebastien Bourdais.

Prospects for the rest of the weekend were boosted by eventful day on
the track Friday. Tracy's teammate, Mario Dominguez, controversially
ran Quebec teenager Andrew Ranger into the wall during the morning
practice session, and even Bourdais was caught out by the concrete
walls that line the track. He wiped out the left-front corner of his
McDonald's Lola in qualifying and only managed 10th on the
provisional grid.

The RuSPORT team picked up where it left off in Toronto, but on
Friday, A.J. Allmendinger stole a march on teammate (and Toronto
winner) Justin Wilson by claiming the overnight pole. The 22-year-old
Californian hustled his Western Union Lola around the track in 58.628
seconds for an average speed of 121.150 mph. Wilson was more than
three tenths of a second slower, while third placed Tracy was 0.869
second back.

"If you're given a good car right away, and that's what my team did
for me today, it just makes it easier to learn the track because you
can attack the track a lot quicker," Allmendinger said.

Not surprisingly, the drivers likened Finning Speedway to Cleveland's
Burke Lakefront Airport. But they said Edmonton poses an additional
challenge because the walls are much closer to the racing line.

"This track kind of gives you the feel of Cleveland because the
corners are so fast, but if you make a small mistake, you've got a
wall there on the edge and the consequences are high," Tracy
observed. "You saw how many guys hit the wall today.

"At places like Cleveland or Elkhart Lake, you're really committed to
the high-speed corner, but you have some fudge room to drop a wheel
off a track," he added. "Whereas, here if you make a mistake, there's
a wall right on the edge, like a street course. You're going 120, 130
miles an hour in some of these corners. You've got to be right on
perfect and have a lot of trust in your car."

Tracy also noted that the pit lane exit has some sight-line problems
and there is at least one other point on the racecourse that could
potentially be a safety hazard.

"I had one moment at the last corner, the chicane onto the pit
straight," he said. "I turned in there and I had the back jump out on
me sideways. I caught it but the thing straightened up and I was
going straight head on for the wall right there and there was only
one set of tires up against the concrete wall. I was probably going
160 at that point and I was like, 'Well, that doesn't look too safe
to me.'

"I thought that corner was going to be pretty easy flat but it's not.
It's really bumpy on the entry. The car jumps around a lot because
the cars are so stiff because of the high speed. We probably could
use some more tires there."

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