The Champ Car World Series grid will expand to 19 cars for the final two races of the season as Walker Racing fields a second entry. In the interest of running a local driver, Australian David Besnard will pilot the No. 15 Reynard/Ford-Cosworth at Surfers Paradise on Oct. 24, while Canadian Toyota Atlantic standout Michael Valiante will make his long-awaited Champ Car debut in the Nov. 7 season finale at Mexico City.
The original plan was to have Australian Toyota Atlantic competitor Josh Hunt step up to Champ Cars for the Surfers street race. But the teenager was deemed to need more experience and Besnard, who raced junior formula open-wheel cars in America, was drafted in. The 27-year old from Sydney now makes a living driving a Ford Falcon in the wildly popular Australian V-8 Supercar series, which will co-headline the Surfers weekend with Champ Car.
While the inclusion of Besnard for the Australian race is basically a publicity stunt, Valiante has been on the outside looking in trying to start a Champ Car career for the best part of two years. He won six Atlantic races in 2002-03, taking the 2002 championship down to the wire before two-time series champion Jon Fogarty prevailed. He was scheduled to make his first Champ Car start in the 2003 season finale at California Speedway, but that race was canceled by nearby wildfires.
Valiante hoped to run a second Walker car throughout 2004 but a lack of sponsorship has kept the 23-year old from Vancouver out of action until now. He'll run alongside Walker's regular driver, Brazilian Mario Haberfeld.
"Over the past year I've been so close so many times to racing a Champ Car that to have it all finally come together is a real thrill," Valiante said. "It's taken a lot of hard work and help from a lot of people to get to this point, and I'd like to thank Derrick Walker and my sponsors for this opportunity.
"With Champ Car looking at adding one and possibly two more Canadian races, and with one of the series' top Canadian drivers (Patrick Carpentier) leaving at the end of the season, racing in Mexico City is a great opportunity to get my Champ Car career started, and I plan to make the most of it."
Walker has reportedly purchased Team Rahal's Lola Champ Car chassis and inventory, but he is concentrating on making a smooth transition back to running two cars with Reynards over the balance of 2004.
"It has been a difficult time for a young driver to break into the ranks of Champ Car, and we're extremely pleased to have Michael in one of our cars for Mexico City," Walker said. "He is a most impressive young driver and hopefully it will be a good weekend for him to help us finalize the plans we have to run him as part of a full-season, two-car effort in 2005."
CBS time-buy agreement
A source familiar with the negotiations revealed to ESPN.com that Champ Car management has reached a basic time-buy agreement with CBS that will see at least six races televised live on the network in 2005, growing to as many as thirteen races in 2007. The Long Beach Grand Prix may be added as a seventh network race if logistical differences can be ironed out. Scheduled on the final day of The Masters (a CBS institution), the Long Beach start could be moved up to as early as 11 a.m. to facilitate live coverage. The event could be shown on a tape-delay basis or shifted to Champ Car's cable partner, which is expected to be SPEED Channel. Champ Car's 2005 race schedule is slated for release on Oct. 21 while an announcement of the TV package is being planned for Nov. 1 in New York.
McGee on the scene
In other Champ Car news, CEO Dick Eidswick was seen dining in Indianapolis with legendary team manager Jim McGee, who is expected to take a management position with Kevin Kalkhoven's PKV Racing organization. McGee was reportedly also asked to provide Champ Car with an independent analysis of the officiating fiasco at Las Vegas that saw the field run 12 slow laps behind the Pace Car while stewards tried to figure out who should be running where. Many observers predict there will be major changes in Champ Car's race operations for 2005.
The next step
Brazilian Thiago Medeiros, who dominated the Menards Infiniti Pro Series in 2004 on the way to the championship, took one step closer to moving up to IRL IndyCars on Oct. 8. The 22-year-old from Sao Paulo completed 192 laps in a Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Dallara/Chevrolet at Kentucky Speedway, adding to experience gained in a test earlier this year at Chicagoland Speedway with Patrick Racing.
"The test went really well," Medeiros said of his latest IndyCar experience. "We were playing with setups and learning more about the car, and we ran some pit stop simulations so I could get some experience with pit stops and driving on cold tires. I put up some good lap times, and was very consistent. I hope to get some more opportunities soon and hope that those help me get a ride for the 2005 season."
D & R co-owner Robbie Buhl said the team is working hard to expand to two cars in 2005. Felipe Giaffone currently drives the team's lone entry and is a candidate to remain in 2005.
"I want to be a competitive team 10 years from now," Buhl said. "This series is still growing. We need to gain some fans and keep building our fan base. The on-track racing is as good as any I can remember and that's an excellent ingredient. We just have to keep growing the series and the teams like ours."
One driver who is unlikely to be seen again in IndyCars is Sarah Fisher. Indy's fastest female, who was named the League's "Most Popular Driver" on more than one occasion, couldn't attract the sponsorship to continue in the IRL and she has now set her sights on NASCAR with a new guru in the form of team owner Richard Childress.
"I met Mr. Childress at a Chevrolet function, and he told me that if I ever wanted to take a ride in a stock car, to give him a call," Fisher told MRN Radio. "I waited awhile, and when it started to look like there was nothing happening in IndyCar, I called him. He put me together with Bill McAnally, whose (NASCAR Grand National West) car I drove in Phoenix last weekend, and I had a great time.
"It's different than anything I've done up until now, and I don't want to get ahead of myself. But wherever Mr. Childress thinks I should go, that's where I'll go."
The IRL already has its next female driver lined up in the form of Danica Patrick, who is contracted to Rahal Letterman Racing. Patrick's two-year stint in the Toyota Atlantic Championship was driven by sponsorship from Argent Mortgage, which has gone on to expand its involvement in the sport. Argent now serves as co-sponsor of RLR's IndyCar entry driven by Buddy Rice as well as race events in Champ Car and the IRL.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.