Car of Tomorrow bound to upset fans

The big auto racing stories of 2007 will involve the new cars in Champ Car and NASCAR, the arrival of Toyota in Nextel Cup and the success/failures of six drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Sébastien Bourdais.

The big auto racing stories of 2007 will involve the new cars in Champ Car and NASCAR, the arrival of Toyota in Nextel Cup and the success/failures of six drivers: Juan Pablo Montoya, Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen, Felipe Massa and Sébastien Bourdais.

First, the new cars.

The Champ Car World Series will open its season in Las Vegas in March and it will be out with the old Lola chassis and in with the brand new Panoz, powered by Cosworth.

Designed and built from scratch over the last year, the DP01 has been designed to do two things: 1) even out the playing field and 2) attract new teams to the series because the car is cheaper to purchase or lease and the costs of campaigning it are contained.

We’ll have to wait and see about 1); it’s 2) that’s intriguing. Once again, it’s anybody’s guess how many teams and cars will show up to run when the flag drops in Vegas.

Although one new team, Pacific Coast Motorsports, has joined the club, one of the established teams is on the ropes. Only if it signs two drivers who can bring enormous amounts of cash will it survive.

And one of the top teams, Forsythe Racing, is sending signals that it will only enter one car in the Champ Car World Series – for Paul Tracy – after announcing it will reduce its entry in the Formula Atlantic series from four cars to two (and throwing Oakville’s James Hinchcliffe out of work in the process).

Champ Car will also be a road and street circuit-only series this season. This elimination of ovals effectively kills any possibility of unification with the Indy Racing League.

Meantime, NASCAR’s “Car of Tomorrow” will become the “Car of Today” when it makes its debut at the race in Bristol, Tenn., also in March. In all, NASCAR says the new car – mandatory for all teams – will be raced 16 times this season, 28 times next year and in all 36 races by 2009.

This is not a good move. NASCAR will come to realize this in Bristol, if not before. The fans are going to hate this thing. The drivers already hate it. This car looks like a school bus with a wing on it. A wing!!!

NASCAR had this car designed and built for all the right reasons. It will make a pretty safe race series even safer, considering all the ka-boomer pileups that take place at each and every event.

But if it browns off the fans to the point that they start staying away from the speedways (this has already started, for a variety of reasons), and the TV ratings keep declining (they were marginally lower for just about every race last season), then NASCAR must do a serious rethink.

Could there be a New Coke/Old Coke scenario in store for NASCAR? Don’t bet against it.

The sanctioning body, by the time the series gets to Bristol, is already going to have its hands full because of the arrival of Toyota.

For the first time in NASCAR’s 60-year history, a manufacturer other than America’s Big Three will field cars and there are indications already that a whole lot of people are not going to like this one bit.

Although NASCAR’s demographics are changing, its core is still in the American southeast and those folks are already making their anti-“foreigner” feelings known. Anybody who doubts this should read some of the letters to the editor that are being published in some of the U.S. racing trade papers.

Add the Car of Tomorrow together with the arrival of Toyota and NASCAR is going to have its public-relations work cut out for it this year.

The one positive for NASCAR will be Montoya, who’s going to be a better stock-car racer than anybody ever imagined.

Now, the other drivers.

Lewis Hamilton, who will be Number 2 at McLaren behind Fernando Alonso, is the first black to race in Formula One. He’s already being compared to Tiger Woods, which is more than a bit unfair because Tiger had a chance to win major golf tournaments right from the get-go and who knows how good the ’07 car is going to be?

But McLaren boss Ron Dennis is a savvy guy and wouldn’t have elevated Hamilton to the big leagues if he didn’t think he was ready. But there will be rough waters – there always are – and how Hamilton handles himself in the early going will determine his future success.

Alonso? He’s a two-time World Champion who’s gone to a team that didn’t win a race in 2006. When he agreed to the move from Renault in ’05, McLaren was the winner of 10 of the 19 races that year and the future looked bright. Then came the nosedive.

But this sort of thing has happened to McLaren before. From zero victories in 1996, the team rebounded to win three in ’97. With a world champion leading the team, and a guy loaded with potential as Number 2, look for McLaren to bounce right back this year.

Raikkonen and Massa at Ferrari? It’s going to be a dogfight and a delight to watch all season.

And now, Bourdais. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the three-time Champ Car champion could be in Formula One this season. Yes, he has a contract for 2007 with Newman-Haas but contracts in auto racing sometimes don’t mean a lot.

Meantime, Newman-Haas has a problem. It’s got Bourdais, but if it signs Graham Rahal, one of the two hottest young drivers in North America (Marco Andretti being the other), what happens to Bruno Junqueira, a good and faithful servant if ever there was one?

So Bourdais going to Europe would still leave Newman-Haas with a dynamite driver lineup. And there would be a huge bonus: as well as the resulting goodwill for letting Sébastien chase his dream and continuing to employ Bruno, Champ Car could benefit because Bourdais would be its poster boy in F1.

That, so far as the long-term survival of the U.S. series is concerned, would be worth more than anything.

Martin Chenhall, an executive at General Motors for many years who was largely responsible for the creation of the GM/Player’s Challenge Series, died in December after suffering a head injury. He was 70.

Everybody who knew him is invited to attend a “Celebration of Marty’s Life” at the Whitby Yacht Club next Saturday, Jan. 13, at 1 p.m.;

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