Watkins Glen Camping World Grand Prix

I took a long weekend earlier this month to attend the IRL Camping World Grand Prix at Watkins Glen in upstate New York. All in all it wasn’t a bad experience.

As an F1 loving londoner, my only previous up-close experience of US open wheel racing had been the 2003 Bridgestone Presents the Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford race at Brands Hatch, for the London Champ Car Trophy.

Sebastien Bourdais won, which probably helps him put the loss of his Toro Rosso drive into context. I can imagine Seb crying himself to sleep every night, clutching his London Champ Car Trophy and muttering that Lewis Hamilton will never get one. Nor will anyone else for that matter, since the race was scrapped the following year. 

In later years, as the series gradually lost its title sponsors to a series of unavoidable misfortunes, it became the plain old ‘Champ Car World Series’. The catchier name was probably scant compensation for the loss of revenue.

After years of separation the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Car Series have of course now merged again, in much the same way that Poland once ‘merged’ with Germany. 

It’s just the Indy Car Series by the way, not Firestone Presents the Indy Car Series Powered by Honda.

Firestone appear happy enough to have the feeder series presented as Firestone Indy Lights, presumably they feel they got a good deal, and the sanctioning body and owner of Indy Car and Indy Lights, the Indy Racing League (IRL) would be proud to trumpet the identity of a title sponsor for their main series. It seems they just don’t have one.

I am fascinated by the IRL. For those who don’t know, it was started by the boss of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had a utopian vision of all american drivers racing on ovals with talent overcoming dollars. He also had a big name event – the Indy 500 – to get his series off the ground.

The vision arguably failed. It is well documented (look it up) that the CART / IRL split ultimately helped neither side, and when the two series merged both were pathetic shadows of their former selves.

And that’s why I find it all so fascinating, it’s like a morbid look into F1 as it might have been. Everything is just a little bit second rate compared to F1 – from the tiny picnic tents the team bosses sit at on pit road, to the repurposed airport buggies used to pull the cars back and forth from the garages, to the modest hospitality buses, there is evidence everywhere that this is racing on a shoestring budget.

But that’s just superficial criticism, about unimportant fripperies. OK then, here are a few more meaty gripes:

The cars are ancient and unloved, they most closely resemble 1989 Formula 1 cars. It’s come to something when the likes of A1GP, GP2, World Series By Renault and hell even those dodgy looking F2 cars seem more modern than the Indy Cars. They look to me like a bad home made F1 car. This wouldn’t be so sad if it weren’t for the fact that Panoz created a better looking and better sounding car for the Champ Car series which was not adopted on unification.

Some of the events appear to be run on a shoestring, and it shows on screen. Toronto, once a Champ Car staple, seemed to more than halve its seating capacity and still the TV pictures looked low on crowd numbers, whilst the main grandstands at Watkins Glen (wasn’t I going to write about that?) were very very sparsely filled – although the GA buzz was pretty good and the tailgate zones were a blast.

The drivers are friendly and approachable, and this is one of the best things about the series, some real characters here. But there is a feeling that talent doesn’t always get you as far as it should, and some of the best drivers are without full time drives whilst others with bigger chequebooks turn up week in and week out. Shame.

The racing is not the best at the moment, particularly bad on ovals with little passing and not a lot of risk taking, although measures are being looked at to change this for the next few oval races. There also appears to be an issue with big money teams apparently being able to lock out the top spots on the ovals. On street and road courses it’s not a lot better, it’s just a spec series after all and the biggest fun comes either from mistakes, from the poor handling of the cars on the shabby, bumpy courses, or from watching a talented but underfunded driver beat the might of the big money teams. (I say big money – it’s all relative of course)

On that note – Justin Wilson won at the Glen, a fantastic result for him and his team, who had been in the business a long time without ever troubling victory lane. Well done Justin.

I want to see Indy Car survive and thrive. Perhaps my next post will be more positive, I’ll work on that…

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