Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Do you know the way to San Jose?

Champ Car did, but doesn't want to anymore. The series announced today that they will not be returning to San Jose for a third time, discarding the track in a very large bin named "street circuits of the past" alongside defunct tracks like Birmingham (England), Caesar's Palace parking lot (Las Vegas), Miami and Vancouver.

The question is: will it be missed? The drivers for the most part hated it, with its tight confines, single passing zone, shortness and those VTA tram lines. Fans flocked to the race, but none can claim to have had a particularly good time with the poor sightlines, ridiculously crowded bridges and processional racing. The city of San Jose was indifferent, with the additional sales tax revenue offset by the cost of policing, road closures and cleanup much of which was not covered by the organizers. The political cost of displacing angry residents was also not insignificant.

There is a place in the grand pantheon of motorsport for street circuits. Staging a motor race slap-bang in the middle of a major city, whilst a logistical challenge, brings significant recognition to racing in general and the specific genre in particular. The Monaco Grand Prix is a perfect example of this. F1 puts up with all the extra BS and headache for one weekend in order to stage a remarkable event that serves as the "jewel in the crown" of the championship. Safety standards are "relaxed", teams suck it up and park and their transporters offsite, drivers accept that qualifying becomes the most important part of the weekend and fans eschew traditional spectating approaches simply for the pleasure of "being there".

But Monaco is unique on the F1 calendar. Yes, there are other street races such as Canada and Australia, but neither of those are to be found in the typically urban environment of a major downtown area. Champcar on the other hand has four races in just such a venue, and eight that can be classed as being on temporary courses. That leaves only six races at permanent, legitimate race tracks.

At some point, the advantages of street racing (exposure to new fans and sponsors) are outweighed by significant disadvantages. Too may street courses tend to undermine the credibility of a championship - "well if they're not racing on a track, surely it's not proper racing" being a thought process of a typical casual fan. It also means you don't get such committed, hard racing, as drivers spend much of their concentration avoiding walls instead of racing each other. Compare the terrific Mont-Tremblant race with such snoozefests as San Jose....

Next year Laguna Seca will take the place of San Jose. Consider this a victory for real racing, and not much of a loss for Champcar, which will still be able to showcase itself in the downtown parts of Toronto, Surfers Paradise and (probably) Las Vegas. Furthermore, it will probably still race close to Cleveland's downtown at the kooky (but good for racing) Burke-Lakefront Airport, right in the middle of the Southern California sprawl at one of the world's best street circuits, Long Beach, and within the conurbation of Houston at Reliant Park.

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