Brant James
Thursday March 20th, 2008

Donnie Hoevel walked into the Newman Haas Lanigan race shop in Indianapolis a few weeks ago, same as any other day during the last 23 years.

But this day, Hoevel discovered everything but the contents of his tool box would soon be of no more use him. Obsolete.

A team that had won the last four Champ Car titles with Formula One rookie Sebastien Bourdais had become a refugee when the open wheel circuit ceased operations in early March, its owners agreeing to sell its assets to the rival Indy Racing League.

A dynasty had been discontinued.

An expanded IRL would absorb the remaining teams -- five of which currently intend to continue -- with the promise of free engine leases, chassis and a vested team's $1.2-million revenue share per car entered this season. It was a salvation of sorts. But the next few years -- and certainly this one -- will be a trial.

"You're not going to catch up until December,'' Hoevel said.

A team that once business-planned in terms of championships now has the most humble of aspirations with the IRL season set to begin on April 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"You reset your goals,'' said general manager Brian Lisles. "We'll be happy if we finish on the lead lap at Homestead.''

It's an inauspicious end to a historic four years at Newman Haas Lanigan. Bourdais established himself as one of North America's top open wheel talents and in doing so scripted the latest chapter for a team that has won eight titles. Bourdais won 31 of 73 races from 2004 through 2007 -- tying the single-season record with eight wins last year -- and became the first driver in 99 years of North American open wheel racing to win four straight championships. His run for a fifth never would have happened anyway -- as he accepted an offer from Scuderia Toro Rosso to launch an F1 career -- but Newman Haas Lanigan likely would have mounted a strong campaign behind second-year driver Graham Rahal or newcomer Justin Wilson.

Bourdais had long proclaimed that open wheel racing in North America was doomed without reunification. His epoch will undoubtedly be remembered -- fairly or not -- for coming just before a weakened Champ Car was consumed by the IRL. He quipped last year that his team's dominance had become "annoying'' to the series, so perhaps the amalgamation provided a tidy, dignified end.

Now the team starts completely over. And it does so already behind, having received its first of two free race cars from Vision Racing on March 3. But the learning curve of a completely new car made it impossible to attend a crucial test for Champ Car expatriates at Sebring International Raceway's road course beginning today.

Lisles hopes to make an oval test at Homestead next week, another crucial juncture considering Champ Car hasn't run on such a track since 2006. Missing races is not an option, whether prepared to avoid embarrassment or not. The contract affording the former Champ Car teams free engine leases and a revenue share cut stipulate they must field cars in all 16 IRL events, he said.

"Everybody's competitive here,'' he said. "We're going to do the best we can. We're also trying to be realistic. We can't get done everything we would like to do before we have to run the cars. There's a whole backlog of things we wish we could have done and would have done had we had more time. We have to go run them, so that's what we will go and do.''

Missed test time will also adversely affects the drivers -- specifically 19-year-old Rahal -- as they adjust from the Panoz DP01 chassis, Cosworth engines and Bridgestone tires to Dallaras, Hondas and Firestones.

"We all understand that this team has been used to sending the car out on the race track without any doubts in their mind that their preparation was 100 percent perfect,'' he said of the missed Sebring test.

The team is cognizant of the peril in expediting an IndyCar program. Then-driver Bruno Junqueira sustained a broken back and missed the remainder of the Champ Car season when he crashed midway through Newman Haas' excursion at the 2005 Indianapolis 500. Both he and Bourdais wrecked race cars.

Time crunch has been a theme from the moment the deal was officially announced within the organization on Feb. 22, basically five weeks until the season-opener. Fourteen-hour days have become commonplace.

"We had a meeting with the IRL, all the Champ Car teams went to a meeting on Monday the 25th, which was really when the ball started rolling,'' Lisles said. "We didn't have two cars into a work shop until Monday the 3rd of March and we had one brand new car, which was actually basically a collection of parts in a box and another car that really I think was not a running car.''

Engine manufacturer Honda wouldn't share technical information about their power plants until each new team had been vetted, Lisles said, as a "bona fide customer.''

And the wide-ranging types of ovals run by the IRL -- short tracks such as Richmond, 2.5-mile flat ovals like Indianapolis, sweeping 1.5-mile speedways like Texas and Kansas -- create several different ways to build a car, rules for each and the need for many more parts.

Parts. Don't get Lisles started on parts. It's the racing equivalent of Patton trying to keep the Seventh Army moving, but without all the shooting. So far. Each former Champ Car team was paired with an existing IRL "mentor" tasked with offering guidance and material. Demand for parts is so great with the influx new teams that vendors cannot keep up. Chassis manufacturer Dallara is struggling to fill the order IRL CEO Tony George made to accommodate new teams.

"Each set of rules has its own set of parts and its been quite a nightmare,'' Lisles said, "A) understanding that and B) actually making sure we have the correct parts for each type of track. We're still going through that process. We received our last car parts -- or I hope pretty much our last car parts -- on Monday.

"We have two cars, total, for each driver, and we don't know when we'll get anymore.''

Lisles estimated that the changeover will cost the team $1-2-million more this year than a normal campaign. Citing economic problems, several former Champ Car teams, including two owned by league stakeholders -- Forsythe (Gerald Forsythe), Rocketsports (Paul Gentilozzi) and Team Australia/Walker Racing -- either ceased operations or opted not to join Newman Haas Lanigan, KV Racing, Coyne, HVM and Conquest.

"It's hurt me in a lot of ways,'' said team co-owner Carl Haas. "I've really lost a lot of money. I do think it's the right way to go, running a single car.''

A lot of the hurt will be stowed away in storage space with other useless equipment, after the final Champ Car race at Long Beach on April 20, but the fact the DP01 chassis was rolled out just last year makes the extra season of open wheel feuding seem all the more wasteful. It could be a boon for country club racers or collectors. They're welcome to call, Haas said.

"I sure wish I could find someone to buy the stuff,'' he said. "I don't know who that is.''

Lisles said the only parts that can be cannibalized from the DP01 are "data systems and some sensors.''

Because Champ Car's street- and road course-dominated schedule hasn't included an oval since Milwaukee, its expatriates are hoping a season of freshman hazing can have breaks at the IRL's five non-oval events. The Long Beach event should be highly competitive because it will be contested only by Champ Car teams but will award IRL points. The April 6 St. Petersburg event could be an interesting variable as Champ Car competed there on basically the same street course in 2003.

"It's not the way any of us like to do business, but it's just what you have to do,'' Lisles said. "You've just got to know its going to be hard because quite frankly we're obviously not even going to be remotely competitive at Homestead. I hope we'll be a little better at St. Petersburg because that is at least a track that we've been to, although some time ago, but it's a road race.

"Having said that, of course, we've missed the first test and the other Champ Car teams will be that much ahead of us. So quite frankly, we're in a position of being last in the field, which is not something we particularly relish.''

Or have much experience with lately.

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