It felt like the good old days at Long Beach on Friday with the paddock packed with cars, drivers besieged for autographs and the turbocharged Champ Car engines reverberating off the walls of the downtown highrises.
Through a set of curious circumstances, Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will be the last race for the soon-to-be-defunct Champ Car World Series, which has been largely absorbed into the rival IRL IndyCar Series through a unification announced in February.
Nine former Champ Car teams and several former drivers from that series have already made the transition to the IRL for its first two races but, because the IRL could not get out of a commitment to run Saturday in Motegi, Japan, it was decided the scheduled Champ Car event in the streets of Long Beach would go on.
All of the teams that ran in Champ Car in 2007 are here, racing their Panoz DP-01 chassis and turbocharged Cosworth engines for the final time, with the points they earn counting toward the IRL championship.
It's well documented that both American open-wheel series have struggled to find fan support and sponsorship through most of their 12-year rivalry, with fields shrinking and drivers fleeing to NASCAR and other series.
But, Friday, with the sun shining, temperatures in the 70s and an impressive crowd on hand, it was definitely echoes of a better time.
"Big crowds in the paddock, big crowds in the stands for qualifying," said former CART/Champ Car World Series champion Paul Tracy, making his last start for longtime team owner Gerald Forsythe. "It's really like it was in the mid-90s.
"Now I don't know if that is just because of the anticipation of the new series or just a farewell for the hardcore fans that have been here. But (there was) tremendous fan support and lots of well-wishes for me."
Oriol Servia, another longtime open-wheel star and one of the drivers making the transition to IndyCar, added, "I do feel that when I see that crowd. I don't know if it's related to the TV ratings increase we've seen in the first two IRL races or if it's because of the last Champ Car race.
"But I think definitely the space for open-wheel in the world was empty in the last 10 years and, that space there, we're just starting to take it back. People like open-wheel just as much as other sports."
There are 20 cars entered _ more than any CART/Champ Car event since 2002 _ and 19 of them took part in provisional qualifying, with Nelson Philippe sidelined by a mechanical problem. There will be another round of time trials on Saturday, with everyone having the opportunity to improve or lock in their position.
Justin Wilson, who replaced four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais _ now in Formula One _ at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, showed that some things remain the same as he easily led the opening round of time trials.
Wilson's lap of 1 minute, 7.356 seconds (105.184 mph) assured the Englishman of no worse than second place in Sunday's lineup.
"It's good to keep up the tradition of the McDonald's car," Wilson said. "There's a lot of pressure in replacing Sebastien and this is a good way to start the weekend."
Servia was second at 1:07.858 (104.406), followed by Alex Tagliani at 1:07.887 (104.362), Mario Dominguez at 1:07.998 (104.791) and Graham Rahal, the winner two weeks ago in the IRL race at St. Petersburg, Fla., at 1:08.172 (103.925).
Tracy, who didn't know he was going to race until a contractual problem with Forsythe was ironed out earlier this week, was eighth, while former series champion Jimmy Vasser, coming out of retirement to make his first Champ Car start in two years, was 15th.
For the drivers who are making the move to the IRL, it was a treat to be back in their Champ Cars.
"It's a lot more downforce and more power and lighter, so a faster car," Servia said. "All drivers want more power and more downforce. It's just different rules and a lot more fun."
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