by Lynne Huntting

The 2008 Champ Car schedule was announced at the start of the week, boasting 14 races and, among them, a third outing in Europe, creating a sense of optimism in a series that has been dogged by rumours about its future this season.

Speaking to Steve Johnson at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez confirmed that impression, although the CEO and president was not giving too much away when asked about the future line-up for those 14 races.

"There is stability in the schedule, and I want to instil confidence in the schedule," he said, before declining to answer rumours about races being added or the calendar altered, "I don't comment on contracts, or on the comings and goings of teams."

In the past, contracts with venues have stipulated a minimum number of cars to be fielded, and the possibility is that there may be fewer than the current 17 drivers competing next season, with rampant rumours about teams leaving, expanding, and the like. Johnson, however, said he knew that RuSPORT was leaving and knew of no new teams joining the series, but that was all he was prepared to allow.

He did confirm that the series' TV package would be announced 'soon', claiming that the CCWS has contracts with both ABC and ESPN. When it was pointed out that there will be nine weekends where Champ Car conflicts with the rival Indy Racing League - which airs live on ABC and ESPN - Johnson admitted that his series could run on the alternate network. Most of the other IRL dates, he then stressed, are before Champ Car starts, while its season ends before the last three CCWS events.

A confirmed TV package is key to attracting a potential title sponsor for the series, something that Champ Car has lacked this year.

"We are always looking for a sponsor, keeping an open dialogue, and not waiting for the sponsors to come to us," Johnson insisted, before admitting that he has been very happy with this year's associate sponsorship with Bridgestone, a former title sponsor, "Bridgestone has been a great partner, and doing more than when they were the title sponsor of Champ Car."

Returning to the 2008 schedule, the addition of Jerez in Spain caught many by surprise, with Britain, France and Germany the expected favourites to join Belgium and Holland on the European leg, but came about because it showed that it 'wanted' the series.

Champ Car's vice-president of development, John Clagett, travelled Europe for a month looking at various venues, and confirmed that Jerez was picked because the promoters were interested in having a Champ Car race.

"A marketing firm is involved, and its job is to find title and race sponsorships, just as it was the promoter's job at the Assen race to find title sponsorship," it was revealed, "The promoter takes the risk."

Jerez is a former Formula One track, but is now considered to be a 'second home' to the F1 fraternity because it is used so much for testing. A variety of other series, including the phenomenally-popular MotoGP, run on Jerez's 2.752-mile circuit, which adds to the numerically dominant road course contingent for 2008. Johnson admitted that road courses are cheaper to run that street races and, with the 2007 cancellation of the Phoenix Grand Prix, and the absence in 2008 of San Jose and Las Vegas, there are only five street races remaining, three of which are long-standing and traditional dates - Long Beach, Toronto and Surfers Paradise.

Johnson also admitted that he was pleased to be going back to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where this year's Spring Training test had been quite a success. He joked that the attendance for that four-day event was probably larger than the last Champ Car race at Laguna., before it was revealed that, with the exception of Portland, attendances were up at all Champ Car races.

"We are in growth mode," he claimed.

Next year's Portland date will move from its long-time mid-June slot to the end of July, pending city council approval. Johnson revealed that CCWS didn't want to go up against the annual Rose Festival and the many other events going on at the regular time, but wanted to ensure continuity in the schedule by extending Portland's role into a 25th consecutive year.

After conceding that 'there aren't enough open-wheel race fans' and that the series needs 'to expand our fan base', Johnson shrugged off any concerns about having the proposed schedule approved by the FIA or ACCUS, even with three races in Europe, and two on different dates to this year. The FIA effectively had a hand in this year's planned trip to China being canned, although Johnson said that the problem had to do with a change of promoter, who then changed to a date of which FIA didn't approve.

The 2008 Champ Car schedule can only be finally approved after it has been 'vetted' - run through all the checks for accuracy, compliance and so on - by the FIA Calendar Commission, which should be completed by 15 November. If approved, and voted on by the FIA World Motor Sports Council - which next meets on 6 December - the last step in the process before final approval by the World Council is the inscription by the host ASN of the 'offshore' events, without which there is no race.

The ASN is the FIA-approved sporting body, and will have to assuage any concerns about a new venue, or other events taking place on chosen weekends in a very tight geographic region. According to ACCUS president Nick Craw, the ASN for the US has said that the FIA has to carefully check to ensure that CCWS events don't step on the toes of any established series in overseas markets, especially Formula One.

"I believe we have done our homework well enough to ensure that final approval is routine, but we won't know until these last two steps are complete," Craw insisted.

Champ Car will run as the feature in ten of its 14 events, while running with the American Le Mans three times and once with Grand-Am. The season finale in Mexico will include the Champ Car Atlantic Series for the first time, the support staging a non-points race with some special plans.

 

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