Crash Course

That Champ Car back turn comes with a steep learning curve.

Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport, 2301 North Marginal Road 9:30 a.m. Friday, June 24, and 7 a.m. Saturday, June 25, and Sunday, June 26; $5 to $90; call 216-619-7223
Track stars: The Roar by the Shore (the Champ Car - Grand Prix of Cleveland, if you want to be formal) - returns this weekend.
Track stars: The Roar by the Shore (the Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland, if you want to be formal) returns this weekend.
The back turn at last year's Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland kept throwing A.J. Allmendinger for a curve. Every time the 23-year-old rookie approached the bend, he'd slow down to keep his No. 10 ride right side up. On the one lap he didn't, he spun out and drifted from third place to near the back of the pack. "There are no markers around the track," says Allmendinger, who managed a sixth-place finish among the 18-man field. "It's so wide open and so flat, you just get lost at times. You gotta know where you're going, and it takes a few laps to figure that out."

The northern California native also recognizes that it takes guts, grit, and a little bit of luck to keep up with the best in auto racing. Son of a San Jose carpet layer who raced micro-midget sprint cars on weekends, Allmendinger was born into the sport. When he was five, he was competing on BMX dirt bikes; at 11, he had graduated to go-karts. In early 2003, Allmendinger moved to Colorado to train with the famed RuSport racing team and compete on the 14-city Champ Car circuit. "I was around racing from day one," he says. "Every weekend, I was at a racetrack. When you're around something constantly, you either love it or hate it."

Allmendinger would love another stab at the the 97-lap Cleveland race, which happens on a 2.1-mile track at Burke Lakefront Airport this weekend. Gates open Friday morning to watch qualifying rounds, followed by an autograph session with the drivers at 6 p.m. On Saturday, spectators can check out practice laps before racers in the Atlantic and Trans-Am divisions compete. It wraps up Sunday with the big race at 2 p.m., when 26-year-old Sebastien Bourdais of France defends his back-to-back victories in 2003 and 2004.

Thanks to a new rule, drivers will command identical CART-sanctioned Champ Cars for the first time in the race's 24-year history. Each comes equipped with a Ford Cosworth engine, a Lola chassis, and four Bridgestone tires to handle speeds that exceed 180 miles an hour.

Allmendinger, for one, can't wait to see the Cleveland course again. "This is one of the best racetracks for the fans, because it's so flat and wide open," he says. "A fan -- anywhere he sits -- can see the whole track."

And he isn't going to let that pesky back turn haunt him. With a season under his belt, he's learned to brush aside mistakes. Last year, at the Monterrey Grand Prix, his car caught fire after he hit the pit wall and his engine cracked. At the Laguna Seca race in California, he tried to pass another driver, only to end up in a smashup on the 43rd lap. But he'll take the job, mishaps and all. "This is the highest form of open-wheel racing in North America right now," he exclaims. "I have no aspirations to go anywhere else."

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