On July 6-10, 2006, I was lucky enough to have a nearly all expense paid trip to Toronto Canada to see the Champ Car race held there! I won the "Live Fast" sweepstakes for the week. All I needed to do was watch the race, listen for the code word, then enter the code word on-line before Monday night after the race. After each race a winner is picked to go to the next race. We only had about a week to get plans made and ready to go!
Check out www.ChampCarWorldSeries.com for racing news and a link to the sweepstakes. Look here for the Champ Car interview and page about us. I provided the pix they put up. Check the actual TV broadcast of us (Quicktime movie)!
Here's the highlights and complete story of what we did while we were on this fantastic super-fan trip! (also some tips for visiting the race at the bottom)
Friday: Meet team owners, meet Nelson Philippe (a driver), get close up with Champ car, meet Paul Tracy (my favorite driver), get autographs
Saturday: Meet Joe B with Bridgestone, get a Fast Lap on the track, Race Control tour, give Pole Position flag to Justin Wilson, go to qualifying press conference, meet Paul Newman (team owner)
Sunday: Meet n Greet at RuSport hospitality tent, picture with Justin and Christiano, meet AJ Allmendinger (driver) casually and chat, walk onto pit road while opening ceremony takes place, meet FCR team owner and manager, see drivers suit up and get in cars, watch race excitedly!, go to winner circle celebrations, press conference
I have to profusely thank the wonderful folks at Champ Car that helped us and took us around all weekend: Megan, Garrett, George, Doug, Brad, Steve Johnson the President, Kathy, Kelly, and many others who we met and treated us like special family, yet I forgot their names. You all are fantastic in my book!
Tuesday after the race on TV:
My Champ Car Live Fast Sweepstakes story starts simply: I got a message on my phone I was the winner for this week. Of course I entered on-line on Sunday already. At first I was pretty skeptical, but I talked to Gordon and I knew it was legit. I had to sign an affidavit and send it to him. We talked several times, and thought I knew I had certainly entered, it seemed too good to be true. I of course chose my girlfriend Amanda to come along, but my dad was hoping to go along, as he is a long time race fan. Getting together a trip in less than 2 weeks is of course possible, but I was nervous even up until Wednesday, when I didn't have plane tickets or confirmation of plane flights, hotel stays, who I might meet, or where to go. I called Megan at Champ Car to make sure this was going to happen OK, and she assured me all would go well. When I got home from work Wednesday, I had the travel plans in hand and knew all was good to go. So after a bit of apprehension, everything was a go!
Our flight left from Harrisburg on Thursday, the closests airport for us, which was so convenient. On our connecting flight we met Craig from the Champ Car Safety Team. Wow! He was staying at the same hotel as us, so I gave him a ride in our rental car. A quick aside here... Don't ever get a big car to drive in a city. Parking is hell! I had a very hard time getting our boat into small parking garages in the city. Back to the trip. Our hotel was lavish, a king size bed and nice view on the 9th floor. We visited the CN Tower in town, listened to some Mexican music in the square below the tower. In the tower we met some Canadians from another town. From the top of the tower you can see New York state! There was a group of French girls that clogged up the upper tower and broke into song for no reason. I was a bit apprehensive being up high in the tower, I'm slightly afraid of heights.
We then found some dinner at a sandwich shop, and I reaffirmed my distaste of curry powder. We kept walking around downtown and ran into the Champ Car Revolution street party! It had a lot of beer, some Ford cars, a band, ultimate fighting demonstration, and some free stuff around. We stayed a bit but went back to the hotel to get my message about what to do tomorrow. On our way out of the city, we got a tad lost taking the long way, on Lake Shore Blvd, and ended up driving right through the race track! Of course not set up, but it was the back straight, and there we were, doing 40mph in a big rental car. I was pretty excited.
We had to get up to meet Garrett at 6.45 to get our official passes and registration. Again, the big rental car is rough to manuever around. At the other hotel we got Polaroid pics taken for our VIP ID cards. We followed Garrett over to the track but he got a little lost, but was following another Champ Car guy anyways. So we made it and had up front parking.
We got situated a bit in the paddock, and had breakfast at the CC area. George was kind enough to let us have whatever food and drink we needed. That was nice because we barely had time to 'go out' for breakfast each day, and we also got to eat lunch there. We had fruit salad, yogurt, cereal, bagels and croissants, scrambled eggs, and either cake, brownies, or cookies in the morning.
We had most of Friday 'to ourselves' to do what we wanted. So we looked over at the tire mounting area. I started with one of my many technical descriptions of race technology to Amanda. She barely knew what racing was before she started dating me. Since then, in the 8 months or so, has learned a bunch, and we were there in the middle of the best racing in the world, and she was eager to learn as much as she could. We saw the Bridgestone tire trucks, mounting and balancing operation, and tire pressure sensors. I recognized Joe Barbieri from TV, so I went and said "Hi" to him and introduced ourselves, since they are one of the major contributors to our trip/sweepstakes. We didn't stay long and continued to the team paddock. I saw PT (Paul Tracy) giving autographs, so we scurried over but missed it. We waited a bit but he wasn't coming back out quickly. I saw Bruno Junquiera and had my Sharpie ready, he signed on of the photo slicks that the teams have in front of their areas.
Around lunch I met Steve Johnson, President of Champ Car now, ex-SCCA President! Also I met Paul Gentilozzi (team owner and ex-Trans Am series driver). He was a really nice guy, I like him a lot.
Brad from Champ Car took us around the back of the pits and introduced us to Nelson Philipe after he had a great qualifying session. He is the young guy with long long hair. He was kinda sweaty in his fire suit, but was nice to say hello and get a picture taken. After that, the CTE team engineer took us on a part by part tour around their car. He was really technical and I was understanding it all, but Amanda doesn't have a background in cars so she was interested and trying to keep track of all the new terminology.
As soon as that was over we hiked over to the all-driver autograph session. The line was long long long! Some crazy guy Brian, ex Canadian police, was trying to all of a sudden psycho analyze why I hadn't married Amanda yet. He kept restarting his comments without actually saying much. His black friend Frank was going to be some other guy's 'dad' to get up in line, but cracked up every time. Luckily for us, Champ Car Amanda (not mine) saw us and asked how we were. I said I hoped we could get there before the hour was over. So she came back and had us sit in the back of the tent area for a while. We cut in line and I got my hat autographed by Paul Tracy, and some pix with other drivers. Amanda got a Sebastien signature and pic. We sat in the back and then when the drivers were leaving, I got a handshake and picture with Paul! Oh, I can die happy now!
That was about the end of the day at the track. We had dinner at a sports bar type place, and headed back to the hotel to sleep.
After breakfast we met Joe Barbieri from Bridgestone again. He gave us the official tour of the tire area and tire tech. We talked personally with him for a while in his truck. After that we had some time to kill, so we looked at the tooner cars and such inside the big pavilion. We saw the Formula Ford 2000 cars, some Atlantic cars, and the vintage GT cars. There was a 80's Camaro running there. The girl cleaning it perked her ears when I said I had a Trans Am. We also talked for a while with a guy that had a Datsun 240z, he was having brake problems and was changing pads and such. A guy from a detail wax company was there with a nice green Lamborghini. Amanda and I both went to the washrooms at the same time and a band started playing outside but sounded like they were literally sick. Eck I don't like that music.
We went back to our VIP seats for a bit (not the ones we snuck into earlier to take better pictures at the another vantage point) and watched Champ Car practice. We had to leave early to meet up with the Fast Lap girls and get a tour with them. We got a tour around the Fast Lap cars, met a couple of the women that drive. One was from close to Kutztown PA! We strapped into the Ford Mustangs to go for our Fast Lap. I was surprised to know we did not need a helmet, and we were allowed to take cameras. I had strapped into the 4 point but had to undo it to reach my camera to start. Since we were in the cars to start, we got 2 laps actually; one as the 'recon' lap, the other as the fast lap. It was great fun, they have the cars really hooking up! We were up to 110mph on the front straight, and doing a good 40-60 in some of the turns.
Lunch at the Champ Car area was steaks! WOW! We met and talked to one of the guys that drives the Fast Lap car tractor trailers, he had a big mustache.
Tom met us and took us on a tour of Race Control. It was a big construction contractor office packed with about 7 folks and 20 computers and 16 TV monitors. I was really happy to learn Tom was working on making the Champ Car Race Director more Mac compatible. <smiles> Race control folks said they rarely get to see the cars live, they are usually far away from the actual track, but at Toronto they were right on the front straight. While we were there, Tom got a call and asked if we would like to give the Pole Position flag to the Pole winner. Heck yeah!
We watched some of qualifying then met Doug and Brad in the pits. I changed shirts into a Bridgestone shirt so I can look the official part, and we both got Bridgestone hats. CC Amanda had the flag and was the 'director' of the award. We waited and watched the Champ Car scoring board. Justin Wilson nudged out AJ on the last lap or two. So CC Amanda ran down and directed us. When Justin got out of the car, he took off his helmet and hans, and we walked to the opposite pit wall. We stood up on the wall, and I was on Justin's right. I shook his hand, told him congratulations, and we unfurled the flag. It was awesome, there were so many photographers and video guys! I felt like an almost-hero! We stood for a while, and then we jumped down and it was just Justin for a bit. A stills photographer was asking Amanda how to spell our names and was dicatating it into his computerized camera. Then we walked over to the media center and got to sit in to the qualifying interviews. Amanda almost got run over by Paul Newman on a scooter! I got a small version of the pole flag signed by Justin after the media meeting.
We went back to the Business Unit and were going to sit for a while and relax. I said to Amanda we should walk and find Paul Newman. Megan said there was a team owners meeting and he was in the truck right here. So! We waited until the meeting was over and out he came. I walked over, introduced ourselves as the sweepstakes winner, shook his hand, and asked if he would be so kind to take a picture with Amanda, which he did. Well she was so super happy then, that was her Champ Car dream come true!
We hadn't bought anything yet so we shopped for some stuff. I got Amanda a shirt and a new hat for myself, and another shirt.
We watched some of the historic races, Peter Klutt from Dream Car Garage was racing here with his new old Corvette. We also saw some good drifting exhibition (better than Friday for sure).
We left the track then. Brad at the hotel said he saw us on TV. We caught it later before bed. Across the street was a nice looking little French cafe. Inside though it was a fancy and expensive restaurant. But it was yummy and we deserved it.
We saw ourselves on TV again in the morning. First thing at the track we snuck into our 'alternate' VIP seats and I took some more pictures. I ran down to the pit lane for some other close ups. We then went for late breakfast, just in time to get some. We shopped and I got dad a shirt from the race.
Kelly from Champ Car interviewed us for a bit for our web page on the Champ Car site.
We went over to the RuSport Justin Wilson meet-n-greet. Well I had on my Forsythe racing shirt, and I got endless ribbing about wearing that in their hospitality suite. Someone found me a hat of CDW at least. Justin and Christiano did some Q and A. And the Forsythe hospitality suite was just across the lane, and AJ was walking by. He gave some ribbing to Justin and then said something about me being there in my shirt. I didn't really hear it but Amanda did. We got our pic with Justin, he recognized us, and Amanda got the newspaper with our half-picture signed.
We trotted over to the Forsythe truck and AJ was sitting near the door. He came out and talked with us a bit. It was really great, he was just being personal and nice and we shook hands and got a couple pictures with him. I think I asked if he thought PT would keep it 'gentlemanly' through the first couple turns. He said he hopes so and we had a little laugh.
We met up with Garrett and got our passes into Final Grid and Winner's Circle. We went onto the grid (some guys in shorts tried to tag along) and I was sort of awestruck. It was so cool and so surreal! We were there with the cars ready to go, all the drivers, the team owners. I was taking a lot of pictures and some video. I tried to keep it under control but it was hard to not. There was a bagpipe band and Amanda was excited to hear them. There was also a crazy Latin band playing on the track and there were some girls dancing with feathery boas and bikinis. We saw Paul Newman again, and Jerry Forsythe was there along with Neil Mickelwright. I had Garrett ask Neil and Jerry to get a picture with me. We shook hands and Neil almost crushed Amanda's hand. He apologized then and said he was all jazzed up and did a little jig. He is a funny guy, much less serious than it seems on TV when all you see is the short 15 second question during the race. I also saw AJ doing a little dance while he suited up and the Latin music was playing.
Paul Newman and Jerry Russo did a little hat exchange and joked around. PT was suiting up. Sebastien hugged his (pregnant) wife and kissed her nicely then suited up and crawled in the car. There was a jet flyover, and about that time we had to run up to the suites to see the start of the race.
The front seats were full so we sat at a back table, but the view was still good, especially when I was standing during the exciting times. Which was nearly the whole time! Alfredo and Anthony were sitting at the table with us, they were from New Jersey. We got to see some great pit stops. Boy, I should say hear them because the sound of a Champ Car launch is far more engaging to hear live than to see. The sounds of the cars flying by on the front straight was awesome! I love it! The race was clean and there was not too much yellow. AJ held first place most of the race. PT had a great pass on Seabass which nearly everyone in the crowd cheered for.
At the end of the race we booked down pit lane to the Winner's Circle. AJ and PT and Seabass were getting out of the cars. I was taking some pictures and sorta stayed out of the way. CC Amanda grabbed us and we got a picture with AJ as he was leaving the car and going to the podium. He remembered us from earlier, he was like "Hey its good to see you guys again!" We crammed into the press crowd to see the podium ceremony. Due to TV I guess it took a long time to get started. Thankfully we did not get directly champagned sprayed. They had to put on a lot of different hats and have pictures taken with the hats, then they threw them to the crowd. I caught one but didn't want it so I gave it to a girl behind the fence. Amanda had one bounce right off her arm. I managed to snag a Hole In The Wall Camp hat for Amanda then, she was happy for that one.
We got to go into the after race press conference then. It was hot in the room with no air circulation. The questions were pretty basic. AJ was of course really happy. Paul looked just a little less than perfectly happy but glad to be in the top 3. Sebastien had only 1 or 2 questions his way and he did not look real happy. He was there fiddling with his hand or something. At the other press conference he did not look comfortable either, and Amanda and I speculate that maybe he doesn't enjoy cameras a whole lot.
On the way out of the building then, Amanda said "look back" and PT was walking out behind us! I had to shake his hand again and said "Great race, that was awesome" to him. His kids were tagging along so he didn't pay much attention to us. I'm sure he is slightly tired of the media exposure he gets and all the fans always want to get his autograph or something. I have to admit to being a superfan somewhat this weekend as well. But hey, I have every right to be as the winner, and also that it's the first Champ Car race I've been to in 3 or 4 years. We saw Sebastien walking alone done a nearly deserted and barren pit lane. Almost every team had torn down or moved their stuff out, and most of the fans were gone too. I know it goes like this but it's still sort of odd.
We stayed to watch the vintage GT race then, and let the other crowd die down. Amanda met an old guy with a Solstice and we talked for a while. When we were up in the VIP seats the World Cup was still going on in overtime. Italy won at almost the time the race was over. As we were leaving and going in or out of the paddock area (we stopped knowing what area was public or VIP or not) the one woman told us for the 2nd time "You don't have to show your passes on the way out!".
Later on at night, we were having dinner at a pizza place with no front window. A dude stopped to talk to me about the race (I had on my new hat and PT shirt). He was one of the safety guys. They don't see the race much until they get home, he wanted to know how it was. We saw him and his wife and kid again at the airport on the way out. We also saw Dan Clarke and Sebastien there, in a non-celebrity way as well.
The elation is dying down as we both know this experience is over. It's been so out of control and unbelievably amazing!! Words can barely describe all the great things we did. This was an account of what we did, but doesn't really touch on how exciting, anticipatory, tingling, and unreal it felt. Winning this contest to be a VIP was great. The things we did, you can't buy. Every person in Champ Car was SOOOOOO nice to us and SOOOO happy to help out and get us nearly everything or every opportunity or every meet up I asked for. I can not thank them enough!! If you are the winner of the trip, you know how it is, or if you are going, how it might be. If you're a fan and haven't been to a live race, you have to go! It is so worth it! If you are affiliated with Champ Car, THANK YOU for what you do for the series.
-Take long pants if you plan to be in the pits. The security folks were OK with shorts on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday it was long pants only. Zip off pants can be a good compromise for a quick change.
-Photos: use a good SLR camera, film or digital. I suggest digital since if you miss the car speeding by, you can erase it and try again. Point and shoot digicams are way too slow to focus and snap the photo of a fast race car. You need something with fast response time.
-Shooting the cars: Practice during practice sessions and in the pits. Cars on track might be obscured by concrete barriers or ugly fencing. If you can shoot cars in the pit lane, or a vast open area with no fence, do so. Try to get photos done before the real race so you can enjoy the actual race and not worry about taking pix. Slow cars during practice look the same as fast ones, and are easier to shoot. While shooting, scout out good vantage points ahead of time. Also consider the angle of the sun in the morning sessions vs. afternoon. Late afternoon sun on a hot day can be hazy and wash out colors if you shoot into the sun or reflections. Washed out car pix with backlighting can be sort of dramatic, but you most likely want clear colorful pictures, and the sun to your back when you shoot. Get the track of the sun mapped out before you shoot. You may need to be on one side of the racetrack from your seats for the best pictures.
-Sunblock & Earplugs. Vendors might bilk you for $2 a pair of plugs, you can get a pack at home for $2 for 6 sets. Sunblock, self explanatory.
-A backpack is a good idea to carry your loot around. Amanda had the pack and I had my camera stuff. Discuss the plan to pack stuff, and who carries what. Pack what you need, but keep it light. Keep a track map in your pocket and the day's activities handy.
-Be on the lookout for drivers you want to meet wandering around. Some of the lesser known drivers don't get an immediate mob upon them, so if you wanna talk them, don't run over with a marker in hand, stay cool but be quick. Usually they are near the paddock, but they certainly may be out at other places too.
-If you win the trip and take a rental car, get a small one. Parking in cities can be tight!