Clash of the Giants; Hollywood's Sylvester Stallone Is Taking on Tycoon Bernie Eccelstone in a Race to Make ChampCars More Popular Than Formula 1. Jeremy Hart Heralds the Arrival of the Sport in Britain

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 15, 2000 | Go to article overview

Clash of the Giants; Hollywood's Sylvester Stallone Is Taking on Tycoon Bernie Eccelstone in a Race to Make ChampCars More Popular Than Formula 1. Jeremy Hart Heralds the Arrival of the Sport in Britain


Byline: JEREMY HART

Beneath the glare of the lights, across the rubber-streaked starting grid of Toronto's downtown racetrack, strides a stocky figure. In his red-and-white flameproof overalls, standing by his 245mph terrestrial rocket, he looks so much the archetypal racing driver, he could have come straight from central casting. And, yes, there is something familiar about this man's build and demeanour. Then, 'Cut!' shouts director Renny Harlin, and an approving shout goes up behind a vast pile of race tyres from the 25 real-life racing drivers who've been watching our hero as he plays the opening scenes of his latest Hollywood movie, Champs. Sylvester Stallone - for it is he - looks embarrassed, but he shouldn't be. He has the wholehearted support and approval of these drivers - among them actor Paul Newman and former Formula 1 star, Mario Andretti - gladiators of the ChampCar circuit, for whom the risk of death and chance of glory come in equal measure. Stallone is here to tell their story - to bring ChampCar to a wider public - and they are more than happy about that.

Stallone has scripted, and is producing, Champs, which co-stars Burt Reynolds, among others. It has been described as 'Rocky on the Race Track' and he hopes that his [pounds sterling]40 million movie will do for ChampCar, not so much what Rocky did for boxing, as what Tom Cruise and Days of Thunder did for NASCAR saloon-style racing, and James Garner and Grand Prix did for Formula 1 in the 1960s.

The irony is that his film might have done again for Formula 1 what Grand Prix did for the sport - and more. Four years ago, Stallone was courting the sport's boss Bernie Ecclestone with a view to making a Formula 1 movie, but the issue of control - of who was going to call the shots - came between them. So he turned his attention to ChampCar (formerly known as Indy racing).

Now, this faster, hair-raising sport looks set to keep cinema-goers on the edge of their seats in a way that Formula 1 never could.

ChampCar drivers, Sly believes, are made of altogether sterner stuff than the cocooned Schumachers and Hakkinens of Formula 1. 'These are very special people who get involved in a life and death, flesh and blood situation every day of their lives,' he says of them, a touch emotionally. 'There is not much difference between these drivers and young astronauts. The training and the dangers are perhaps even more.'

At 245 mph, with no more than a four-foot concrete wall as a cushion, Formula 1's faster American cousins run so close to the edge that there is barely room to fit a hand between their cars' giant tyres and the paint on the concrete. The shriek of their 900-horsepower engines (equivalent to eight family cars) rends the air. So intense is the fear, novice drivers are encouraged to bring a change of fireproof underwear.

'When you are doing 230-something miles an hour and someone spins in front of you, it's enough to make you **** your pants,' ChampCar's Colombian reigning race king, Juan Pablo Montoya, all too graphically explains. 'That kind of action in the movie will be fantastic. Formula 1 might be the ultimate in terms of image, but if you are making a movie about racing, the ChampCar circuit is the place to do it.'

Nor could the timing be more opportune. The ChampCar series is expanding fast. Until the mid-Nineties, for a racing driver to move from Formula 1 to ChampCar would have been seen as a major step down. But today, ChampCar is on a roll.

Like Formula 1, it has an impressive line-up of sponsors, including Honda, Motorola and Shell. No longer is it a purely domestic American series, played out on remote tracks where the tumbleweed bowls about. Only four of the 25 regular drivers are American and Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and Australia are already on the world tour. From 2001, Germany and Britain will join them, giving ChampCar a continent-count as high as Formula 1's. …

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