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Analysis: Montreal Future in Doubt

The future of the Montreal Champ Car race has been thrown into doubt following a slump in attendance at this year's event

The series' only foray into French-speaking Canada has traditionally been one of the most popular stops on the calendar, complementing equally successful races in Canada's other major cities - Toronto, Vancouver (until 2004) and now Edmonton.

But in fact crowd numbers have been in a gentle decline ever since the spectacular inaugural event in 2002, which drew 172,000 people over the three days and generated a feverish atmosphere.

The attendance dipped to 148,000 in 2003 and then 134,000 last year. The decline became precipitous last weekend as 93,755 people filed through the turnstiles over the three days, including a paltry 36,204 on race day.

There is considerable controversy over the reasons for the low turnout in a year in which Champ Car's attendance figures have been buoyant elsewhere, at both new and established venues.

Only a handful of grandstands were erected, with a single bleacher on the start/finish straight instead of the usual three or four stands and an estimated total seating capacity of just 20,000 (which was sold out).

The pruning of grandstand seating and the high-profile presence of several NASCAR executives prompted the more cynical paddock observers to suggest that race president Normand Legault - who co-promotes the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix with Bernie Ecclestone - is deliberately downsizing the Champ Car event to pave the way for a stock car race when the current contract with CCWS expires at the end of next year.

The Montreal city fathers are only prepared to give their blessing to two events per year on the Ile Notre Dame, while NASCAR has been making aggressive efforts to widen its horizons to the whole NAFTA market, making its Mexican debut with a Busch Series race at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez this spring.

However, race officials dismissed such notions as conspiracy theories and insisted there was a sound rationale for the seating changes.

"We've heard the talk [about trying to kill the race] and it's pure speculation," race spokesman Normand Prieur said on Sunday morning. "We put stands up in the quantity we anticipated we would need. You always want the best crowd possible.

"I know there's been a lot of talk about the [single] grandstand across from the pits. The reason for that is that those are no longer the best seats for this event. The best seats are the Senna Curves [Turns One and Two] and the hairpin because Champ Car has changed the pitstop rules.

"The pit grandstands are still premium seats for the [F1] Grand Prix; of course the race is a sell-out, but also it's a different ball game - the pre-event ceremonies, the standing start, the fact that pitstops are so important in Formula One - so there's a larger number of people there for the Grand Prix.

"We built the grandstands for what we expected the demand to be."

Prieur added that he did not regard this year's race as a failure: "There are a number of ways to determine whether this is a successful event. One is the crowd numbers, another is the [quality of the] racing and another is whether our sponsors are satisfied. So you can't form an opinion on just one thing, and we are very satisfied with the results."

Champ Car officials claim they are not unduly concerned by the drop in attendance, which they attributed partly to rain on Sunday morning that had a detrimental effect on the walk-up crowd.

CCWS executive vice-president of development, government affairs and planning Joe Chrnelich said: "We are very pleased with the progress made across many areas of this year's event in Montreal.

"Our promoter partner Normand Legault and his team did an excellent job of creating new strategies and value propositions in order to reposition our series in the Montreal marketplace.

"Although there is plenty of room for growth in the event, we believe things are heading in the right direction and Champ Car will work side by side with our promoter to do just that."

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