NASCAR & Auto Racing

Grandstands full - of empty seats - at inaugural Champ Car Belgian Grand Prix

ZOLDER, Belgium – The drivers liked the track, the fans loved being able to get close to the teams and cars, and the promoter said the race will be back next year.

But what about all those empty seats at the inaugural Champ Car Belgian Grand Prix, which was won from the pole by series leader Sebastien Bourdais?

Organizers sold about 40,000 tickets for the race meet – 15,000 for the first two days and 25,000 on race day, said Vincent Franssen, a spokesman for the promoter. The 2.5-mile circuit at Zolder has a capacity of about 50,000, he said.

“It was mainly the grandstands that were not full because the prices of the tickets were quite high,” Franssen said. “For next year, maybe it would be better to price a bit cheaper to have more tickets sold.”

Fan Peter Georgiades thought the ticket prices were a bit steep – he paid nearly $205 for a weekend grandstand ticket and access to the paddock – but said the access to drivers and their cars gave Champ Car an edge over Formula One, which has a larger following in Europe.

“I don’t go to Formula One, because they treat you as if you are going to the cinema,” said Georgiades, a 58-year-old civil servant from Brussels. “You are supposed to sit in one place all day and then go home. What I like is to walk around the paddock.”

Before the race Sunday, Georgiades was in the paddock, where drivers strolled around – sometimes unnoticed by the fans – and spectators could peer into makeshift garages where pit crews tinkered with the racing cars.

“All I want to do is see the cars,” said Georgiades, who was chatting with a mechanic fine-tuning Alex Tagliani’s car shortly before Sunday’s race.

Franssen said part of the reason for the low turnout was that there no Belgian drivers vying for the championship.

The only Belgian was Jan Heylen, who’s in his second Champ Car season and is not in contention for the title. He finished 13th Sunday after a disappointing weekend that saw him sidelined Friday by a crash on his first practice lap and then lose his seventh gear early in Sunday’s race.

“Jan Heylen is known here, but only among racing fans,” Franssen said.

The Bavaria Champ Car Grand Prix on Sunday in Assen, Holland, is expected to draw bigger crowds, in part because Dutch rookie Robert Doornbos is second in the season standings behind Bourdais and is well known in his home country.

Though some drivers thought the Zolder track was narrow, there were very few crashes during the weekend and they generally sang its praises.

“I love this track. I think the track is very nice,” Brazilian Bruno Junqueira said Sunday after placing second for his first podium finish of the season.

Franssen said one weekend was not enough to judge the success of the Belgian Grand Prix, which he said would be run for the second time next year.

Georgiades, who also planned to attend the race in Assen, said the series could succeed in Europe, but will need more races.

“If they race 90 percent of the time in the United States, it won’t do it ... they need 50 percent of the races in Europe,” he said.

“I wish them luck and I hope they come back to Europe.”