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Everybody Is Chasing Zanardi at Laguna Seca

Auto racing: Italian driver is a virtual lock for the CART championship entering today's 300-kilometer race.

September 07, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MONTEREY, Calif. — It was a year ago today when Alex Zanardi straightened out Laguna Seca Raceway's fabled corkscrew corner with a daring dash through the dirt on the last lap to deny Bryan Herta his first CART victory.

The pass has taken its place in motor racing lore as one of the most dramatic ever seen in an Indy car race. It gave the little Italian driver a surprising victory and also the impetus needed to dominate the 1997 season in Chip Ganassi's Reynard-Honda as the teammate of CART champion Jimmy Vasser.

Zanardi has won five races and leads Brazilian Gil de Ferran by 37 points with two races remaining--today's Texaco/Havoline 300 on Laguna Seca's 11-turn, 2.238-mile hillside road course and the Sept. 28 Marlboro 500 at California Speedway.

Only 43 points are available from the two races, so if anything can stop the flamboyant Zanardi from winning the $1-million PPG CART championship, it would be too much of the same aggressive driving style that got him where he is.

Last week at Vancouver, after knocking the race leader--Herta again--off the track with a hit that looked like something he learned from an NFL blocking back, Zanardi was fined $25,000 and warned by chief steward Wally Dallenbach that similar tactics today could get him barred from Fontana's season finale.

"He is trying to lose this championship, and if he's not careful, he will," de Ferran said. "If we have our car right on Sunday, we can dominate like we did in 1995. If we can do that and Alex has a problem, who knows? Anything is possible."

It is not likely, but it could happen, especially if Zanardi became over-aggressive where he wound up a hero last year.

No matter where Zanardi ends up, however, de Ferran must finish first or second today to stay alive. Third or worse and it's over, Zanardi gives the championship for the second consecutive year to Ganassi's Target team.

Herta, in dramatic style, delayed Zanardi's run to the title at least a little bit Saturday when he took the pole away from the provisional leader with a track-record lap of 118.666 mph. It not only took the pole from Zanardi, it took his year-old 118.475 record off the Laguna Seca books.

For his fast lap, Herta collected the $10,000 Marlboro Pole Award and stands to win an additional $90,000 if he wins the 300-kilometer (185.754-mile) race.

After Herta posted his winning speed, Zanardi had plenty of time to regain it, but in his haste he spun into the sand and lost all chance at the pole and its point.

"The irony was not lost on me," Herta said afterward.

It was quite a contrast from Herta's postrace outburst at Vancouver when he said, "In my view, Alex Zanardi's an idiot." In racing to make up a lost lap, Zanardi first nudged Herta and then a couple of turns later, punted him into the infield, the incident that caused him to be put on probation.

The two of them appeared side-by-side at a post-qualifying interview, but neither fueled the would-be feud.

"Tomorrow night, I'm going home to Italy and spend three weeks not thinking about what happened last week, or last year," Zanardi said. "I'm in a comfortable position to take something back to Europe in my pocket, but that does not mean I am going to run slow. I will drive as fast as I can, in a safe position, as any professional race driver would do."

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