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Young Lions Appear Ready to Roar in Indy Car Racing

September 19, 1997|SHAV GLICK

One of the major criticisms of Indy car racing in general, and CART in particular, concerns the apparent lack of development of young American drivers.

Bobby Rahal, at 44 the elder statesman of open-wheel racing, says it's a bad rap.

"We have the finest crop of young drivers that we've had in years," said the three-time

PPG CART driving champion and winner of the 1986 Indianapolis 500.

"Jimmy Vasser was just 30 when he won our championship last year, and Bryan Herta, Richie Hearn and P.J. Jones are all under 30, and they're all very good race car drivers. Robby Gordon is another good one under 30. He'll be back with us next year."

Gordon, 28, left Indy cars last year to race Winston Cup stock cars for Felix Sabates, but the former off-road champion from Orange is expected to return to CART in 1998 with Barry Green's team. Herta is 27, Hearn 26 and Jones 28.

"When I started racing in CART, I was almost 30 and I was one of the younger drivers," Rahal said. "The veterans like Mario Andretti, Al Unser, Johnny Rutherford and A.J. Foyt were in their 40s and they were the guys to beat.

"Heck, Al [Unser] Jr. and Michael [Andretti] are still in their early 30s, and they're old-timers in the series. Ten years ago, I talked about retiring when I got to be 40, but I'm still enjoying driving and I believe I can run with these kids and beat them."

Rahal has won 24 races in 16 years with CART, but has not visited the victory circle since 1992, when he won four races. His best finishes this season have been a third at Mid-Ohio and a fifth at Cleveland.

But Rahal would rather talk about his protege, teammate Herta, than himself.

"Bryan is so, so close to winning," Rahal said. "He had one stolen from him last year at Laguna Seca [on Alex Zanardi's final-lap pass through the dirt] and this year there is no doubt in my mind that he would have won at Laguna Seca if his tires hadn't gone [bad].

"Bryan was by far the quickest driver. What he did in qualifying was one of the most impressive performances all year. He not only broke the track record three times in the last session, but his best lap was a half-second faster than Zanardi, who was second best. These days, when the fields are so closely bunched, that was staggering.

"He was on Goodyears and the next Goodyear qualifier was Gil de Ferran, ninth. If his tires hadn't gone away after 15 laps or so, he would have won easily. Once his tires heated up, you could see him going backward."

Herta, who used to live in Valencia, led the first 21 laps before being passed by Scott Pruett and Zanardi. He finished sixth.

"The car felt good at the start, but after 15 laps I was just driving my butt off to stay ahead," Herta said. "We thought we might have a chance to come back but the second set of tires was worse than the first. No grip at all."

Rahal said the disparity in tires should not be such a problem in the Marlboro 500 next week on California Speedway's two-mile oval.

"The edge Firestone has on road courses isn't as great on ovals. We were quite satisfied with our tires at Michigan and the two tracks are so similar that we should be in good shape."

In the tire war of 1997, Firestone has won 12 races, the last 10 in succession. Goodyears have been on four winners.

"With the chassis and engine combinations so close, the tires have had a huge impact on the results, especially on the road courses," Rahal said.

Weather conditions may be the difference in the season finale at Fontana.

"Heat and wind could be bigger factors. People who tested there said the wind has an unsettling effect, even more than the heat.

"I like the idea of finishing the season with a 500-mile race. Every series needs a marquee event, like the Indianapolis 500 or the Daytona 500, and I think the race in Fontana will become that for CART.

"To end with a 500-mile race could have a huge effect on the championship. The champion has been decided already this year, but there is potential for three, maybe four drivers coming to Fontana with the championship on the line. Five hundred miles will be a real test for them.

"It's become a lot more of a test than it was when I started. Back then, we paced ourselves. We'd stay on the lead lap for the first 350 miles and then race the last 150. Now, you have to run all out the entire way and hope everything stays together on your car."

Rahal doesn't believe that Zanardi's having clinched the title with a third-place finish at Laguna Seca will detract from the race.

"To win any 500-mile race is very satisfying," said Rahal, who has won two, the 1986 Indy 500 and the Pocono 500 in 1988.

When Rahal completes his first lap Sunday, he will be the only CART driver to have raced at Riverside, Ontario and Fontana. He won the last Indy car race at Riverside, the Los Angeles Times 500K on Aug. 28, 1983, and he drove at Ontario in a Formula Atlantic race on May 9, 1976, when he started alongside the late Gilles Villeneuve in the front row.

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