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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Ribeiro Unwrapping Penske 'Package' at Homestead

March 13, 1998|JIM HODGES

It's not driving a car now, it's piloting a "package" of chassis, engine and tire. Al Unser Jr. isn't at the wheel of the No. 2. He's in a Penske- Mercedes- Goodyear.

Where once there was concern about putting on races, now CART is a "content provider," according to organization President Andrew Craig. "We don't own stadiums or concrete poured into the ground, but apart from that, we are no different" from any other commercial concern.

Holy Harvard Business Review!

CART, seeking to become vertically integrated, has bought the Indy Lights series, is looking for a driver's school and, as of Tuesday, is being traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It opened at $16 and shot up to $20.

It's as though they are trying to plug champ car--not Indy car anymore, now that the lawyers have picked over those bones--racing into a classroom computer model, or maybe trying to reinvent CART as IBM. And you get the idea that if it wouldn't get in the way of the lug nut, they would make Rob Hill wear a tie when he changes the right front tire of Alex Zanardi's car, er, package, on a pit stop.

And then you get to Sunday, and you remember why CART exists. The organization opens its season at Homestead, Fla., on a reconfigured track that is wider and faster, with some old faces in some new places.

CART's value might be $231.5 million, according to its stock offering, but to drivers, the bottom line is the checkered flag, and Michael Andretti will be trying to get his second in a row at Homestead (in a Swift-Ford- Goodyear, if you please).

Andre Ribeiro will be trying to get his first for his new boss, Roger Penske.

For all of the newfound grow-your-own emphasis on drivers by CART, Penske knew where to get a pilot for his package when he and Paul Tracy parted company after last season.

Penske went to Tasman, Steve Horne's team, and took away Ribeiro in a negotiating session that lasted all of 48 hours and probably didn't have to take that long.

"Roger just told me what his plans were for next season and he asked me what my goals were," Ribeiro said.

Penske planned a new car and Ribeiro had a goal of winning races.

Penske hired a driver who has won three times in three years on the CART series, to go with Unser, who hasn't won in two years. Penske no longer had Tracy, who won three races last season and complained that he didn't have the equipment to win more.

"They had won three races and said it was a down year," Ribeiro, 33, said. "I said I would like to race for a team that considers three wins a down year."

He had been happy enough with Tasman.

"We were like a family," Ribeiro said. "There's a big difference [in working for Penske]. It's a big organization. I worked for a smaller organization. One isn't better or worse than the other. It's just different.

"I was comfortable with Tasman, but we were never pushing each other to get better and sometimes you need a push."

No problem getting a push with Penske, who employs 156 people pushing a new car, designed around a smaller but no less powerful Mercedes engine. Two cars, actually, because the one used this weekend at Homestead and then in Japan will be about 4 1/4 inches taller than the one that will debut at Long Beach on April 5. That one is so low that Ribeiro and Unser will almost be supine while they drive.

As with any new car, er, package, there is a learning curve and it won't just be the eight degrees of Turn 1 at Homestead.

"I'm not going to be trying to win the race on the first lap," Ribeiro said. "We need to get better with time. This series is getting more and more competitive."

With competition, however, comes opportunity, and Tracy saw his when he moved to Team Kool Green and joined Dario Franchitti in a Reynard-Honda-Firestone.

They, and everybody else, will be chasing the Target-Ganassi team of Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser, one the doughnut-cutting winner of last year's series, the other the 1996 champion.

And among the posse for the final time will be Bobby Rahal, who has announced his retirement at 45, but who is trying to turn the season into something other than a Grand Tour.

They will be after the PPG Cup, which is still named that, even though PPG as a CART sponsor is history. It's the FedEx CART series now, so presumably the PPG Cup will be delivered to its winner by overnight mail.

WINSTON CUP

There's no race this week, which is probably good for Darrell Waltrip, who finds himself, helmet in hand, looking for money.

For seven years, Waltrip's Chevrolet was sponsored by Western Auto, which got out of the NASCAR game after last season and was replaced by Speedblock Inc., an Ohio outfit. That lasted four races, in which Waltrip finished 33rd at Daytona, 41st at Rockingham, 35th at Las Vegas and 40th at Atlanta.

Then Speedblock failed to meet the payment schedule of its contract, according to Waltrip's spokesman, Keith Waltz.

Looking for help is something Waltrip has never had to do but at 51, he is 40th in driver point standings.

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