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SPORTS WEEKEND | Motor Racing

In Open Wheel, Dominance Has Become a Foreign Subject

October 23, 1998|SHAV GLICK

What has hap- pened to American drivers in this country's open-wheel racing series?

All four champions are foreigners: Italy's Alex Zanardi in CART champ cars, Sweden's Kenny Brack in Indy Racing League, Brazil's Cristiano da Matta in Indy Lights and Canada's Lee Bentham in Formula Toyota Atlantic.

CART's rookie of the year is Brazilian Tony Kanaan. When it came time to pick a young driver to replace Zanardi, who is heading back to Formula One, championship team owner Chip Ganassi chose a Colombian, Juan Pablo Montoya.

In Indy Lights, the official development series of CART, nine of the top 10 drivers are foreigners--three from Brazil and one each from France, Japan, Austria, England, Ireland and Spain.

"What's the matter with that?" retiring Bobby Rahal, a three-time Indy car champion, answered with a question when asked about the unusual turn of events. "Why should auto racing be any different?

"Talking about foreign drivers being a problem is a total misrepresentation of the concept. The fabric of sports in America is baseball, yet somehow it is acceptable that the major leagues are full of players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan and other countries.

"And basketball and hockey, which were once totally American and Canadian, now have rosters loaded with Europeans and it's applauded.

"How come that doesn't hold true for auto racing? In my mind, and I think in the minds of most racers, that's the way it should be. Bring on the best."

Gil de Ferran says the trend to foreign involvement in U.S. open-wheel racing is attributable to Nigel Mansell's appearance in Indy cars in 1993.

"One cannot underestimate the appeal of a world champion, especially a very popular world champion," de Ferran says. "Maybe the appeal inside America was varied, but not for motor racing fans around the world, and the motor racing media.

"Nigel didn't even defend the title in Formula One. When he came here in 1993, it was like someone turned the spotlights onto the series. All of a sudden, CART was talked about all over Europe, and elsewhere."

De Ferran, a Brazilian who went to Europe when he was 21 to pursue a racing career, made his CART debut in 1995 with Jim Hall's team and now drives for Derrick Walker.

"Some of the internationalization you see now is as a consequence of that. It's what I call the 'Nigel Mansell Effect.' It certainly made me reevaluate my opinion of CART.

"I'm sure the same happened to other drivers, sponsors and many millions of fans."

One answer as to what has happened to American drivers might be that they've gone to NASCAR.

A look at stock cars' top 10 finds Jeff Gordon from California, Mark Martin from Arkansas, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt from North Carolina, Bobby and Terry Labonte from Texas, Jeremy Mayfield from Kentucky, Rusty Wallace from Missouri and John Andretti from Indiana.

WINSTON CUP

If Gordon scores 12 points more than Martin in Sunday's Dura Lube/KMart 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, he will clinch his second consecutive Winston Cup championship. He also won in 1995. The last time the championship was decided with two races left was 1994, when Earnhardt won the last of his seven titles.

Jeff Ward, a multi-champion motocross rider who switched to open-wheel racing with the Indy Racing League, will take a shot at Winston Cup stock car racing this weekend. The San Juan Capistrano driver will debut in a car owned by Bill Strauser of Walla Walla, Wash. The Phoenix track is where Ward won his first IRL pole in March.

Ernie Irvan hopes to return to full-time action at Phoenix. Last week, recovering from an accident at Talladega, Ala., Irvan turned his Skittles car over to Ricky Craven after 13 laps of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.

"A big part of my decision to get out of the car was because it was Daytona," Irvan said. "It's a hard track on a driver, especially if you take a hit. I don't think Phoenix will be as tough on me."

The running of the Pepsi 400 under the lights at Daytona resulted in a record 4.7 cable rating for The Nashville Network production. It was an 18% increase over last year's July 4 daytime race. The 4.7 rating equates to nearly 3.5 million households watching, according to NASCAR.

PARTY TIME

Racing won't be the only excitement for followers of the CART FedEx championship series next weekend at California Speedway, where the season will end with the Marlboro 500.

On Friday night, a charity extravaganza called Runway Madness will take place at the Lockheed hangar of the Ontario airport.

On Saturday, after qualifying for the 500, there will be a Halloween party at the speedway infield featuring drivers in costume.

Runway Madness, produced by Shelley and Al Unser Jr., will be a mix of food, entertainment, a dunk tank with championship car owner Chip Ganassi as the victim and an auction conducted by Tommy Kendall and Bob Varsha to benefit CARA Charities, Championship Drivers Assn. and Loma Linda Children's Hospital.

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