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Zanardi Is Hardly the Only One Moving On as the Wheels Turn

September 11, 1998|SHAV GLICK

MONTEREY, Calif. — The announcement that two-time CART champion Alex Zanardi is leaving Chip Ganassi's champ car team to return to Formula One could be made as soon as this weekend, but waiting for it hasn't stopped the driver dominoes from falling.

PJ Jones, who's stepping aside with four races remaining so that team owner Dan Gurney can find a replacement for his Toyota-Eagle, will be named today as the driver for one of Pat Patrick's cars next season. Patrick will also announce that his team is switching chassis, from Reynard to Swift, in 1999.

"We have mixed emotions about losing PJ after seven years with our team," Gurney said. "He won Toyota's first-ever 24-hour race at Daytona and helped win two GTP manufacturer's championships. He will be sincerely missed by all of us. But at the same time, we are happy to see him go to a front- running team, which only underlines what we have known for a long time--that he is one terrific driver."

Vicenzo Sospiri, 31-year-old Italian sports car driver, will join Gurney's team this weekend in the Honda Grand Prix of Monterey at Laguna Seca Raceway. Sospiri, who qualified for the front row of the 1997 Indianapolis 500, has been racing a Ferrari this year in the International Sports Racing Series in Europe.

Sospiri and rookie Alex Barron, a former go-kart driver from Vista, will be in Eagles from Gurney's All American Racers shop in Santa Ana.

Last Sunday at Vancouver, in the Eagle's second outing, Barron led for nine laps. It was the first time a Toyota-powered car had led a champ car race in 48 events.

Max Papis, another Toyota driver, has left the Arciero-Wells team to replace the retiring Bobby Rahal on next year's Team Rahal as a teammate of Bryan Herta. And Papis' place with Arciero-Wells was taken by veteran Scott Pruett, finishing his fourth season with Patrick Racing.

Speculation along pit row at Laguna Seca for a successor to Zanardi's championship seat with Ganassi includes such widely diverse names as Sweden's Kenny Brack, A.J. Foyt's highly successful Indy Racing League driver; Robby Gordon, who started his CART career in 1992 with Ganassi, and Richie Hearn, although he says he plans to fulfill the next two years of his contract with John Della Penna.

Heinz-Herald Frentzen, who has said he would like to leave Formula One and try CART, was also rumored to be in the running but he took himself out of it Thursday, when he and Ralf Schumacher swapped Formula One teams. Frentzen will drive next season for the Jordan team and Schumacher for the Williams team, where Zanardi also is expected to land. Williams had previously lost a driver, 1997 champion Jacques Villeneuve, for next year.

Ganassi hedged when asked about Zanardi's replacement.

"I wouldn't say Alex is gone today but then again, I wouldn't say he's coming back," he said.

Maybe Zanardi's not gone today, but he may be by Sunday, when an announcement is expected from the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

After becoming only the third repeat CART champion with a fourth-place finish in Vancouver, Zanardi flew to Italy to be with his wife, Daniela, for the birth of their first child, a boy. He is expected back today to qualify for Sunday's Texaco/Havoline 300.

It was at Laguna Seca where Zanardi, who joined Ganassi after his Formula One Lola team folded in 1995, earned his reputation as the hardest charger in CART by cutting across a portion of the track's Corkscrew turn, denying Herta a victory two years ago.

"Sure, Alex has won our team a third championship but our work is far from finished this year," Ganassi said. "We want to finish 1-2 again, the way we did last year."

Jimmy Vasser, who won for Ganassi in 1996, was second last season and signed earlier this week for three more years, . He is second at the moment, but only 20 points separate him and seventh-place Pruett. Vasser, defending champion at Laguna Seca, has 126 points, followed by Adrian Fernandez with 120, Greg Moore with 118; Dario Franchitti with 110, Michael Andretti with 109, and Pruett with 106.

"We're very relieved to have Jimmy in the fold for the future," Ganassi said. "He is one of the most underrated drivers on the circuit. Next year, whether Jimmy's with Alex or someone else, we want to become the first team to win four championships in a row."

Owner Roger Penske, who won with Rick Mears in 1981 and '82 and Al Unser in '83, is the only other owner to have won three in succession.

SCORE DESERT RACING

Defending series champion Curt LeDuc of Cherry Valley, who missed the last two Laughlin SCORE Desert Series races while competing elsewhere, returns Saturday to defend his title in the SCORE Las Vegas Primm 300.

LeDuc and his Jeep Grand Cherokee will face a stiff challenge from Troy Herbst of Las Vegas, who leads the unlimited Class 1 standings after having won three consecutive overall SCORE events in his Ford-powered Smithbuilt desert race car. In the Trophy Truck class, the leader is the Ford team of David Ashley and Dan Smith of Riverside.

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