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SPORTS EXTRA / FOCUS ON MOTOR SPORTS: LONG BEACH GRAND
PRIX

On AZ Street

Vasser, Herta, Franchitti Among Those Trying to Take Zanardi's Spot at the Top

April 15, 1999|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the last two years on the CART FedEx champ car circuit, Alex Zanardi won 12 races and two PPG Cup championships.

Now that he is gone--he's back in Formula One--who will replace him as champion? Or as the dominant series driver?

With Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach the third race of the season, and the first on a street course, the race to Zanardi's No. 1 position is wide open.

There are some logical candidates, starting with Jimmy Vasser, who was Zanardi's teammate on Chip Ganassi's team. His quiet style was in marked contrast to Zanardi's flamboyant personality and led to his being somewhat overlooked.

Vasser, however, won the championship in 1996--Zanardi's rookie season--with four wins, one of them at Long Beach, finished third in 1997 and was second to Zanardi last year with three wins.

"I'm not a very superstitious person, but I have noticed that the driver who has won at Long Beach the past three years has gone on to win the championship," Vasser said. "I don't think there is a direct correlation, but just in case, I'm making every effort to win that race.

"It's a great course, and a great event. I look forward to it every year. Another thing is that I usually have a lot of friends and family at the race."

Vasser, who lives in Las Vegas, was born in Canoga Park and grew up in the San Fernando Valley.

Another local product, Bryan Herta of Valencia, could also be the successor to Zanardi. He had enough experience losing to the Italian late in races before he finally turned the tables and won last year at Laguna Seca by holding off Zanardi's late charge.

Herta was the victim of Zanardi's banzai pass in the corkscrew at Laguna Seca in 1996, then was passed for the lead on the second-last lap last year at Long Beach.

Herta, who underwent an emergency appendectomy March 1, came back to finish 12th at Homestead, Fla., three weeks later. Bobby Rahal, who retired last year to devote full time to running his CART team, is the team owner.

"Last year, Bryan got the monkey off his back with that great win at Laguna Seca," said Rahal. "We feel good that this is the first time since we won the CART championship in 1992 that we have had the same [chassis-engine-tire] package two years in a row."

Herta and his new teammate, Max Papis, who came to Rahal this year from Arciero-Wells, drive Reynard-Ford Cosworth-Firestone cars.

Zanardi's choice as his successor is Dario Franchitti, the Scotsman with the Italian name, who drives for Team Kool Green.

"Everyone says Dario is the one to beat for the championship," Zanardi said before the season opened. "If he wins it, I won't be surprised. He should be the No. 1 favorite."

Franchitti won three races in a four-race span last year and finished fourth in championship points. He was also second at Long Beach.

"I'll be happy to get back to Long Beach," Franchitti said. "It's the first road course and I'm ready to go. This is going to be a very competitive year. I think there are 15 cars that could win a race, maybe more.

"It's more important than ever to get off to a good start because every guy out there wants to be . . . in the top 12 at the end of the year and get a chance at that $5-million first prize in Hawaii."

The Hawaiian Super Prix is scheduled as a non-points race Nov. 11 on a temporary road circuit. It has a $10-million purse, $5 million going to the winner. The first 12 in PPG Cup points get invitations.

The old-timers' contingent of candidates was cut in half when Al Unser Jr., a six-time Long Beach winner, suffered serious leg injuries at Homestead. That left Michael Andretti, 36, to carry on traditions.

Andretti won at Long Beach in 1986, won the CART championship in 1991 and is the active leader in victories with 37, but he last won at Homestead in the 1998 season opener, 20 races ago.

"We just need to make less mistakes, and have a little luck," said Andretti, who is second in the standings after finishing second at Homestead and fifth in Japan.

"I really think we had a shot at winning [in Japan] but I lost first gear and stalled on the last pit stop. If there wasn't a yellow and I hadn't stalled, I'm sure we could have won.

"We're still in second place and I'm looking forward to getting back to the street race in Long Beach. I won my first CART race there."

Not to be overlooked are the season's first two winners, Canadian Greg Moore at Homestead and Mexican Adrian Fernandez in Japan. Each won two races last season.

Other contenders include Paul Tracy, the 1993 Long Beach winner who missed this year's first race because he was on probation for an incident last year.

"I know Paul's made some errors, but he's also still a hell of a driver," said car owner Barry Green, who won a PPG Cup and Indianapolis 500 with Jacque Villeneuve in 1995.

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