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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING

Americans Might Break Fast and Go a la CART

August 18, 2000|SHAV GLICK

What is happening to CART?

It has only two recognizable American drivers--1991 champion Michael Andretti and 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser--and both are looking for rides.

Vasser has been dropped by Chip Ganassi's Target team and Andretti has openly acknowledged he is considering a move (can Mario believe this!) to the rival Indy Racing League. Mario, Michael's father, has been the most outspoken critic of the IRL.

If both left CART, an admittedly unlikely scenario as both are being pursued by other teams, it would leave backup driver Memo Gidley as the only American in the series.

What makes Andretti's proposed defection most puzzling is that the 37-year-old second-generation driver is leading CART in points. After 13 of 20 races, Andretti has a 125-106 lead over Brazilian Gil de Ferran.

As usual, it all comes down to money.

Estimates of Andretti's pay this year is around $6 million, making him by far the highest-paid CART driver. He has a two-year option that is alleged to kick in at $8 million next year, but Carl Haas, major-domo of the Newman-Haas team, is reluctant to renew for two years. He has offered his driver a one-year pact, which Andretti has apparently rejected.

One reason for Haas' reluctance to commit for two years is that his team sponsorship contract with Kmart has only one year remaining and it is unlikely it will be renewed after 2001.

Within CART, Andretti is talking to Chip Ganassi, who will have two openings next year after dropping Vasser and returning Juan Montoya to Frank Williams' Formula One program, and to Bruce McCaw of PacWest, who could enhance his chances if he landed a Honda engine contract.

The big surprise, however, is the IRL connection. Reports are that owners of Northern Light, the series sponsor, would finance Andretti's move to Tony George's all-oval series, in much the manner that George has bankrolled Al Unser Jr.'s defection to the IRL this year.

Vasser, winless since the season finale in 1998, will make it official today that he and Ganassi have parted company. The announcement will be made at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wis., where CART will race Sunday in the Motorola 220.

"Chip said he wants to make a change, and he thinks the change would be good for both the team and me," said Vasser, 34. "I tend to agree. We have a lot of history together and maybe things have gotten a little stale. It should be an amicable divorce. The timing gives me the opportunity to see what options are available for next season."

Vasser won the first of Ganassi's four consecutive CART championships in 1996.

WINSTON WEST

Steve Portenga won the inaugural Winston West race at Irwindale Speedway last year in a Chevrolet Monte Carlo. He's bringing the same car to Irwindale for the Home Depot 250 on Saturday night.

"That Roto Rooter Chevy hasn't run since last year's race, but we tested down there a couple of weeks ago and we feel it's one of our best pieces," said the 30-year-old driver who recently moved to Bakersfield from Oakdale, Calif., to help further his NASCAR racing career.

"Bakersfield is kind of the Winston West version of the Mooresville-Charlotte hub for Winston Cup cars," he said.

Portenga, who also won the inaugural L.A. Street Race two years ago, is third in Winston West points with four races remaining--two of them at Irwindale. He has 1,149 points to 1,343 for Brendan Gaughan of Las Vegas and 1,171 for Kevin Richards of Spokane, Wash.

"First place is a little out of range, but we can get second with some solid finishes. I'd like to run one more year in Winston West and then move on to Busch Grand National or the Craftsman trucks. The ultimate goal, ever since I began racing 16 years ago, has been Winston Cup."

Portenga has an impressive resume. At 21 he was the youngest late model champion at Silver State Raceway in Carson City, Nev. The following season he was Southwest Tour rookie of the year, then won the series championship in 1994 and 1998. The only other two-time Southwest champion is Ron Hornaday Jr., now with Dale Earnhardt's team.

"Going to Irwindale is always a great treat. It is a beautiful facility, the finest we race at. It's like a super speedway and short track all bunched into one.

"When I won there the first time, I looked up at the stands and it looked like Daytona, there was such a packed house.

"Then I have a personal reason to like Irwindale. Pat Patterson [Irwindale vice president] is there and he helped me tremendously in '98 when we started out as teammates. When he hurt his wrist, he turned his efforts to helping me and we won the Southwest Tour. In fact, he was my spotter at the L.A. race. That was a really important one for us. Our sponsor was Exxon Super Flo, and the big favorite was Valvoline, with Mark Martin. When we beat him, it kept our sponsorship the rest of the year."

THREE EARNHARDTS

Just when Earnhardt fans were getting used to seeing the Big E and the Little E in the same Winston Cup race, along comes Middle E.

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