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Imports Are Dominating in CART

March 17, 2000|SHAV GLICK

Where have all the Americans gone?

When CART completed its 1999 season of international open-wheel racing last October at California Speedway, there were 10 U.S. drivers in the race.

There will be only two in this season's opener. Only Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser are left to drive March 26, in the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami at Homestead, Fla.

Scott Pruett, Robby Gordon and PJ Jones have gone to the highly popular NASCAR circuits, Pruett and Gordon to Winston Cup and Jones to Busch Grand National.

Al Unser Jr., a two-time CART champion, two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and for six years the mainstay of Roger Penske's team, has gone to the Indy Racing League, in hopes of getting a shot at a third Indy 500 win. He will be racing Sunday at Phoenix in the IRL's second race this season.

Penske's team, once the proud home of Rick Mears, Bobby and Al Unser and Danny Sullivan before Al Jr., is now manned by two Brazilians, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castro-Neves.

Richie Hearn has been replaced by Argentine rookie Noberto Fontana, although Hearn may remain with the Della Penna team as a test pilot. Bryan Herta was to have driven a Swift-Honda for the Forsyth team but that car has been withdrawn for the season in the wake of a franchise dispute between CART and car owner Gerald Forsythe.

Dennis Vitolo has retired. Alex Barron, who drove for Penske at Fontana, is looking for a ride.

Could this country's premier open-wheel series succeed without a single American driver? What happens when Andretti, 38, and Vasser, 34, decide to retire?

This year's roster of 25 drivers has more countries involved than Formula One. There are nine Brazilians, following the lead of the great Emerson Fittipaldi; three Canadians, two each from Mexico and Japan and single representatives of Colombia, Italy, Sweden, England, Scotland, Spain and Argentina.

This trend toward becoming Formula One Jr. has not hurt CART's appeal, according to figures released by chairman Andrew Craig.

Domestic TV viewership increased last year for the first time since 1995, up 7.4% over 1998 according to Nielsen Media Research. Spectator attendance, compiled by Sponsors Report, increased 6.4%.

Other massive changes in CART teams make the season opener at Homestead more intriguing than usual.

Team owner Chip Ganassi, after winning four consecutive championships with Honda-powered Reynards, has switched to Toyota engines and Lola chassis. What makes this so surprising is that Toyota-powered cars have not won since Dan Gurney introduced the Japanese manufacturer to CART in 1996.

Ganassi, whose winning drivers included Vasser in 1996, Alex Zanardi in 1997 and 1998 and Juan Montoya in 1999, has a record of success with unexpected changes, however. He was the first CART owner to try a Reynard chassis in 1994 and Michael Andretti won in its first outing. This year, 17 of the 25 cars will be Reynards.

Honda engines had won only one race and had been given up by Bobby Rahal after a miserable 1994 season before Ganassi switched from Ford-Cosworth in 1996 to begin his championship reign.

Penske also has a new look to go with his new drivers. His team will have a new engine, Honda; a new chassis, Reynard; and new tires, Firestone. The tire change was a necessity since Goodyear, always Penske's choice, withdrew from the CART series.

Andretti, previously the Swift factory driver for the Newman-Haas team, is now in a Lola, Carl Haas' longtime favorite chassis, going back to the days he was the North American distributor. The car will be powered by Ford-Cosworth, Newman-Haas' choice since 1992. Andretti, with 37 victories CART's all-time leader, is enthusiastic about his new package.

"We have set the quickest times everywhere we've tested, which is nice, although there are no points given for testing," he said. "We will be a force to be reckoned with this year, but it won't be easy."

Dario Franchitti, runner-up to Montoya for the CART championship last year, has been given medical clearance to drive after recuperating from a fractured pelvis and brain bruises suffered in a spring training accident Feb. 9 at Homestead. The Scotsman is scheduled to test Sunday and Monday at Nazareth Speedway to determine his status for the opener.

"Dario passed all the neurological and psychiatric tests and an MRI of the brain," said Dr. Steve Olvey of CART. "They were all normal. He is clear to test at the team's discretion. He looks great, he has a great attitude and his upper body strength is excellent."

Franchitti spent last week in Europe with trainer Tony Matthis for strength conditioning.

"I'm really looking forward to getting back in the car and rejoining my team," Franchitti said. "I told them I don't want anybody else in my seat. That's my car."

Another change will be the Handford MKII wing package, which is mandated for all short ovals this season.

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