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MOTOR RACING

High-speed Chase

Auto racing: After years of struggle and risk-taking, Fernandez has become one of CART's biggest attractions.

April 04, 2001|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Adrian Fernandez's eyes light up when he recalls his childhood, watching "Speed Racer" on TV and playing with his Matchbox cars on crude tracks he made of newspapers.

"My mother used to try to get me out of the room just to have lunch," he recalled. "When I was a kid, I would put myself into the little cars. I loved that. 'Speed Racer,' I dreamed of him. I wanted to be him."

Today, he is.

Fernandez arrives at the Grand Prix of Long Beach as one of the CART FedEx Championship Series' top drivers the last three seasons. Bogged down by sponsor commitments and the rock-star spotlight of being a Mexican national hero at the season's first event, the inaugural Tecate Telmex Grand Prix of Monterrey, Fernandez considers Long Beach his first real race of the season.

Be warned, he's hotter than the Tecate Girls.

Fernandez closed 2000 by scoring points in 17 of the last 18 races, including 13 in succession to end the season and finished second in the drivers' standings. One of his worst performances last year was in Long Beach, when he finished 24th after engine failure sent him crashing into the wall on Lap 10--while running fourth.

Fernandez, 35, has also been hot off the track. He and Tom Anderson, former team manager of four-time series champion Chip Ganassi Racing, formed a partnership, Fernandez Racing, which makes Fernandez an owner-driver.

Fernandez was also a lightning rod for the series' journey into his native Mexico, where it pulled a 14.5 rating on Mexican television and attracted 116,000 fans on the final day, the largest single-day sporting/entertainment event in Monterrey history. More than 318,000 attended the race weekend.

"For me, it was an opportunity to thank my fans," said Fernandez, who has been voted Mexico's athlete of the year the last two years through the newspaper El Reforma. "I pushed for that race for a long time. I knew it was going to be a great success. I think we can have two races in Mexico."

Fernandez started and finished 19th, an aberration but only slightly disappointing because he really was host of the national party. Going to bed at 1 a.m. on race weekend is not conducive to good racing. Throngs crowded him everywhere, clamoring for an autograph or picture.

"It was the best present they could give me," he said. "It's like them saying, 'Thank you for your commitment, thank you for your career, thank you for your effort.' All the sacrifices that I have put into my career, now I can recognize our fans."

There is a reason Fernandez has gained such recognition. In his first five seasons in CART, his best finish was 12th.

"I had the ability to be honest enough, and humble enough, to say 'This is my problem and I can fix it,' " Fernandez said. "And I would fix it."

Then he finished fourth in the standings in 1998 for Patrick Racing, and sixth in 1999, despite having missed four races because of a broken wrist. His second-place finish last season brought his earnings to more than $6 million, almost $3.6 million the last three seasons.

"When you get to the top, recognize the people who helped you at the bottom, and you'll become a bigger person for everybody," Fernandez said. "And then you become a person for your people."

If it sounds as if Fernandez is ready to lead a revolution, maybe he is. A wildly popular personality in a series that must find new ways to market its stars, Fernandez could be one of CART's most important figures over the next decade.

"Without question, it's that kind of personality that grows a series," said team owner Bobby Rahal, who also served as interim president and CEO of CART in the last year and now heads Jaguar's Formula One effort. "When you look at CART, it really is a very evolving clientele. As the population of the U.S. changes, that diversity is going to become a bigger issue for CART. Guys like Adrian are going to be huge draws and do nothing but help [the series]."

Fernandez still comes off as a common guy, albeit one who drives a Mercedes CL-55 around his Phoenix-area neighborhood because "the [Modena 360 Ferrari] is not a car you can leave everywhere."

Still, Fernandez knows what it's like to struggle. He began racing at 15 in his uncle's old Volkswagen-powered Formula Vee. In 1987, he went to Europe, where he didn't know a soul, but fell in love with the tracks he hoped to race on and stayed for three years. He spent his last $5,000 for a team test, but it snowed. He didn't get to test, and he didn't get his money back, either. He lived out of a camper shell, taking one shower a week and bathing daily from a Coke bottle filled with water. He worked as a mechanic and in a bar to make ends meet. He raced when he could, and his career advanced slowly. He nearly asked his father for money, but refused on principle.

"If I ask for money, it would mean I failed," he said.

He raced sporadically and beat the bushes for any sponsorship he could find.

"The thing that kept me going was that inside, I knew I was good," Fernandez said.

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