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MOTOR RACING

Chips Off the Old Engine Block

Ganassi Selects Rookies Junqueria and Minassian to Replace Montoya and Vasser

April 04, 2001|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It should no longer be surprising when former Indy car driver Chip Ganassi makes a radical change in his Championship Auto Racing Team lineup.

In 1996 he switched from a Ford Cosworth engine that had won two of the previous three championships to a relatively untried Honda--and won four consecutive championships.

In 1999, after two-time champion Alex Zanardi had left to drive in Formula One, Ganassi selected an obscure Colombian, Juan Pablo Montoya, as Zanardi's replacement. Montoya won the championship in his rookie year.

Then, last year Ganassi abandoned the Honda-Reynard combination with which he had been so successful to campaign a Lola with another power plant, Toyota, that had never won a race. His drivers won four times.

He also choose to break with the CART boycott of the Indy 500, buy a couple of Indy Racing League cars and take a shot at the world's biggest race. The result: Montoya ran away with it.

This year's surprise was his selection of two rookie drivers, Bruno Junqueira of Brazil and Nicolas Minassian of France, to carry the Target colors in place of 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser, whom he let go, and Montoya, who, like Zanardi, left for Formula One.

Even with 25 of 28 CART drivers foreigners, Ganassi is often asked why he choose two rookie drivers from the European Formula 3000 series instead of young Americans.

"Winning is my No. 1 priority, and until the day comes that they give points for having an American driver in my car, I'll take any nationality that I think can be a winner," Ganassi said.

Why are the foreign drivers preferable?

"I think, as much as I would like to go to the Indy Lights series for my driver, right now the best young drivers are coming from Europe, especially from the Formula 3000 series. They are better prepared when they come out of it. I would love to see a formula in this country that could match Formula 3000. The weight of their cars versus downforce, their brakes, horsepower, tire print on the ground offer a better training ground than Indy Lights.

"I've got to be careful because as a CART director I need to be an advocate of Indy Lights, but I am also an advocate of winning and, like I said, winning is No. 1."

Junqueira and Minassian, who finished 1-2 in last year's Formula 3000 series, were selected after a four-driver Target team test session at Firebird Raceway, near Phoenix. The other candidates were Americans, Casey Mears of Bakersfield and Buddy Rice of Phoenix. Mears, third-place finisher in Indy Lights, is now driving an IRL car for Rick Galles. Rice, the Toyota Atlantic champion, is looking for a ride.

"Buddy was not a first-round pick for any CART team, so we tried to put something together for Formula 3000, but it didn't materialize," Ganassi said.

Derek Hill, son of former world Formula One champion Phil Hill, is the only American driver in Formula 3000.

"Before we brought Bruno and Nicolas over, I talked with a number of people who I consider knowledgeable to get their insight. Frank Williams had used Junqueira as a test driver, much as he used Montoya a few years ago, and Juan's father, Pablo Montoya, told me about them too."

Both Ganassi drivers now live in Indianapolis, where the Target team is headquartered, which makes it easy for them to go testing at the Speedway when weather permits.

"Indianapolis is not like where I came from [Marseilles], but I like it. I like the people because they are very friendly," said Minassian, who is 28 and recently married. "This is a dream come true for me, to be able to drive a champ car. It is something I have been trying to do for some time."

Minassian tested for a ride with the Dorricott Indy Lights team at Firebird Raceway in 1998, but it didn't last long, according to the Frenchman.

"I jumped in the car, did a few quick laps, then they asked me for money [to drive]. I told them I didn't have any money, that they would have to take me for a fast driver, not a driver who brings money. That was the end of that."

Now he is testing at Indianapolis, preparing for the 500 as well as the remaining CART season.

"My first time at the Speedway was very challenging," he said. "I had never done anything like that before, running on a big speedway with four corners. They all look alike, but they are quite different.

"My teammates enjoy teaching me about the States. I look forward to teaching them how the French celebrate a race victory."

Said Junqueira: "When I was young, I watched Emerson Fittipaldi racing here. At that time, I was go-kart racing. I had a game called Indy 500. I played it a lot. Now, here I am, and it's more difficult than the game.

"I look forward to seeing these grandstands packed with people. And I'm going to be racing at 'home,' because I live here. I am enjoying being American. I have gone to a Colts [NFL] game and I went to a supercross in the RCA Dome. I love it here except for one thing, it's just a little bit too cold."

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