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SPORTS WEEKEND | Motor Sports

Native American Driver Enjoying His Time in the Sun

April 20, 2001|SHAV GLICK

Many athletes, race car drivers included, shun the pressure of being perceived as role models. But some, such as Cory Witherill of Santa Monica, a Native American from the Navajo nation, relish the opportunity.

"I love to race, but I don't race for myself," Witherill said. "I want to serve as a role model for Native American kids. My message to them is simple. They can achieve anything they want, just as I have, if they put their minds to it."

Witherill, 29, fulfilled a lifetime ambition Saturday by passing his rookie orientation test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, earning an opportunity to qualify for next month's Indianapolis 500.

"I have always wanted to be there and participate in such a historical part of racing history," he said. "I don't feel any pressure from being the only Native American. I have so much support from all of the people I have met over the years. My friends and family always give me 100% support. This is really good for the Native American community as well, because we don't really have a lot of role models."

In 1998, he dedicated his racing to California Indians for Self-Reliance, sporting "Yes on 5" stickers on his driver's suit and car. The ballot initiative, allowing California Indian tribes to continue offering limited, regulated gaming on tribal lands, passed.

"As much as I love to race, and I do love to race, I'm even happier that Prop. 5 passed because that's a cause I've been working for as long as I've been racing," he said. "Navajo tradition will continue long after I'm through racing, so [it winning] was as gratifying as winning a race."

The only other Native American in a high-profile sport is golf's Notah Begay, a former classmate of Tiger Woods at Stanford. Begay has won four PGA Tour events since turning pro.

If Witherill makes the Indy 500, he will become the first Native American in the race since the late Joie Chitwood, a Cherokee, in the 1940s and '50s. In seven starts, Chitwood finished fifth three times.

The Indianapolis 500 returns to a three-week format this year. Opening day for practice is May 6. Pole day is May 12, the second day of qualifying is May 13 and Bump Day is May 20. The race is May 27.

As a tuneup, Witherill will make his Indy Racing League debut in the Atlanta 500 on April 28 in the same No. 16 G Force-Olds Aurora car he will drive for Sal Incandela's Indy Regency Racing team at the Speedway.

Witherill has been racing since he was 15. He started on dirt bikes at Ascot Park on Friday nights, then moved on to off-road racing in the Mickey Thompson and Pace stadium series. In 1998 and 1999, he won the super modified buggy crowns in the Pace series and four times he was the Super 1600 champion of the All Canada Motocross Valvoline de Montreal.

In open-wheel pavement racing, he made his mark in the 1998 Indy Lights race at California Speedway by finishing fourth in his first race on an oval.

"It was a blast," he said at the time. "I surprised myself, I guess, but it was very exciting."

The Indy orientation, Witherill said, was like an Indy Lights reunion. He is one of 10 rookies entered in the 500. Others are Bruno Junqueira, Helio Castroneves and Felipe Giaffone of Brazil, Nicolas Minassian and Didier Andre of France, Shigeki Hattori of Japan, Jon Herb of Chicago, Brandon Erwin of Denton, Texas, and Casey Mears of Bakersfield.

Of that group, Giaffone, Andre, Mears and Hattori were in the Fontana race with Witherill.

"As far as driving, there is no difference between the IRL car and the Lights," Witherill said. "It is a bigger and faster car and has a different feel, but the same amount of focus is needed. It is definitely more intimidating off the track than on it. Looking at the cars go by at more than 200 mph, I wondered, 'Can I do that?' But when I get in the car, and I get the signal to go, it's like a normal day at the office."

To get an Indy license, rookies had to display the ability to run consistently from 195 to 200 mph for 10 laps, then 200 to 205 and 205 to 210 before being allowed to go over 210. Witherill's top speed was 212.182.

The youngest of 10 children, eight of whom were adopted by Liston and Carole Witherill, Cory grew up in Santa Monica, where he graduated from Palisades High in 1990. He has a race shop in Oxnard, about a 45-minute drive from his home in Rustic Canyon.

"Real estate is a lot less expensive there," he said.

SPEEDWAY MOTORCYCLES

Four former national speedway champions will appear on the season-opening program Saturday night at Costa Mesa Speedway on the Orange County Fairgrounds. Entered in the Coors Light main event are Bobby Schwartz, Mike Faria, Bart Bast and Chris Manchester. Charlie Venegas, 2000 U.S. Nationals winner, will sit out most of the season because of injuries.

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