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LONG BEACH GRAND PRIX: Today, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 11

Brazilian Drivers Fill Void

Auto racing: Da Matta and Fittipaldi give Newman-Haas Racing a chance to replace Penske at top of CART series.

April 14, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

No matter how famous an individual gets, there will always be someone ready to fill the gap.

When A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti departed the Indy car racing scene, Al Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti were ready to move in. The day Richard Petty ran his last Winston Cup race, Jeff Gordon was driving in his first.

When Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in CART history, picked up his marbles (drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves) and took them to the Indy Racing League, there should have been no concern about CART coming up with more-than-adequate replacements.

No matter that De Ferran won the last two championships, or that Castroneves won the Indianapolis 500 and last year's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the premier race of CART.

Meet Cristiano da Matta and Christian Fittipaldi of CART's new dynasty-in-the-making--Newman-Haas Racing.

Interestingly, all four are from Brazil, the incubator of American open-wheel racing champions, and all have homes in the Miami area.

Da Matta has won three races in a row and missed starting from the pole by .003 of a second in today's 28th running of the Long Beach Grand Prix. Jimmy Vasser, in a Ford Cosworth-Lola owned by Bobby Rahal, posted the fastest lap of 104.585 mph and when qualifying was halted with nearly three minutes remaining, Da Matta's chances of winning his first pole were cut short. He had to settle for 104.580.

Under new qualifying rules, drivers are guaranteed 45 minutes of running time during a one-hour session, so when Michael Andretti ran into the tire barriers, 45 minutes had elapsed and qualifying was over.

"It's really a crapshoot with this qualifying setup," Vasser said. "We got a clear lap and the power hooked up really well. We finally got our first point."

Qualifying leaders receive one point in the season standings, with 20 going to today's winner.

"You never know what to expect," Vasser said. "You can be on a hot lap and someone comes out of the pits on cold tires and screws up your lap. So you don't know whether to come out quickly or wait for a gap in traffic. It isn't easy.

"This team can race to win Sunday. They won the most races last year in CART and I have a lot of confidence in Team Rahal. It's definitely an advantage to start on the front row here, but we have to be fast and consistent both on the track and in the pits."

Rahal's drivers won six races last year, four by Kenny Brack and two by Max Papis, but both drivers are with other teams this year.

If Da Matta wins today, he will join Unser (1990) and Alex Zanardi (1998) as the only drivers to win four consecutive races since CART was organized in 1979. He won the final two races last year, at Australia and California Speedway, and the season opener this year at Monterrey, Mexico.

"Winning four in a row is not our goal," the 5-foot-4, 130-pound second-generation driver said. "We are just concentrating on winning the race in general. If we accomplish that, the four in a row takes care of itself. Maybe if I am leading the race with five laps to go, I will think about the significance but hopefully not until after I have finished."

Da Matta's father, Toninho, won 14 karting championships in Brazil in a career that spanned 30 years from the '60s to the '80s.

Newman-Haas Racing was founded three years after CART when actor and part-time racer Paul Newman and Carl Haas, who had been competitors in Can-Am racing, decided to merge their resources and enter Indy car racing. Newman, incidentally, is no token part-owner. He attends nearly every race and particularly likes Long Beach and its Monte Carlo atmosphere.

Success came quickly to the team as Mario Andretti won the series championship in 1984. Newman-Haas has won twice since, with Michael Andretti in 1991 and Formula One champion Nigel Mansell in 1993.

The team cars will have a different look today. Da Matta's No. 6, which has carried Havoline's name, will feature the Chevron logo. Fittipaldi's No. 11, which has been sponsored by Kmart for Newman-Haas drivers since 1989, is now sponsored by Eli Lilly following Kmart's filing for bankruptcy.

Curiously, Newman-Haas had never fielded a team without an Andretti before last year when Michael jumped to Barry Green's team with Motorola to have an opportunity to drive in the Indianapolis 500.

Da Matta was his replacement, coming from Cal Wells' PPI Motorsports, where he brought Toyota its first CART victory at Chicago Motor Speedway in 2000.

Today, he--and seven other drivers--will be trying to give the Toyota engine its first win in the race it has sponsored since its inception 28 years ago as a Formula One race. Toyota, which is headquartered in nearby Torrance, has its best chance since it joined CART as an engine builder in 1996.

It has the second (Da Matta), third (Bruno Junqueira), fourth (Kenny Brack) and fifth (rookie Townsend Bell) positions on the 20-driver starting grid.

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