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Running on Empty

Many drivers have abandoned CART series, but Vasser says he hasn't decided about next season

October 31, 2002|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

After Sunday's Toyota 500 at California Speedway, Jimmy Vasser may be the only American left standing in Championship Auto Racing Teams. Or maybe he'll be gone too.

"I still want to work at saving CART, but things are very much up in the air about next year," the 36-year-old former CART champion said after arriving home from a harrowing trip to Australia last week. "Nothing is 100% right now. I could be back in CART, I could be in NASCAR driving in the Busch series, or I could even be in the [Indy Racing League].

"The only thing for sure is that I will be driving in the Indianapolis 500 again for Bobby Rahal and Miller."

Vasser, with Michael Andretti, one of only two American drivers in Sunday's 500, will be driving Team Rahal's No. 8 Shell Ford Lola when practice opens Friday on the two-mile oval in Fontana.

Andretti already has announced that he will be in the IRL next year with his own team, which includes Scotsman Dario Franchitti and Brazilian Tony Kanaan from CART.

"Only time will tell, but the way [President and Chief Executive Chris] Pook is energizing CART, I think it has a chance," Vasser said. "It's a good product, has good venues, a lot of good people and if Pook can rebuild it in the next two years I think it has a good future."

Only four drivers who competed in the U.S. 500 in 1996, when CART held a race opposite the IRL and the Indianapolis 500 on the same day, are still in CART for Sunday's race. They are Vasser, who was the U.S. 500 winner, Andretti, Christian Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy.

One thing CART can't survive is many more debacles such as last Sunday's rain-swamped "race" in Surfers Paradise, Australia, in which Vasser was involved in a nine-car pileup on the first lap. The race was started a second time and got even more bizarre as CART officials changed the length of the race several times before stopping it on Lap 41 of a scheduled 70 with Mexico's Mario Dominguez declared the winner.

"It was zero visibility," Vasser said. "I was coming down, trying to maintain my pace to take the green flag when Adrian [Fernandez] checked up and by the time I could see him it was too late. I was only about four or five feet from him. It was too late."

On the narrow Gold Coast street course, the two cars blocked the road -- with several rows of cars coming at them and unable to see.

"After I clipped Adrian and got sideways, someone hit me and the next thing I knew I was upside down sliding down the street. I could see Michael [Andretti's] car nose coming straight at me and I was thinking, 'Don't hit the cockpit.'

"Luckily, he didn't, but there were cars flying everywhere. With the mist in the air and the spray from the tires on the wet pavement there was absolutely no way to see where you were going. It was a job just to find the road."

Fernandez and Tora Takagi were hospitalized, but both were released in time to make the trip home. Fernandez, who suffered neck injuries, will not drive Sunday, but Takagi is cleared to compete. Fernandez, the team owner, chose Max Papis to replace him.

"I was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Fernandez said. "The visibility was zero and I was hit from behind and then Tora's car landed on top of my head. It could have killed me. It was just one of those things."

After more than an hour, the mess was cleared and the race restarted with half the field, including Vasser, in backup cars. A late pit stop, mandated by CART rules, dropped Vasser from third to 12th after 34 of the 40 laps were run under yellow caution flag conditions.

"The worst part was sitting an hour and a half behind the pace car," said Vasser. "I was soaking wet, it was getting dark, real dark, the wind went down and it was freezing. I felt like I had frostbite."

California Speedway, where Vasser has a win and three top-five finishes in six starts, should be drier.

His win in 1998 was one of the most memorable of his career.

"That race was pretty wild since I was racing against Alex [Zanardi, Vasser's teammate] and Greg [Moore, who was killed the next year at Fontana]. We swapped the lead back and forth and I was able to get by Greg at the checkered flag.

"Looking back, that was a very special race. In the truck that went around the track after the race, we had Alex, Greg, Chip [Ganassi, Vasser's car owner], Bobby [Rahal, who drove in his final race] and David Letterman [Rahal's partner]. Obviously, a lot of things have happened since that victory lap and now I'm driving for Bobby and David. I would like to give them a win at Fontana."

In 17 races this year, Vasser's best finishes were second at Long Beach and third at Miami, both street races.

"I hope we can salvage something from this season," Vasser said. "Fontana is a horsepower track and we've been a little down on power, especially top-end power, but maybe the Ford [engineers] can get us some more horsepower this week. They've done a fantastic job with their resources, but Honda and Toyota have put a lot more money into their programs."

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