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Andretti to Put IRL Before CART

Motor sports: Franchitti and Kanaan also switching to Tony George's circuit next season on Andretti team.

September 18, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael Andretti, the winningest driver in CART history, announced Tuesday that he was taking fellow CART drivers Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan with him to the Indy Racing League next year as part of the new Andretti Green Racing team.

It is the latest blow to CART, the older of the two open-wheel racing sanctioning bodies, which has been troubled by a lack of teams and drivers for this season's races and the loss of two of its engine suppliers next year. Last year it lost Roger Penske and his two drivers, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, to the IRL.

Chris Pook, president of CART, is in Europe but said in a prepared statement, " ... today's announcement expedites the decision-making process that will allow our current and prospective teams and drivers to finalize their plans for what will be a very exciting and competitive 2003 racing season. We will concentrate our focus on growing the CART FedEx Championship Series and cultivating the talented drivers and teams that are coming up through the CART ladder system of driver development."

Honda, one of its major engine manufacturers before it broke with CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) earlier this year after a change in specifications, was the key to the move. Honda, after announcing it was dropping out of CART in 2003, surprised the motor sports community by switching to the IRL exclusively beginning next season.

All three drivers have driven Honda-powered cars this year, Andretti and Franchitti with Team Green and Kanaan with Morris Nunn Racing. Andretti has won 42 races, most recently the Long Beach Grand Prix last April. Franchitti has won nine CART races, including last Saturday's at Rockingham, England. Kanaan has won once, in a Honda-powered car in the 1999 Michigan 500.

The new team's engines will be maintained and developed in an exclusive relationship with Honda Performance Development in Santa Clarita.

"Honda is excited to be extending our partnership with Andretti Green Racing," said Robert Clarke, Honda Performance Development's general manager. "We've enjoyed a fruitful association with Team Green and Dario since 1998, one that was significantly enhanced when Michael came on board a couple of years ago. Honda has also shared in some of Tony's successes over the years and we're delighted he'll be part of the Andretti Green Honda program."

Andretti, speaking from his home in Nazareth, Pa., said the decision was made not totally because of Honda, but with a unanimous agreement by all the team's sponsors.

"Rumors that Honda is financing the whole thing are just not true," he said. "Certainly it's great for us to stay involved with a company like that, but all our major sponsors--Motorola, Archipelago, 7-Eleven and Klein Tools--felt that the IRL was the place to be in open-wheel racing.

"All you had to do was watch the last two IRL races, at Chicago and last Sunday at Texas, to understand why. I would have loved to have been in them. It's unbelievable racing."

Sam Hornish Jr. won the IRL championship with victories in two of the closest races in history in the final two events, nosing out Al Unser Jr. at Chicago and Castroneves at Texas.

"They have a good rules package that makes for really competitive racing," Andretti said, "and that is what makes it exciting for everybody."

This is a complete turnaround for Andretti, who with his father, Mario, had been among the IRL's harshest critics since Tony George broke away from CART in 1994 to start his own series.

"I admit it, Tony has definitely changed my thinking," Andretti said. "I apologized to him, to his face, for what I said in the past. Right now, I'm glad to be a part of his program."

The defection of Andretti to George's 7-year-old IRL leaves CART with only one American driver, Jimmy Vasser. Also leaving CART is Christian Fittipaldi, who announced earlier that he would drive next year for the Petty Enterprises team in NASCAR's Busch series.

Mario Andretti is not involved in his son's team and announced recently that he would like to field a team in CART, contingent on finding a sponsor.

Paul Tracy, the third Team Green driver this year, will remain with CART and join Jerry Forsythe's Player's Ltd. team with fellow Canadian Patrick Carpentier as his teammate. Kool, major sponsor of the cars driven by Franchitti and Tracy for Team Green this season, is uncommitted for 2003, amid rumors that it may drop out of racing.

Rumors that Cristiano da Matta, winner of five CART races this year and the series points leader, might be planning a move to Toyota's Formula One team have quieted down. Carl Haas holds the contract for Da Matta's services next year and, according to sources close to the team, his asking price for the Brazilian's contract is more than Toyota wants to pay, especially because it can wait a year until Da Matta is a free agent.

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