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Rahal Becomes the Latest to Change Racing Lanes

Car owner cites business reasons for his decision to move team from the former CART to IRL.

March 19, 2004|Shav Glick | Times Staff Writer

The dominoes from what once was CART continue to fall.

Car owner and former CART interim president Bobby Rahal, who last season had run cars in both open-wheel organizations, announced Thursday that he was taking his entire Team Rahal racing organization to the Indy Racing League, just one week after owner-driver Adrian Fernandez made a similar announcement.

However, Rahal's driver, Michel Jourdain, and his sponsor, Gigante, will remain with the Champ Car World Series, successor to CART.

"It was an agonizing decision, driven by business reasons," Rahal said from Sebring, Fla., where he will be honored Saturday at the 12 Hours of Sebring sports car race. "It was very emotional, but I feel it was in the best interests of Team Rahal."

Fernandez will drive Sunday in his first IRL race, the Copper World Indy 200, at Phoenix International Raceway. Rahal, who already had Buddy Rice entered at Phoenix as a replacement for the injured Kenny Brack, said he would not have a second driver until the IRL race at Motegi, Japan, on April 17.

Jourdain is expected to sign on with another team in time to compete in the opening Champ Car race April 18, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

"We hate to see Bobby leave, he was an icon in our series, but keeping Jourdain in the race was a positive note for us," said Jim Michaelian, chief executive of the Long Beach event. "He developed quite a following here last year when he won the pole and looked like he might win his first race before his engine quit.

"Now that Adrian is gone, Michel might fill the spot in the hearts of Mexican fans. A lot of people thought he would go with Rahal to the IRL but, thankfully for us, he isn't."

Rahal and Fernandez were in Long Beach last week at a two-day "spring training" promotion designed to focus attention on the strong points of Champ Car, but Fernandez, apparently unimpressed, made his move two days later.

Fernandez said the feeling he got from the Champ Car get- together prompted his decision to leave. Rahal said other factors contributed to his decision.

"Well, I can say I was underwhelmed ... but our move was not based on anything that was done specifically in a very short period of time," he said. "I think the decision is based on an overview of the long term. While it may have been underwhelming, I wouldn't like to say that was the trigger or that caused this decision to be made."

Fernandez was not so politic.

The Mexican veteran, along with Canadian Paul Tracy and American Jimmy Vasser, were the last stalwarts of what once was CART, and they were expected to be the strength of the new organization, Open Wheel Racing Series, which is running the Champ Car World Series.

"We were [in Long Beach] to get a lot of answers," Fernandez told Dave Despain on Speed Channel's "Wind Tunnel." "Instead, we came to a big surprise that a lot of things were worse than we thought. At some point, you've got to make a decision and you can't go by just, 'Trust me,' you've got to go with the facts.

"And when you have only 12 drivers that are confirmed and the champion driver, Paul Tracy, doesn't have any sponsorship, even with three races in Canada, it just doesn't make sense."

Fernandez, 40, has won eight races in 178 CART starts, including the 1999 California 500. He also is a partner, with Auguri Suzuki, of an IRL team that has rookie Kosuke Matsuura as the driver.

Fernandez was puzzled by the new management's direction and said he also felt slighted.

"Do you think that they have ever been to me or that they have approached Fernandez Racing in the last month to say, 'Adrian, how are you doing? Can we help you with your second car? Can we help you with [sponsor] Tecate?' They knew Tecate was gone. They never called.

"In all the time we were in Long Beach, they never approached me. They never talked to me about our plans, about what we had. There is a new president [Dick Eidswick], a new CEO -- I don't even know him. I have never met him and he's been there for a month or something like that.

"At the end of the day, if we had waited, it could have been the end of Fernandez Racing. It would be the end of everything. It was a touchy situation, and I am very sad about [it], but there was no choice."

Fernandez's defection leaves the roster of potential cars at Long Beach well below the 18 promised by Paul Gentilozzi, spokesman for the three Champ Car owners, and the 16 guaranteed under a contract with Long Beach.

"Twelve is about as many as I can count, but I am getting tired of making daily counts," Michaelian said.

With a defection a week, no count can be accurate, but at this moment the field could include Tracy and Rodolfo Lavin for Jerry Forsythe, one of the three new owners; Vasser and Roberto Gonzalez for Kevin Kalkhoven, the third owner; Alex Tagliani and Nelson Philippe for Gentilozzi; Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais for Newman-Haas, Mario Dominguez for Herdez and A.J. Allmendiner for the new RuSport team owned by Carl Russo.

Jourdain is expected to join either Newman-Haas or RuSport.

"I'm sure Champ Car will continue without us," said Rahal, "and I have no doubt that the people there are going to work very hard to ensure that they're successful. On the other hand, I can't run my businesses based on my personal feelings.

"There is a lot of uncertainty. It was very quiet over the wintertime. You know, when you've got 65 people on the payroll, it doesn't give you a lot of warm feelings to not know quite what's going on."

Michaelian knows the feeling. He has a race coming up in four weeks, and there aren't may dominoes left.

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