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`Speed Racer' Helps Out

A deal involving the cartoon character may give driver Andrew Ranger more races.

April 10, 2006|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Champ Car driver Andrew Ranger was in a desperate spot late last week. He had brought enough sponsorship to the Mi-Jack Conquest Racing team that he could compete in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and in three Canadian races for Procter & Gamble of Canada.

After those events, he would have been without a ride.

But the 19-year-old from Montreal may have been saved in the nick of time by his own talent and a TV cartoon hero, aptly named Speed Racer.

A sponsorship deal was announced Saturday between Mi-Jack Conquest and Art Asylum Inc., the company promoting the "Speed Racer" cartoon, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in June with the release of toys and collectibles.

Although Mi-Jack owner Eric Bachelart is not quite sure how the deal will affect the team, Ranger, who resembles Speed Racer, will be in on some of the promotions. And his driving Sunday -- he finished sixth -- certainly boosted his stock as the team's second driver.

"I'm very happy, Eric is very happy, and it will help us to get more sponsors," Ranger said. "I mean, the situation can't be any worse."

In that case, Ranger made the best of a bad situation. He was off the pace all weekend with what was thought to be a chassis issue. By the time it was discovered late Saturday that the problem was in the brakes, the team was behind on the chassis setup.

Ranger qualified 16th among 18 drivers -- teammate Charles Zwolsman was last -- and was able to avoid the first-turn crash that took out four of the series' top eight championship contenders. Then he was able to make his way through the field, avoiding the mistakes that plagued several others.

"To finish top-six, it's not a victory, but it's a podium for us," said Ranger, who has no guarantee that he will be in the car in five weeks when the series resumes in Houston. "I worked very hard today."

Even without the first-turn carnage, it would have been a good day for Ranger.

"I would have been able to finish in the top 10," he said.

If the "Speed Racer" deal keeps Ranger in the car all season, the team will have a driver who last season finished second in his second race, becoming the youngest podium finisher ever. He also had six top-10 finishes and finished 10th in the Champ Car standings, one point ahead of 2002 series champion and former Formula One driver Cristiano Da Matta. And, he did it despite five races among the 13 in which his Lola-Ford Cosworth failed to finish. But it reflects the status of open-wheel racing.

"It's a tough situation for a driver," Ranger said. "The money can do everything. I have a ride with Mi-Jack to do a couple more races, but I need to develop the car. That's more money."

Bachelart said that he could run his two-car team with $8 million and that he has about 10 proposals on the table.

Ranger is one of six drivers -- one-third of the field -- bringing their own sponsors or money to the series.

They did surprisingly well Sunday. Jan Heylen took seventh for owner Dale Coyne, and Antonio Pizzonia took 10th for Paul Gentilozzi.

"From the sponsorship side, open-wheel racing is not healthy," said series President Steve Johnson. "The 'Speed Racer' deal has huge potential, and Cedric [the Entertainer of CTE Racing HVM] has got several different things working right now that I've been involved in.

"If those hit, the teams become almost healthy overnight."

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