CHAMPCAR/CART: Franchitti, Tracy look to tighten up championship at Houston

DETROIT (September 26, 2000) - While it has been another oppressively hot summer in Texas, the climate on the streets of downtown Houston has taken a decidedly KOOL turn. Which may, in the end, add even more heat to an already incendiary ...

DETROIT (September 26, 2000) - While it has been another oppressively hot summer in Texas, the climate on the streets of downtown Houston has taken a decidedly KOOL turn.

Which may, in the end, add even more heat to an already incendiary FedEx Championship Series points race.

As the series heads to the Lone Star State for Round 18 of 20, the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston (4 p.m. ET Sunday, live, ABC-TV), Team KOOL Green drivers Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy look forward to a return to a venue where they have been utterly dominant. Beyond that, Tracy has the added incentive of being in the thick of the battle for his first FedEx Championship Series championship.

Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) is the defending Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston champion, having led 85 of 100 laps en route to victory last season. A successful defense of that championship could conceivably vault Tracy into the points lead in the most closely contested championship race in FedEx Championship Series history.

Tracy, powered by wins at Long Beach, Road America and Vancouver, arrives at Houston fourth in the championship with 122 points. He trails leader Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske by 15, and, with 20 points available for a race victory, could conceivably take the lead with a win Sunday.

But that is true of any of the top six championship contenders, all of whom are grouped within 19 points. Following de Ferran and his 137 points are Roberto Moreno (Visteon Ford Reynard) of Patrick Racing, second with 129 points; Michael Andretti (Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing, third with 127; Tracy, fourth with 122; Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing Ford Reynard) of Patrick Racing, fifth with 121; and rookie Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Reynard) of Team Rahal, sixth with 118.

The 19 points separating de Ferran from Brack after 17 events represent the smallest first-through-sixth place gap in CART's 22-year history. With a maximum of 66 points available in the season's remaining three events at Houston, Australia and California Speedway, the top 13 drivers - roughly half the field - still retain a mathematical chance at the championship.

That number includes Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard), who led all 70 laps from the outside pole to win the inaugural Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston in 1998 and finished second to Tracy last year. Franchitti, runner-up in last year's FedEx Championship Series championship, has recorded five of his six career FedEx Championship Series victories on temporary street circuits and must be rated among the favorites this weekend. He stands 11th in the championship with 92 points.

This year, for the first time in FedEx Championship Series history, all cars ride on Firestone Firehawks, the Official Tire of CART.

The spirited points battle will add considerable drama to the final three events of the FedEx Championship Series season, which concludes with the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota on Oct. 29 at California Speedway. For the third consecutive year, the season finale will pay its winner $1 million, courtesy of a partnership between Marlboro, Toyota, CART and California Speedway. An additional $1 million will be awarded to the driver who emerges from the season finale as series champion.

Following the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston, the FedEx Championship Series takes a week off before making its final international trip of the season for the Honda Indy 300, October 13-15 at Surfers Paradise, Australia.

Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has scored championship points in five of his past six starts, including top-five finishes in four of those, to move into the lead in the most closely contested FedEx Championship Series drivers' championship in history. With 137 points, de Ferran holds an eight-point advantage over Roberto Moreno (Visteon Ford Reynard) of Patrick Racing, but the top six drivers in the championship are separated by only 19 points through 17 of 20 rounds. De Ferran's recent run includes runner-up finishes at Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio, third at Chicago, fifth at Vancouver and eighth at Gateway. He also owns 13 top-five qualifying efforts in 17 starts this season, including pole positions at Homestead, Long Beach and Mid-Ohio.

Roberto Moreno has scored championship points in five of his past six starts, highlighted by finishes of third at Gateway and fourth at Road America, to move past Michael Andretti (Big Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing and into second place in the championship. The remainder of Moreno's run includes finishes of sixth at Chicago, 10th at Vancouver and 11th at Mid-Ohio. Moreno, who scored the first victory of his seven-year FedEx Championship Series career at Cleveland earlier this year, has scored championship points in 12 of 17 events this season and stands second to de Ferran with 129 points.

Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing Ford Reynard) of Patrick Racing has scored championship points in 14 of his past 15 starts, beginning with a victory at Brazil. The run also includes podium finishes of second at Toronto and Road America and third at Vancouver. Currently fifth in the championship with 121 points, he is just one behind fourth-place Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green, six behind third-place Michael Andretti (127) and eight behind second-place Roberto Moreno (129).

Rookie Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Reynard) of Team Rahal has scored championship points in 13 of his past 15 FedEx Championship Series starts and has recorded eight top-five finishes in that span, including podium results of second at Cleveland and third at Nazareth and Road America. He stands sixth in the championship with 118 points and could clinch this year's Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award this weekend. Brack holds a 118-56 lead over Oriol Servia (Telefonica Toyota Reynard) in the rookie points race and needs to exit Houston with a 45-point advantage to wrap up the award and the $50,000 payout that accompanies it.

Patrick Carpentier (Player's Forsythe Racing Team Ford Reynard) of Player's Forsythe Racing equaled a career-best FedEx Championship Series result with a runner-up finish at Gateway, matching a milestone first established at Gateway in 1997 and matched at Vancouver last year. The performance was Carpentier's sixth-top five finish of the season, which also includes a podium result of third at Milwaukee. Despite missing three events earlier in the season with a small fracture of the left wrist sustained in a non-racing accident, Carpentier is approaching 100 championship points for the first time in his career. He currently stands 12th with 91 points.

Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) has taken a definite liking to the streets of Houston in his two career FedEx Championship Series appearances at the venue. He led all 70 laps from the outside pole en route to victory in the inaugural Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix in 1998, then finished second to Team KOOL Green teammate Paul Tracy last year. He is the only driver to have led a lap in each FedEx Championship Series event contested at Houston and has qualified among the top four drivers for both events.

Max Papis (Miller Lite Ford Reynard) of Team Rahal has recorded top-five finishes in both of his career appearances at Houston, taking fifth in the inaugural event in 1998 and fourth last year.

Adrian Fernandez has scored championship points in both of his career appearances at Houston, with finishes of sixth in 1998 and 12th last year.

* Honda has won both FedEx Championship Series events contested on the streets of downtown Houston, getting victories from Dario Franchitti in 1998 and Paul Tracy last year. Honda has also won three of the five events contested on temporary street circuits to date, getting victories from Tracy at Long Beach and Vancouver and from Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske at Detroit.

* Ford has won two of the past three FedEx Championship Series events contested on temporary street circuits, with Roberto Moreno doing the honors at Cleveland and Michael Andretti at Toronto.

* Four-time and defending FedEx Championship Series champion Target Chip Ganassi Racing tested a quartet of drivers at Firebird East outside Phoenix last week looking to fill the seats being vacated by former FedEx Championship Series champions Juan Montoya (Target Toyota Lola) and Jimmy Vasser (Target Toyota Lola) for the 2001 season. The drivers participating in the test were Casey Mears, Buddy Rice, Nicolas Minassian and Bruno Junqueira. Mears, nephew of three-time FedEx Championship Series champion Rick Mears, currently competes in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship. He finished second in last year's Indy Lights championship and currently stands third in this year's title chase. Rice competes in the Toyota Atlantic Championship and recently clinched the series title at Gateway International Raceway. Junqueira, a 23-year-old Brazilian, won the 2000 FIA Formula 3000 championship, in which Minassian, a 27-year-old Frenchman, also competes. Each driver completed 125 trouble-free miles during the evaluation. "This is a good opportunity for us to see some of the top young open-wheel talent, and we were impressed with what we saw here this week," said team owner Chip Ganassi. "We've found great drivers like Montoya and [two-time FedEx Championship Series champion Alex] Zanardi during tests like this, so we're hoping that trend continues." It was announced last week that Montoya had signed a two-year agreement to drive for the BMW Williams Formula One Team. Vasser and Ganassi announced jointly last month that Vasser would not return to Target Chip Ganassi Racing in 2001.

* Della Penna Motorsports announced last week that Australian Jason Bright, a regular competitor in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship, would make his Champ Car debut in the #10 DIRECTV Toyota Reynard at the Honda Indy 300, Oct. 13-15 at Surfers Paradise on Australia's Gold Coast. Bright, currently fifth in the Indy Lights championship, steps into the seat vacated for one event by Memo Gidley, who will return for the FedEx Championship Series season-ending Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota, Oct. 27-29 at California Speedway. Bright received his Honda Indy ride through a partnership between Della Penna Motorsports owner John Della Penna and former CART team owner Carl Hogan. "Carl approached me about running a second car for Jason back at May in Nazareth," Della Penna said. "We had hoped to run him in a few more races, but I'm pleased that this opportunity has come together for him. Memo is still going to run Houston and Fontana for the team, and has been very gracious in helping us with Jason's program. Memo and I are focused on finishing the 2000 season on a positive note and putting together a strong program for next season." Said Bright, "I've aspired to drive Champ Cars my whole life, and to have this opportunity, especially to make my first race in Australia, means a great deal to me. Della Penna Motorsports has a number of good guys and they will help make this a great learning experience for me."

* The pit crews for the Patrick Racing FedEx Championship Series entries driven by Adrian Fernandez and Roberto Moreno have put themselves in prime position for a shot at the $50,000 top prize in the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge, a season-long competition sponsored by Craftsman, the Official Tool of CART. Through 17 rounds of the championship, Fernandez' crew leads with 148 points, followed by Moreno's crew, with 131. Crews earn points at each event based on the least amount of time spent in the pits, according to the same scale used to score FedEx Championship Series drivers (20-16-14-12-10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1). Standings are kept on a season-long basis, and the top four teams following Round 19, the Oct. 15 Honda Indy 300 at Surfers Paradise, Australia, will battle head-to-head for the $50,000 top prize on Friday, Oct. 27 at 5 p.m., prior to the season-ending Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota at California Speedway. Following the two Patrick Racing entries in the current standings are the crews for Patrick Carpentier, third with 119 points; Cristiano da Matta (Pioneer/MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard), fourth with 113 points; and the defending champion crew for Paul Tracy, fifth with 104. Carpentier's crew has already qualified for the finals as a wild-card entry, based on Carpentier's having spent the least amount of time in the pits during the Michigan 500 in July.

* Qualifying for the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston will air 1:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. "CART 2Day" airs 10:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, with ABC-TV's live race broadcast slated to begin 4 p.m. ET. The race will also air live on the CART Radio Network and on CART's official website, at www.cart.com . The race will be broadcast locally in the Houston market on KILT-FM (100.3). The CART Hotline Show, featuring guests Bobby Rahal, Mark Blundell and Buddy Rice, will air live from 7 to 8 p.m. ET Friday on KILT-AM (610).

TEXACO/HAVOLINE GRAND PRIX OF HOUSTON "QUOTEBOARD"

GIL de FERRAN (Marlboro Honda Reynard), on the importance of the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston to his pursuit of the FedEx Championship Series championship: "Even though I haven't had much success in Houston the past two years, I do feel fairly confident that Marlboro Team Penske will have a competitive performance, due to our results on this type of circuit this season. Obviously, it's an important race for our championship hopes, but having said that, we're not approaching it any differently than any other race. We'll try to put the car on the pole and win the race as we've been trying to do all year - sometimes more successfully than others."

ROBERTO MORENO (Visteon Ford Reynard), on his unfamiliarity with the Houston road course: "I have never raced at Houston, so I will be at a little bit of a disadvantage. I am told that all the corners are 90 degrees, so it sounds very challenging. I'm going to watch some videotape of the past races and when I arrive on Wednesday, I am going to ride a bicycle around the track to get a feel for the circuit. The good thing is that the Visteon/Patrick Racing team is a veteran team that has raced here before, so that should be a big help. Also, Adrian [Fernandez, Moreno's teammate] has raced in Houston a couple of times so I also have the benefit of his advice. I am sure that after a couple of practice sessions everything will be okay. This is a very crucial point in the season for the Visteon/Patrick Racing team. There are only three races left in the season and I have never raced two of them [Houston and Fontana]. We are fighting for a championship and we just have to take each race as it comes. If we continue to work hard and give it everything we have, good things will happen."

PAUL TRACY (KOOL Honda Reynard), on defending his championship in the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston: "The streets of Houston look like a great opportunity to score some big points and improve our position in the championship. The Team KOOL Green engineers have hit on a setup for the street circuits, and we've won Houston two years in a row. I intend to do everything I can to make it three. It's amazing that there are probably as many as five or six of us with a decent shot at winning the championship with three races to go. The title is obviously going to go down to the wire and if we can keep having the type of success we've had in Houston, it will certainly be a big boost to our championship hopes."

ADRIAN FERNANDEZ (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing Ford Reynard) "Houston is a race where the Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing team has a lot of fans. We have had some difficulties there in the races for various reasons. It is going to be very important for us to qualify up front because it is so difficult to pass in Houston. If we are going to fight for the championship, it is important that we start near the front in Houston and Australia. Penske and Green are going to be very strong at Houston, so we are going to have to improve our performance on that track. Ford has been working very hard on the engine to improve the driveability and hopefully that will help us to get to the next level."

DARIO FRANCHITTI (KOOL Honda Reynard), on Team KOOL Green's success on the streets of Houston: "We don't have any magic formula for winning in Houston, even though Team KOOL Green has enjoyed all the success on that circuit so far. It all comes down to having a top performing car and avoiding mistakes. You really have to stay mentally focused on the street courses because of the blind turns and minimal margin for error. It's been a bit of a roller-coaster season for us so far, but with three races left on tracks where we've had success in the past, the goal is to pick up as many points as we can and see where that takes us. The guys at Team KOOL Green have been doing a fantastic job preparing a competitive car because we've qualified in the top four in the last five races. If we can keep doing that, we're bound to find the Winner's Circle."

JUAN MONTOYA (Target Toyota Lola), on maintaining the momentum generated by his victory in the Sept. 17 Motorola 300 at Gateway International Raceway: "Even though we have a shot at the title, we're not going to change the way we're approaching these final races. There have only been a couple races this year where we haven't been running at the front of the pack for awhile or had a chance to win it. We've had some bad luck here and there, but our win at Gateway reminded Team Target that we also have the ability to win each weekend. That's our goal in Houston. There's a chance we can win all these final races and still not have enough to take home [consecutive championship] Number 5 for the team, so we just have to worry about our performance and let the racing handle the rest. I had fun in the streets of Houston last year, but I had some contact and only was able to finish about 10 or 12 laps. I want to get that pole again because now, every point matters. We found that out last year."

JIMMY VASSER (Target Toyota Lola), on the competitiveness of this year's FedEx Championship Series championship race: "Having so many drivers with a legitimate shot at the title is a fun way to finish up an interesting year. This race is so close that no one can afford to play it safe. Everyone is going to be battling for each spot, so we're going to see some exciting, aggressive racing. I plan to be right in there fighting for the podium. It's a long shot for us to win the championship, but no one is giving up. That trophy is up for grabs. I haven't finished on the podium yet in Houston in the first two races there, but I've always been a believer in the saying, 'The third time is a charm.' I came close in '98 (fourth) and had some bad luck last year, so I'm looking forward to getting back to Houston and getting a little closer to the points leaders."

HELIO CASTRONEVES (Marlboro Honda Reynard), on the demands of the temporary street circuit at Houston: "The Houston track is very challenging and very tough on equipment. It's important to qualify well and to take care of the car -- especially the brakes and the rear tires. I'm optimistic that Marlboro Team Penske will have a good weekend given our performance on street circuits this year."

PATRICK CARPENTIER (Player's Forsythe Racing Team Ford Reynard), on following up a strong runner-up performance in the Motorola 300: "It was a great feeling to match my career-best CART performance with the second-place finish at Gateway, but my goal at the start of the season was to make it to the top step of the podium, and that's still the priority. The last race showed that it is a realistic aim. The result was a boost for everyone at Team Player's, and it has made me even more confident going into the last three races of the season. The Houston track has not been kind to us the first two times we have raced there, but I really like the layout of that street course and I believe Team Player's can do well there. The top-5 finish that we had through the streets of Detroit earlier in the season certainly showed that we are capable of being right in contention, and that's what we intend to be in Houston."

ALEX TAGLIANI (Player's Forsythe Racing Team Ford Reynard), on continuing his successful "street-course" run during his rookie FedEx Championship Series season: "I'm very encouraged about Team Player's chances for success in Houston. I know it's the first time that I'll be competing there as a CART driver, but my performances this year on some of the other street courses in the series have been solid, with a fourth at Long Beach, a fifth in Toronto and a sixth in Detroit. The Team Player's crew has been very consistent in preparing a top-notch car for race day on this type of track and I have no doubt that will continue in Houston. I may not be fighting for first place in the rookie standings or one of the top spots in the overall standings, but I certainly am not going to let down in the last three races of the season. I want to show that I've made a lot of progress in my first CART season and that I can compete with anyone."

LUIZ GARCIA JR. (Hollywood/Embratel/Tang/Banco Sofisa Mercedes Reynard), on concluding the street-course portion of his FedEx Championship Series season successfully: "I didn't run the race at Houston last season, but I did run on the track and it was a nice street course and a little like Long Beach and Toronto. We have done pretty good on the streets and with two of the final three races on the streets, I'm looking forward to some decent finishes. I think we will do well in Houston, which will be great for everyone on the team."

FAST FACTS FOR THE TEXACO/HAVOLINE GRAND PRIX OF HOUSTON

WHAT : Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston. WHERE: Houston, Tex. WHEN: Friday-Sunday, Sept. 29-Oct. 1. SUPPORT EVENTS: Dayton Indy Lights Championship, KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship, BF Goodrich Tires Trans-Am Series. CART SCHEDULE (All times CDT): FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 29 - Indy Lights practice, 9:30-10:10 a.m.; Champ Car practice, 10:30 a.m.-noon; Atlantic practice, 1-1:30 p.m.; Indy Lights qualifying, 1:45-2:15 p.m.; Champ Car qualifying, 2:30-3:45 p.m.; Atlantic qualifying, 4:45-5:15 p.m. SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 30 - Atlantic practice, 8:15-8:45 a.m.; Indy Lights practice, 9-9:40 a.m.; Champ Car practice, 10-11:15 a.m.; Indy Lights qualifying, 1-1:30 p.m.; Champ Car qualifying, 1:45-3 p.m. Atlantic qualifying, 3:15-3:45 p.m. SUNDAY, OCTOBER 1 - Atlantic warm-up, 8-8:15 a.m.; Indy Lights warm-up, 8:30-8:45 a.m.; Atlantic race, 9:40-10:40 a.m.; Champ Car warmup, 11-11:30 a.m.; Indy Lights race, 12:30-1:30 p.m.; Grid Champ Cars, 2:15 p.m.; Texaco Grand Prix of Houston, 3 p.m. BROADCAST: TV-(ABC-TV, live, 4 p.m. ET and in 208 countries worldwide). RADIO-CART Radio Network. INTERNET - www.cart.com . PRE-RACE PROGRAMMING: Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston pole qualifying, 1:30 a.m. ET Sunday, ESPN2; CART 2Day, 10:30 a.m. ET Sunday, ESPN2. DEFENDING CHAMPION: Paul Tracy. DEFENDING POLESITTER: Juan Montoya. TRACK LAYOUT: 1.527-mile temporary street circuit. RACE LENGTH: 100 laps, 152.7 miles. TRACK RECORDS: Qualifying (one lap) - 1999, Juan Montoya, 93.651 miles per hour (58.699 seconds). Race - 1999, Paul Tracy, 78.960 mph. RACE NUMBER: 18 of 20 in the FedEx Championship Series. FedEx CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES POINTS LEADERS: 1. Gil de Ferran, 137; 2. Roberto Moreno, 129; 3. Michael Andretti, 127; 4, Paul Tracy, 122; 5, Adrian Fernandez, 121.

INSTANT REPLAY

Paul Tracy keyed a spectacular day for Team KOOL Green when he drove to his 15th career Champ Car victory and teammate Dario Franchitti finished second at the 1999 Texaco Grand Prix of Houston. Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) led a race-high 85 of 100 laps while scoring his first victory on a temporary street circuit since 1995 at Australia. He averaged 78.960 miles per hour and finished 13.733 seconds ahead of Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard), whose runner-up effort was his second podium finish in as many starts at Houston, following a victory in 1998. Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Swift) finished third for his fifth podium result of the season and the 84th of his career. Polesitter and FedEx Championship Series leader Juan Montoya (Target Honda Reynard) exited after completing only 12 laps due to contact with the car driven by Helio Castroneves (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Mercedes Lola), who was stopped in a tire barrier. Montoya's scoreless finish allowed Franchitti to close to 13 points (200-187) behind the series leader with two rounds of the championship remaining. Tracy stood third with 155 points following his win.

Vital Race Statistics

Time of Race: 1 hour, 55 minutes, 31.263 seconds. Average Speed: 78.960 miles per hour. Margin of Victory: 13.733 seconds. Caution Flags: 4 for 16 laps. Lap Leaders: Paul Tracy, 85 laps; Juan Montoya, 12; Dario Franchitti, 3 laps. Texaco Grand Prix of Houston Fast Facts 2-2-2-2

HOUSTON RACE HISTORY (Two Events)

Year Race Winner Pole Winner

1998 Dario Franchitti Greg Moore 1999 Paul Tracy Juan Montoya

Career Victories

Dario Franchitti                1
Paul Tracy              1

Career Pole Positions

Greg Moore              1
Juan Montoya            1

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Series IndyCar
Teams Williams , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing