CHAMPCAR/CART: Rio Preview

Rio Preview It's already a tough act to follow. In its two-race infancy, the Rio 400 has provided some of the most memorable moments in recent FedEx Championship Series history, from Andre Ribeiro's exhilarating 1996 victory before his ...

Rio Preview

It's already a tough act to follow.

In its two-race infancy, the Rio 400 has provided some of the most memorable moments in recent FedEx Championship Series history, from Andre Ribeiro's exhilarating 1996 victory before his delirious countrymen to Bobby Rahal's crushing loss last year, when he ran out of fuel barely a lap from his first triumph since 1992.

Ribeiro and Rahal are but two of 28 drivers on the entry list for the Rio 400, scheduled for Sunday on the Emerson Fittipaldi Speedway at Nelson Piquet International Raceway in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The fifth round of the FedEx Championship Series takes the green flag at 1:30 p.m. ET and will be televised via tape delay by ABC-TV beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Paul Tracy benefited from Rahal's misfortune to win last year's Rio 400. At the time, that victory gave him the PPG Cup lead, but it is a fellow Canadian, Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) who leads the championship as the series prepares for its annual appearance in South America.

On the strength of top-six finishes in each of the first four events, including podium performances at Homestead (second) and Nazareth (third), Moore has collected 51 PPG Cup points, one more than defending champion Alex Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda). Moore leads the PPG Cup standings for the first time in his career, heading to a venue where both he and Zanardi own impressive records.

Moore finished second to Tracy at Rio last year, and was in position to win the 1996 race, leading with 18 of 133 laps remaining when engine problems forced his exit. Zanardi won the first of his 10 career pole positions at Rio as a rookie in 1996 and has finished fourth in both Rio 400s, including an electrifying drive from the 26th starting position last year.

Meanwhile, Ribeiro (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) is one of seven talented Brazilians looking to recapture the magic generated by their native son's victory in '96.

Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Reynard Honda), last year's PPG Cup runner-up, qualified and finished fourth at Nazareth to move from sixth to fourth in the PPG Cup race with 33 points. He's joined in the top 10 by rookie Tony Kanaan (LCI Reynard Honda), whose ninth-place finish at Nazareth made him the first rookie since Nigel Mansell (1993) to record top-10 finishes in three of his first four FedEx Championship Series starts. Kanaan leads the Rookie of the Year standings with 22 points and is ninth overall in the championship.

Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Swift Ford) has been waiting two years to race in his native Brazil after missing last year's event due to a broken leg. He comes off an 11th-place finish at Nazareth.

Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) won his first career pole position at Rio last year and it helped him to a career best fourth-place finish in the championship. Rookie Helio Castro-Neves (Alumax Aluminum Reynard Mercedes) has parlayed two points-paying finishes into second place in the Rookie of the Year standings with six points.

Brazilian Gualter Salles (Payton Coyne Racing Reynard Ford) makes his second career appearance in his hometown of Rio after finishing 19th there last year. He makes his third start of the season.

Among the PPG Cup frontrunners, third-place Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Labatt Reynard Ford) seeks to bounce back from a disappointing performance at Nazareth, when he exited due to contact on the opening lap. In contrast, Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda) wants to continue the momentum he generated at Nazareth by driving to his sixth career FedEx Championship Series victory, which moved him from 12th to fifth in the championship.

Rahal (Miller Lite Reynard Ford) scored his first PPG Cup points of the season with a sixth-place finish at Nazareth. He makes his series-record 250th career start in CART-sanctioned events this weekend. Teammate Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Ford) led 42 laps at Nazareth, more than in any of his previous 58 starts, and owns three top-10 finishes in four starts this season.

Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) has collected a pair of top-seven finishes in his two starts at Rio, highlighted by a runner-up showing in '96. Michael Andretti's (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford) fortunes at Rio have followed a somewhat different path. He has finished outside the top 20 in both starts.

Tracy (KOOL Reynard Honda), the defending Rio 400 champion, has finished fifth or better in two of the three FedEx Championship Series oval events to date. Scott Pruett (Visteon Reynard Ford) has found Rio very much to his liking, as back-to-back third place finishes in 1996 and '97 would attest.

This year's Rio 400 marks the farewell of Hiro Matsushita (Panasonic-Duskin Reynard Toyota), who is retiring as a driver following nine seasons and 117 career starts. He will continue to be involved with the FedEx Championship Series as president of Swift Engineering, one of the series' four chassis suppliers.

Mark Blundell (Motorola PacWest Mercedes) is anxious to rebound after seeing a streak of six consecutive scoring finishes come to an end at Nazareth. Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) won his first career pole position at Nazareth, but finished 13th after a fueling problem caused him to make eight pit stops during the race.

Richie Hearn (Budweiser/Ralphs Swift Ford) finished 10th at Nazareth to score PPG Cup points for the second time in his last 15 starts. Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez/Viva Mexico! Reynard Ford) scored for the second time in 26 career starts by finishing 12th at Nazareth.

Though he didn't score at Nazareth, Dario Franchitti (KOOL Reynard Honda) still runs a strong sixth in the PPG Cup standings. He finished 27th in his rookie appearance at Rio last year after being involved in contact with Fernandez and Carpentier on the opening lap.

Max Papis (MCI Reynard Toyota), PJ Jones (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) and Arnd Meier (BAAN Business Software/Total Tel Lola Ford) join Franchitti in making their second FedEx Championship Series career appearances at Rio while rookies JJ Lehto (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Reynard Mercedes) and Alex Barron (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) are making their first.

The FedEx Championship Series continues Saturday, May 23 with the Motorola 300 from Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill.

Source: CART Online

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Gualter Salles , Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Max Papis , Adrian Fernandez , Bobby Rahal , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Mauricio Gugelmin , Nigel Mansell , Scott Pruett , Mark Blundell , Richie Hearn , Alex Barron , Emerson Fittipaldi , Greg Moore , JJ Lehto