CHAMPCAR/CART: Columbus Town meeting wows fans

A highly enthusiastic audience of CART fans showed up at PromoWest Pavilion tonight in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to ask questions of an all-star CART panel. The "Town meeting", first of planned series, was held in advance of next week's CART Grand...

A highly enthusiastic audience of CART fans showed up at PromoWest Pavilion tonight in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to ask questions of an all-star CART panel. The "Town meeting", first of planned series, was held in advance of next week's CART Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio and featured CART President Chris Pook, team owner and Columbus-area resident Bobby Rahal, former driver Mario Andretti, and CART Steward Chris Kneifel, with CART broadcast announcer, Derek Daly, serving as moderator. Daly set an irreverent tone for the evening and the large and partisan crowd of fans and the panel responded with lively discussion on a range of topics. Here are highlights of just a few:

Andretti Teams -
Andretti was asked about the heavily rumored likelihood of his son Michael moving his recently purchased team to the IRL. Mario seemed resigned to the fact that Andretti Green Racing would likely be racing in the IRL, but did say: "I'm keeping my fingers crossed like everyone else, that even if he has to field a car or two in the IRL that he at least keeps one car in CART. Those possibilities, I understand, do exist."

When a fan suggested Michael should be spanked for thinking of taking his team to "the dark side" (as the IRL was characterized by some of the fans), Mario charged CART's fans with letting Michael's sponsors know how they feel: "The sponsors don't have the answers either. At the end of the day, there is no stronger expression than what can come from you, the fans. It can make all the difference in the world."

Mario also confirmed rumors that he is working with Newman/Haas racing to become a CART team owner next season. Mario said that he would be a franchise owner with a single car, but would work closely with Newman/Haas' existing two-car team. While everything is not yet ready, Mario said: "I can't see [it] not being able to happen."

CART vs. IRL -
Mario made the strongest remarks concerning the continuing struggle for the hearts of open wheel racing fans by CART and the IRL: "I stand firm on the CART side because: If CART as a series did not have the appeal, do think it would still be around five years after the IRL had been operating in Indianapolis? Without the Indianapolis 500, do you think that the IRL would still be alive? No chance! Will CART be around? You're damn right it will be around!

Bringing CART racing back to ovals -
Pook didn't promise prompt action on this: "It's on the list, but I've got to do some other things first before I come back and deal with those issues," he said. Without naming the companies, he touched on the difficulty brought on by CART's strained relationship with ISC (International Speedway Corporation) and SMI (Speedway Motorsports, Inc.} the two companies that own most of the oval tracks in the US, saying: "When we get this series back to the level it was three or four years ago, I suspect that some will come knocking on our door instead of us having to knock on theirs.

Standing starts -
To resounding cheers, the CART officials tipped their hand on the rumored plans to use standing starts at their street and road course venues. After a short exchange concerning the current pit rules, Mario raised a complaint about the current start policy of a wave off when the field is not in the correct alignment. Kneifel responded, "What about standing starts?"

When Daly followed that comment with the pronouncement: "My vote, on all road courses, -- standing starts", the audience cheered loudly. Pook said: "We're working on it." Daly followed with: "It might not be ready for Mid-Ohio, but we might" After hearing the response to the topic, Daly warned: "If we end up with standing starts, it's because of you people here in Columbus."

Tire warmers (as a safety improvement) -
Kneifel: "I am a big fan of tire warmers. From a driver's standpoint, it's great stuff. Obviously, there are cost ramifications, but I certainly wouldn't close the door to it." Daly: "I know it is being seriously looked at as a potential option for the future."

Driver development -
Rahal answered some questions about his plan for developing young driver, Danica Patrick, through running a car for her in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and the Toyota Atlantic Championship. He said: "I'm a big believer in the ladder program that CART has. I think it's the best one in the country.

"For me personally, I was able to succeed in racing through the generosity and the belief of a guy named Jim Trueman. His example is a very strong one for me, and I think Danica is the first of several that we will try to assist over time. It's up to us to create the drivers to compete on an international level."

2003 Schedule -
Pook: "I hope to announce it at Mid-Ohio. We just have one glitch with one venue. If we get that out of the way, I'm intent on announcing it. If we have to have a date tentative with that one particular venue, so be it."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Chris Kneifel , Mario Andretti , Chris Pook , Derek Daly , Danica Patrick
Teams ART Grand Prix