Getting Ready for Spring Training (January 29, 1998) -- Target/Chip Ganassi Racing has won each of the past two PPG Cup championships, and in both cases, Spring Training at the Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex has served...
Getting Ready for Spring Training
(January 29, 1998) -- Target/Chip Ganassi Racing has won each of the past two PPG Cup championships, and in both cases, Spring Training at the Metro-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex has served as a precursor of things to come.
It remains to be seen if this year's Spring Training, Feb. 3-5 on the reconfigured 1.517-mile Homestead oval, will be as accurate a predictor of the coming FedEx Championship Series season as it has been in the past. A full field of 30 FedEx Championship Series entries is expected to participate in Spring Training's first-ever media day on Tuesday, Feb. 3. Two extensive days of on-track activity will follow on Feb. 4 and 5, from 9-11:45 a.m. and 1:15-4 p.m. each day.
Nearly 200 media have been credentialed to attend the event, making the media contingent and the entry list the largest in Spring Training's three-year history. A complete schedule of media day events will be available Tuesday morning at the track.
Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda) paced his rivals with the fastest lap speed of CART's inaugural Spring Training in 1996 at the Miami-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex, then went on to win the title behind four victories in the season's first six races.
Vasser and Target/Ganassi teammate Alex Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) posted the two fastest laps, respectively, during CART's 1997 Spring Training at Homestead, and that time, it was Zanardi who emerged with the Cup, fueled by series-high totals of five victories and four pole positions.
Vasser and Zanardi are back in a bid to capture Target/Ganassi's third consecutive championship, a feat accomplished only once before in CART history, by Penske Racing with Rick Mears (1981, '82) and Al Unser ('83). Team owner Chip Ganassi realizes the importance of the preseason as his team begins its quest.
"I think Spring Training is a great thing," he said. "You're practicing on your own all winter long, and you never really know where you are competitively with other teams. But at Spring Training, most teams lay all their cards on the table so that they can see how they compare to other teams. It's definitely a predictor of the season. Teams that come out strong right away tend to be strong all season long. It's a great event for fans and teams."
Several teams revamped their lineups in the off-season in an attempt to derail the Target/Ganassi express. It began when Marlboro Team Penske released Paul Tracy from his contract and hired Andre Ribeiro (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) from Tasman Motorsports to team with Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) this season.
Tracy, a three-time winner 1997, wasn't idle long. Shortly after his departure from Marlboro Team Penske, he reached an agreement to team with promising sophomore Dario Franchitti, who moved over from Hogan Racing, at Team KOOL Green. Both will be in KOOL Reynard Hondas.
A couple of weeks after Tracy and Ribeiro changed teams, 1997 CART Rookie of the Year Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) moved from Bettenhausen Motorsports/Team Alumax to Player's Forsythe Racing, where he'll team with Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes), winner of two CART events last season, to launch a two-pronged attack on the Target/Ganassi tandem.
Another lineup change occurred at Patrick Racing, where Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State Reynard Ford) joined Scott Pruett (Visteon Reynard Ford) after making the move from the Tasman Motorsports Group.
Of course, several strong teams maintained status quo heading into 1998, among them the PacWest Racing Group, which vaulted into the upper echelon of CART teams with four victories last year. Included among them were the first career victories for both Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) and Mark Blundell (Motorola PacWest Mercedes), who won three of the season's final nine events.
Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Reynard Honda) finished second in the championship last season behind seven podium finishes, which tied Zanardi for the series lead. De Ferran was remarkably consistent, scoring PPG Cup points in 14 of 17 events, but was kept out of victory circle by a run of tough luck.
Newman/Haas Racing's lineup also remains the same this year, headed by Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford), CART's all-time victory leader with 36. Andretti debuted the new Swift chassis in spectacular fashion with a win in the season opener at Homestead last year, but didn't reach victory circle for the remainder of the season.
Teammate Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford), fully recovered from a broken leg which kept him out of seven events last season, appears on the verge of breaking through for the first career CART victory which has thus far eluded his grasp.
Team Rahal figures to draw a multitude of media attention this season, courtesy of "Rahal's Last Ride," as owner/driver Bobby Rahal's (Miller Lite Reynard Ford) final competitive season has been dubbed. Rahal, a 17-year veteran and CART's all-time leader in career starts (245), will be looking to highlight his farewell campaign with his first victory since 1992. Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Ford), another driver on the brink of his first CART career triumph, teams with Rahal for the third season.
Team Rahal has made one significant change to its package for 1998. After a long-standing relationship with Goodyear, the team switches to Firestone tires, which won 13 of 17 events last season, including the last 11 in succession.
Up-and-coming drivers poised for breakout seasons include Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez/Viva Mexico! Reynard Ford), Richie Hearn (Ralphs-Food 4 Less/Budweiser Swift Ford) and Max Papis (MCI Reynard Toyota). Jourdain received the STP Most Improved Driver award by vote of his peers last year while Hearn is counting on his team's switch from a Lola to a Swift chassis and from Goodyear to Firestone tires to help him fulfill the promise he has shown in 20 series starts.
Papis earned top-15 finishes in six of his final seven starts last season as the Toyota engine became increasingly reliable in the final half of the campaign. He scored PPG Cup points in both 500-mile events, finishing eighth at Michigan and 12th at California, and will be looking to build on that momentum in 1998.
The 1998 FedEx Championship Series rookie crop is among the most impressive in recent memory. It includes Tony Kanaan (LCI International Reynard Honda), the 1997 PPG-Firestone Indy Lights champion who was promoted to the Tasman Motorsports Group's Championship Car ride. Helio Castro-Neves (Alumax Reynard Mercedes), the 1997 Indy Lights runner-up, moves from Tasman's Lights program to Bettenhausen Motorsports.
Formula One veteran JJ Lehto (Hogan Motor Leasing Reynard Mercedes) takes over for Franchitti at Hogan Racing while KOOL/Toyota Atlantic champion Alex Barron (Castrol-Time Inc. Reynard Toyota) steps into the seat vacated by the retirement of Juan Fangio II at All American Racers.
Barron's teammate, PJ Jones (Castrol-Time Inc. Reynard Toyota), battled through a frustrating 1997 campaign but finished on a high note with a season-best 10th-place finish at California. Other two-car efforts are being mounted at Payton Coyne Racing, where Dennis Vitolo (SmithKline Beecham Consumer Reynard Ford) will team with Jourdain; and at Arciero-Wells Racing, where veteran Hiro Matsushita (Panasonic Duskin Reynard Toyota) joins Papis.
Robby Gordon, a five-year regular (1992-96) in the FedEx Championship Series who was recently signed by Arciero-Wells to drive in several as yet unnamed 1998 events, is scheduled to test with the team at Spring Training.
Arnd Meier (BAAN Business Software Reynard Ford) will test for Davis Racing at Spring Training after making 10 starts for Project Indy during his rookie campaign last season. Christian Danner (P C World/Hawaiian Tropic Reynard Ford) tests for Project Indy after making three starts for Payton Coyne Racing last year.
Rookie Hideshi Matsuda (BMB Minijuke Swift Ford) will test with Della Penna Motorsports in preparation for CART's first-ever visit to Japan for the March 28 Budweiser 500 at the new Twin Ring Motegi motorsports complex.
The FedEx Championship Series consists of a record 19 events this year, including CART's first-ever visits to Japan and Houston. The series returns to Homestead for the season opener, the Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota, March 13-15 at the Miami-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex.
Source: CART Online