CHAMPCAR/CART: Houston preview

DETROIT (October 2, 2001) - Back on American soil following its first-ever trip to Europe, the FedEx Championship Series accelerates its drive to crown a 2001 champion this weekend with Round 18, the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston (2 p.m....

DETROIT (October 2, 2001) - Back on American soil following its first-ever trip to Europe, the FedEx Championship Series accelerates its drive to crown a 2001 champion this weekend with Round 18, the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston (2 p.m. ET Sunday, live, ESPN).

After back-to-back oval events in Germany and England, the series returns to road/street-course competition for three of its final four rounds. Following this weekend's event on the temporary street circuit in downtown Houston, the series moves to Monterrey, Calif. for the Oct. 14 Shell 300, feature event of the Honda Grand Prix of Monterey on the permanent road course at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca.

That will be followed by the series' final international trip of the season, the Oct. 28 Honda Indy 300 on the streets of Surfers Paradise, Australia. The campaign climaxes with the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota, November 4 on the two-mile California Speedway oval at Fontana.

While four of 21 rounds remain in the 2001 championship, a like number of drivers are in primary position to make a run at the title. At the top of the championship standings is Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Lola) of Team Rahal, whose series-high four race victories and six podium finishes have helped him pile up 147 championship points. Brack has scored a series-high 116 points on ovals, however, and will be looking to better his season-best road- or street-course finish of fifth (Mexico) as he heads into this crucial stretch of the campaign.

Positioned just behind Brack is defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske, who stands second with 141 points. De Ferran recorded his first victory of the year at England on Sept. 22, enabling CART to tie its record of 11 different race winners in a season, established last year. He has been one of the hottest drivers in the series of late, with top-eight finishes in his past six starts, and top-five results in five of those.

Veteran Michael Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard) of Team Motorola, CART's all-time victory leader (41) comes to Houston ranked third in the championship with 125 points. Like de Ferran, he appears to have saved his best work for the stretch run, with four consecutive top-five finishes entering the weekend.

Rounding out the list of primary championship contenders is reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske, whose 123 championship points place him just two back of Andretti. Castroneves should relish returning to the roads during the month of October, as all three of his 2001 victories - at Long Beach, Detroit and Mid-Ohio - have come on road or street circuits.

A quartet of drivers could still play a role in deciding the outcome of the championship, including Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing, fifth with 92 points; Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green, sixth with 89; rookie Scott Dixon (Enron Powerware PacWest Toyota) of the PacWest Racing Group, seventh with 86; and Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Ford Reynard) of Player's Forsythe Racing, eighth with 83. Of the top eight drivers in the championship, only Franchitti is a previous winner at Houston, having driven to victory in the inaugural event in 1998.

Each of the past two winners at Houston would qualify as strong candidates to become the record-12th winner of the CART season this weekend. Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing is the defending event champion, having driven to victory while competing for Target Chip Ganassi Racing last year. Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green was the 1999 winner at Houston, keying a one-two finish which saw Franchitti follow his '98 triumph with a runner-up result.

All FedEx Championship Series entries ride on Firestone Tires, the Official Tire of CART.

The Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston is Round 18 of 21 in the 2001 FedEx Championship Series. The series visits seven countries and four continents during the season and climaxes with the season-ending The 500 Presented by Toyota on Sunday, Nov. 4 at California Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Thanks to a partnership between Marlboro, Toyota, CART and California Speedway, the winner of the season finale will collect $1 million, one of the richest paydays in all of motorsports. Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing is the defending event champion. An additional $1 million, as well as the prestigious Vanderbilt Cup, will be awarded to the driver who wins the FedEx Championship Series championship.

WHO'S HOT

* Defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has finished eighth or better in each of his past six starts, with five top-five results. De Ferran recorded his first victory of the season in his most recent start at Rockingham, England on Sept. 22, and also owns podium finishes of third at Chicago and second at Mid-Ohio and Vancouver during his current run. He also finished fifth at Road America and eighth at Germany. He has moved from fifth to second in the FedEx Championship Series with 141 points, six behind championship leader Kenny Brack of Team Rahal (147).

* Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Lola) of Team Rahal has earned back-to-back podium finishes in his two most recent FedEx Championship Series starts - a victory at Germany and a runner-up effort to Gil de Ferran in England. With victories at Japan, Milwaukee and Chicago in addition to his triumph at Germany, Brack is the only FedEx Championship Series driver to have earned four victories this season. He has scored championship points in 11 of 16 starts, and has finished on the podium in six of his seven starts on ovals, with runner-up performances at Nazareth and England in addition to his four oval victories. He also leads the series in laps led, with 621 - ninth on the CART single-season list - including 581 on ovals. Brack comes to Houston with a six-point (147-141) lead over de Ferran in pursuit of his first FedEx Championship Series championship.

* Michael Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard) of Team Motorola owns top-five finishes in each of his past four FedEx Championship Series starts. The run began with a runner-up performance at Road America and was followed by finishes of third at Vancouver, fourth at Germany and fifth at England. On the strength of the streak, Andretti, who has finished sixth or better in nine of 16 starts this season, has moved into third place in the FedEx Championship Series championship, with 125 points.

* Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has scored championship points in six of his past seven FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to an eighth-place finish at Michigan and including a victory at Mid-Ohio. Also included are finishes of fourth at England, seventh at Chicago and Road America and 12th at Germany. Castroneves stands fourth in the FedEx Championship Series championship with 123 points.

* Tony Kanaan (Hollywood Honda Reynard) of Mo Nunn Racing finished eighth at England to extend a run that has seen him score championship points in seven of his past eight starts, dating to a 10th-place finish at Toronto. Also included are finishes of eighth at Chicago, fifth at Mid-Ohio, 12th at Road America, fourth at Vancouver and seventh at Germany. Kanaan stands ninth in the FedEx Championship Series championship with 77 points.

* Oriol Servia (Sigma Autosport Ford Lola) of Sigma Autosport has scored championship points in six of his past seven FedEx Championship Series starts, the most productive run of his two-year career. Included are back-to-back, season-best finishes of fifth at Vancouver and Germany, as well as finishes of 11th at Michigan, ninth at Mid-Ohio, 10th at Road America and 10th at England. Servia stands 18th in the FedEx Championship Series championship, with 40 points.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

* Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green owns a pair of podium results in three career starts on the streets of Houston, topped by a victory in the inaugural event in 1998,when he led all 70 laps. He also finished second to teammate Paul Tracy in 1999, leading three laps. He has started on the outside pole twice, in 1998 and last year.

* Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard), Dario Franchitti's Team KOOL Green teammate, drove to victory at Houston in 1999, leading 85 of 100 laps. He also finished fourth last year. His top start at the venue is third in 1999.

* Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing is the defending Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston champion, having led 31 laps en route to last year's triumph. He also scored championship points with a fourth-place finish in 1998 and has started third twice at the venue, in 1998 and last year.

* Max Papis (Miller Lite Ford Lola) of Team Rahal has earned a pair of top-five finishes in three career starts on the streets of Houston, fifth in 1998 and fourth in 1999.

* Tony Kanaan has scored championship points in all three of his career appearances in Houston, topped by a podium result of third during his rookie season of 1998. He also finished ninth in 1999 and 10th last year.

MANUFACTURING SUCCESS

* Honda-powered drivers have won four of the five FedEx Championship Series events contested on temporary street circuits this season, getting victories from Helio Castroneves at Long Beach and Detroit, Dario Franchitti at Cleveland and Michael Andretti at Toronto. Honda has also won two of the three FedEx Championship Series events contested on the streets of Houston, with Franchitti (1998) and Paul Tracy (1999) doing the honors. Honda-powered drivers have won 21 of the past 26 FedEx Championship Series events contested on temporary street circuits, dating to Alex Zanardi's victory at Long Beach on April 5, 1998.

* Reynard chassis have won all five FedEx Championship Series events contested on temporary street circuits this season. The wins have come from Helio Castroneves at Long Beach and Detroit, Dario Franchitti at Cleveland, Michael Andretti at Toronto and Roberto Moreno (Visteon Toyota Reynard) at Vancouver.

NOTEWORTHY

* Mo Nunn Racing announced last week that 23-year-old Casey Mears will drive the Pioneer Honda Reynard beginning with this weekend's Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston. It will be the car's first appearance in a FedEx Championship Series event since a tragic accident at EuroSpeedway in Lausitz, Germany on Sept. 15 in which two-time FedEx Championship Series champion Alex Zanardi lost both his legs. Zanardi continues his recovery at Berlin's Marzahn Hospital. Mears is a veteran of Dayton Indy Lights and Indy Racing League competition, and finished second and third, respectively, in the 1999 and 2000 Dayton Indy Lights championships. He made his FedEx Championship Series debut for Team Rahal in the 2000 season finale at California Speedway, finishing fourth. "First of all, I just want to say I was shocked, along with the rest of the racing universe, at what happened to Alex [Zanardi}," said Mears, nephew of three-time FedEx Championship Series champion Rick Mears. "Alex has an incredible amount of fans and loyal supporters, and I am definitely one of his biggest. With that, I am very thankful for this tremendous opportunity. Fortunately, we get to start this run at race tracks that I am very familiar with. I'm looking forward to driving for Mo Nunn, and I just hope I can help carry on the legacy of Alex Zanardi." In addition to his fourth-place finish at California Speedway, Mears also had strong Indy Lights performances at Houston and Laguna Seca, two of the remaining four stops on the FedEx Championship Series trail, last year. He won from the pole at Houston and finished second from the pole at Laguna Seca. "Casey's experience at those three events was a big plus for him in our search for a driver," said team owner Morris Nunn. "Plus, he already has a strong relationship with our sponsor, WorldCom, and it's a great opportunity for us to showcase a young American driver."

* Champ Car legend Mario Andretti, author Gordon Kirby and publisher David Bull will introduce their new biography, Mario Andretti: A Driving Passion, at this weekend's Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston. The book is the first comprehensive biography of Andretti's racing life, which included 52 victories in a record 407 Champ Car starts, a record 67 pole positions, and a record 7,587 laps led. Andretti won United States Auto Club national championships in 1965, '66 and '69, the 1978 Formula One World Championship, and the 1984 FedEx Championship Series championship. As part of the launch, Andretti and Kirby will participate in a book signing on Wednesday, October 3, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Borders Books and Music store at 3025 Kirby Drive on the corner of Alabama in Houston. Further information on Mario Andretti: A Driving Passion is available from Tracy Moore at David Bull Publishing (602) 852-9500.

* With the deadline for voting in the WorldCom Most Popular Driver Award and Sweepstakes just a week away, the top five drivers, alphabetically, are Michael Andretti, Kenny Brack, Helio Castroneves, Adrian Fernandez and Paul Tracy. Over 27,000 ballots have been cast in the contest, which continues through Wednesday, Oct. 10. One lucky voter will be selected to win a trip to the season-ending Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota, Nov. 4 at California Speedway, then present the award to the winning driver at the FedEx Championship Series Awards ceremonies on Nov. 6 in Las Vegas, in addition to driving a replica Champ Car as part of the CART 101 Driving Experience at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Votes may be cast on both the CART and WorldCom websites, at www.cart.com and www.WORLDCOMRACING.com, respectively.

* Argentine Martin Basso, who currently ranks third in the 2001 Toyota Atlantic Championship, conducted a successful first-ever Champ Car test at Sebring International Raceway last week. The 27-year-old Basso, who currently competes for Michael Shank Racing in the Toyota Atlantic championship, drove the Dale Coyne Racing Ford Lola during the test, in preparation for a possible 2002 FedEx Championship Series effort with the team. "The car feels very responsive and was a pleasure to drive," Basso said afterward. "The power and braking forces take some getting used to, but I was very pleased with our progress over the two days. Basso is a two-year veteran of the Toyota Atlantic series, and earned the series' "Rising Star Award" following a 2000 season which saw him finish fourth in the championship with one victory and nine top-five finishes in 12 starts. He also has experience in both the South American Formula 3 and Formula Super Renault series. "We have brought several rookie drivers to the CART series over the years," said team owner Dale Coyne. "You usually know on the first day of testing what you have, and given Martin's approach and performance here at Sebring, I'm confident he will be a solid force amongst what we firmly believe is the most competitive open-wheel series in the world."

* FedEx Championship Series leader Kenny Brack of Team Rahal will be the featured guest at the final CART Wheels for Kids event of the 2001 season on Thursday morning, Oct. 4, at Houston's Hamilton Middle School. Brack will speak to the students on automobile, helmet and seat belt safety and will discuss his FedEx Championship Series season, which has included series-high totals of four victories and six pole positions. This will be the seventh appearance of the season CART Wheels for Kids program, which is co-sponsored by CART, Ford Racing, Shell and Simple Green. Previous stops have come at Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, Jackson, Mich., Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.

* CART.com, the official web site of the FedEx Championship Series, established a new record for visitors in one month during September. A total of 1,690,506 visitors logged onto CART.com last month, eclipsing the previous record of 1,334,850 visitors established in July, 2000. The site has had over 8 million visitors thus far in 2001, and appears to be on pace to break the record of 9,779,085 visitors established last year.

ON THE AIR

* Qualifying for the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston will air 2:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. CART 2Day airs 11 a.m. Sunday on ESPN2, while ESPN's live race broadcast begins 2 p.m. ET. Sunday's race will also air on the CART Radio Network and on CART's official website, which will also carry Saturday's qualifying, at www.cart.com .

-CART-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Casey Mears , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Max Papis , Roberto Moreno , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Oriol Servia , Kenny Brack , Martin Basso , Mario Andretti , Rick Mears , Morris Nunn , Michael Shank , Dale Coyne , Cristiano da Matta , Mo Nunn
Teams Team Penske , Dale Coyne Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing , Michael Shank Racing