CHAMPCAR/CART: IRL: Fernandez left no choice but move

The news that Adrian Fernandez, a Champ Car stalwart since 1993 is coming to the Indy Racing League and its premier IndyCar Series has been a hot topic since last Thursday evening's announcement. For the remaining 15 events on the IndyCar...

The news that Adrian Fernandez, a Champ Car stalwart since 1993 is coming to the Indy Racing League and its premier IndyCar Series has been a hot topic since last Thursday evening's announcement.

For the remaining 15 events on the IndyCar Series calendar, the Mexican ace will drive a #5 Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Panoz G Force/Honda/Firestone entry, attempting to steal the championship in his first year of IRL competition.

Fernandez has publicly addressed his concerns about CCWS since he initially made his choice clear last week. While he acknowledges that his Champ Car career is "what made Adrian Fernandez who I am now," direction of the Open Wheel Racing Series group that acquired the assets of CART Inc. didn't give Fernandez or his team a great deal of hope for the coming season.

"There was a lot of uncertainty about the series due to its bankruptcy," he said. "I have been a big supporter, but I went to Long Beach [for the Season Premiere last week] expecting answers to my questions." Apparently, the new owners had not been in touch with him or his three sponsors since acquiring those assets in Indianapolis Federal Bankruptcy Court on January 28th; Fernandez needed "facts not promises."

Those were not forthcoming and, even as he showed off his Lola to the media, Fernandez was concerned. The car was embellished with "Visit Mexico" logos that were not paid sponsorship but rather his thank you to the country that had supported Fernandez all these years, he noted.

As CCWS wasn't informative on its international and Mexican television package, as only 12 drivers were confirmed for a series set to begin just five weeks hence, as the stated schedule had two TBA meetings, as the OWRS owners poached paying drivers from private teams instead of supporting those smaller outfits, Fernandez realized he wasn't where he or his partners needed to be.

So he spoke with the Mexican representatives of Quaker State and Telmex and he spoke to his partners at Tecate, which had left his team at the close of the 2003 season due to the turmoil at CART, and together they decided to make the big change and go to the Indy Racing League.

"I wish them the best," Fernandez said. "I hope they have 25 cars at Long Beach next month" and he wishes the series success in its 2004 Mexican dates and later campaigns. Yet Fernandez joins fellow IRL team co-owner Michael Andretti in expressing the wish that there be one single major open wheel series in North America.

"It is time to unite and go forward," he declared. "I didn't want my 40 employees on the street and right now there are a lot of race mechanics looking for work" because of uncertainty in the open wheel ranks. "With what I saw, I had no confidence."

Fernandez first came to the USA to race in 1992, earning Rookie of the Year honors in his first Indy Lights campaign and moving up to the CART Champ Cars with a partial season at Galles Racing in 1993. He raced fulltime with Galles in 1994-5, making his first two starts in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, yet failing to finish both times.

Adrian took a ride with Tasman Motorsports for 1996-97 and finished third in the season finale in his final year with Steve and Christine Horne's outfit. He then did an extremely successful three-year stint with Patrick Racing, winning twice at Twin Ring Motegi, once at Rio de Janeiro and once at California Speedway among his accomplishments.

Fernandez started his own team in 2001 and scored one victory last year at Portland as an owner/driver. He owns a total of eight Champ Car wins, four of them on oval circuits and actually took his first career pole position on the Michigan oval.

Having only eleven days to prepare for his first IndyCar Series competition, Fernandez still thinks he's ahead of the game, thanks to the depth of his Fernandez Racing and Super Aguri Fernandez Racing teams in Indianapolis.

The squads have a total of three Panoz G Force chassis at their disposal and will add two more to the stable soon. And the teams' staff is quite deep as well, now that Fernandez has coaxed John Ward, his engineer with Patrick Racing and with Fernandez Racing in its initial Champ Car campaigns to rejoin the team.

"We're very deep on the engineering side with John Ward and John Dick," who works on rookie Kosuke Matsuura's #55 Panasonic/ARTA car. And Fernandez is glad to have his entire team focused on succeeding in one series, not two. "John Dick's assistance in the last two races of 2003 made us more competitive," he noted, "and having my good friend John Ward with us should make us strong in the IRL."

While he is naturally looking forward to this weekend's Indy 200 Copper World Classic held at Phoenix International Raceway near his Paradise Valley, AZ adopted hometown, Fernandez will miss the rabid fan interaction at the two Mexican Champ Car events. "The fans in Mexico and the media have been very supportive of us and the two Mexican races are so big. This was not an easy decision to make," particularly because it takes Fernandez away from his two home country events.

Money wasn't the prime factor in Fernandez' decision to come to the Indy Racing League. "We didn't come to due money. If it had been money, I would have done it a long time ago," he said. The Fernandez Racing team is getting some support from Honda in making the quick switch but he is dependent on the sponsorship he currently has in place.

As a two-time victor on the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval, Fernandez is hoping his experience can help Honda achieve its goal of winning on home turf. The wins at Motegi "changed my life," Fernandez asserted. "I got my first win with Patrick Racing there and it changed the whole perspective of my career. We have a lot of support from fans there and I missed not going to Motegi last year."

This Friday morning Adrian Fernandez takes his first laps in an IRL race car. He'll be driving a Panoz G Force he's only sat in, at a circuit that's had major changes since he last raced on it, yet there will be plenty of familiar faces for him to compete against. "I'm looking forward to racing again with Tony [Kanaan], Dario [Franchitti] and Helio [Castroneves]. I am not ready to leave the sport yet and I think I still have some wins" to achieve.

The Indy Racing League has gained a rabid group of fans that will come to the track to see and to cheer on Mexico's top sportsman at work. The enthusiasm they have for their countryman Fernandez and his sponsors should translate into more bodies through the turnstiles. For the IRL that is good news, indeed.

( 2004 Anne Proffit

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Michael Andretti , Adrian Fernandez , Kosuke Matsuura