A New Era Opens For Team Rahal New Sponsor And A Pair Of New Drivers Debut This Week HILLIARD, OH . . . A new era begins for Team Rahal this weekend when drivers Jimmy Vasser and Michel Jourdain Jr. take to the track in Monterrey, Mexico for the...
A New Era Opens For Team Rahal
New Sponsor And A Pair Of New Drivers Debut This Week
HILLIARD, OH . . . A new era begins for Team Rahal this weekend when drivers Jimmy Vasser and Michel Jourdain Jr. take to the track in Monterrey, Mexico for the 2002 CART FedEx Championship Series opener. Vasser, the 1996 CART champion, joins Team Rahal as the driver of the #8 Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola while 25-year-old Jourdain Jr., the pilot of the Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola, will debut the Gigante sponsored car.
Gigante and Team Rahal announced their new partnership in late January in the deal which brought Jourdain Jr. to Team Rahal. The Gigante Group is present in 63 cities in Mexico and in Los Angeles, California maintaining 375 points of sale specializing in groceries, perishables and general merchandise. The company also has specialized restaurants [Toks Restaurants] and stores featuring office supplies [Office Depot] and electronic goods [Radio Shack]. Gigante's first venture into the United States has been with three stores in southern California.
Vasser was announced as the driver of the Shell car late last season and the 35-year-old California native has been kept busy with the majority of the team's winter testing program. Vasser suffered through a frustrating 2001 season at Patrick Racing, finishing 12th in the championship and snapping a streak of six consecutive top-ten championship finishes (1995-2000).
"Monterrey is a fantastic event," said Vasser. "There is always a special atmosphere around the season opener, but last year was something else with the larger crowds and the festivities surrounding the race. The Mexican fans turned out in record number and showed great support for CART. I can't remember when I have been as excited about the start of a season as I am this year. We are really hoping to get off to a good start and to be honest the attitude of this team is that anything short of winning is a disappointment."
Michel Jourdain Jr. joins Team Rahal after two seasons at Bettenhausen Motor Sports. He holds the distinction of being the youngest driver in CART history, having made his debut in 1996 at 19 years, 7 months and 12 days. Although he is only 25 he has 101 Champ Car starts to his credit.
"The last six weeks have been a dream come true," said Jourdain. "Everything has happened so fast but to be driving for Team Rahal and racing for a champion like Bobby [Rahal] is something that I have been working for throughout my career. To be in this position and representing great companies like Gigante and Office Depot is a thrill. I have spent a lot of time with my engineers Ray Leto and Tim Reiter and we have made a lot of progress despite having only four days on track. There hasn't been as big of a learning curve for me because I have run the Lola/Ford package in the past."
"I have followed Michel's career over the years and I have always thought of him as a diamond in the rough," said three-time CART champion and Team Rahal owner Bobby Rahal. "For the first time in his Champ Car career, Michel is going to have the advantage of a two-car team and the additional that feedback a teammate can supply. I have seen firsthand the skill this kid has and now it is up to us at Team Rahal to help him become the best driver that he can be. I think we have a very good driver combination for this season in Jimmy and Michel and when you add in the Ford/Lola and Bridgestone package, we have all the ingredients to contend for the title."
Team Rahal was Champ Car's winningest team in 200, leading the CART FedEx Championship Series in wins (6) and laps led (843) while capturing seven poles and finishing second in three other races. The only prizes that eluded Team Rahal in 2001 were the CART championship and the Vanderbilt Cup.
Team Rahal Looks For Season-Opening Success
The new look Team Rahal heads south to Mexico this week looking for a quick start to the 2002 season. The team is looking to maintain the momentum that was built last season when the team led the series in wins and laps led.
Among Team Rahal's outstanding opening race performances was last season's effort by then -Shell driver Kenny Brack who captured the pole and finished fifth at Monterrey after leading 28 laps. In the 2000 CART opener at Homestead Max Papis captured his first Champ Car victory by methodically working his way through the field and taking the lead with 12 laps to go. In 1992 (Australia) and 1995 (Miami) then driver/owner Bobby Rahal captured third place results in the CART season openers.
Shell driver Jimmy Vasser won the 1996 season opener at Australia and parlayed three wins in the first four races into the 1996 CART championship. Vasser traditionally does very well in the season opener. Five of the last eight years Vasser has collected a top-four result in the season opener.
"A strong start can set the tone for a season," said Vasser. "The key to a championship is consistency and scoring points week in and week out, but grabbing a win or a podium early in the season is a huge lift for a driver and a team."
Duo Looks To Continue Successful Debut For Rahal Drivers
Jimmy Vasser and Michel Jourdain Jr. will become the eighth and ninth drivers to drive for Team Rahal when they take to the track this week.
Of the seven drivers who have previously driven for Team Rahal, six posted a top-ten result in their first race with the team and two, Max Papis and Casey Mears, tied or posted a then career-high result. Only one driver, Kenny Brack in 2000, failed to crack the top-ten. Brack however became only the second driver in CART history to lead in his first race but a mechanical failure ended his day with an 18th place finish at Homestead Speedway.
The top debut result for a new Team Rahal driver goes to Bobby Rahal, who collected a third place finish at Australia in 1992 in his first race with the team, which was also happened to be his first race as a team owner.
Twenty Years Ago Was Rahal'S Rookie Cart Season
The 2002 CART season marks the 20th anniversary of Bobby Rahal's Champ Car debut as the driver of Jim Trueman's Truesports entry. The 1982 season got off to a rocky start for the Truesports team as they posted DNF's in their first three events, including the season opener at Phoenix (3/28/82).
"It was a short race," recalled Rahal of the season opener. "We were pretty nervous about the whole thing because we hadn't actually tested anywhere and we were truly babes in the woods. I don't think there was one person on the team that had any oval track experience, let alone Indy Car experience. Looking back we were pretty nervous about the whole weekend and it lived up to its billing because we really struggled and we never got the car in the right condition. Then finally things were going reasonably well in the race, but during the first pit stop the car caught fire and that was that. I remember we left Phoenix with our tails between our legs, so much so that we skipped the next race at Atlanta trying to regroup and get ready for Indy. From there on everything was fine, but we all came back to Columbus shell-shocked thinking what have we got ourselves into here."
Despite the difficult start, things came together quickly for the Truesports team. Rahal would finish second in the CART championship, capturing two wins and finishing on the podium six times. As a result of his outstanding rookie campaign Rahal was named CART Rookie of the Year, an award which was later named after Jim Trueman.