CHAMPCAR/CART: Monterrey launches record 21-race FedEx Championship season

DETROIT (March 5, 2001) - Looking to build upon the spellbinding on-track drama generated by each of its past two FedEx Championship Series seasons, Championship Auto Racing Teams launches the record 21-event 2001 FedEx Championship Series this ...

DETROIT (March 5, 2001) - Looking to build upon the spellbinding on-track drama generated by each of its past two FedEx Championship Series seasons, Championship Auto Racing Teams launches the record 21-event 2001 FedEx Championship Series this weekend with the inaugural Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix Presented by Herdez at Fundidora Park in Monterrey, Mexico (4 p.m. ET Sunday, live, ABC-TV).

The past two FedEx Championship Series championships have not been decided until the conclusion of riveting 20-event campaigns, each with its own drama and history. In 1999, Juan Montoya and Dario Franchitti concluded the season in the first-ever tie for the title and it took a tiebreaker (most race wins) for Montoya to slip past Franchitti for the crown in his rookie season. Last season brought us the tightest multiple-driver championship battle in history, as five drivers were in contention for the FedEx Championship Series title heading into the season finale. Gil de Ferran emerged from the group and secured the eighth FedEx Series championship in the history of Penske Racing.

Now, CART launches its most ambitious schedule yet, a 21-race marathon that begins in Mexico this weekend and travels to Japan, England, Germany, Australia and throughout North America before wrapping up on Nov. 4 at California Speedway. The European portion of the schedule marks CART's first-ever appearance on the continent.

This weekend, meanwhile, marks CART's first appearance in Mexico since a two-year run in 1980-81 at Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigues in Mexico City, both of which were won by three-time FedEx Championship Series champion Rick Mears. This arrival shifts the focus to the economic hub of Monterrey, where a 2.1-mile permanent road course has been constructed at Fundidora Park on ground formerly occupied by Latin America's first steel mill, which closed in 1983.

That is where de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) will launch the bid to defend his FedEx Championship Series title against a stellar field of 28 other drivers and begin his quest to become the fourth driver in FedEx Championship Series history to win consecutive titles. He is looking to join the group of Mears (1981-82), Bobby Rahal (1986-87) and Alex Zanardi (1997-98), who is the only active driver among the trio as he makes a much anticipated return to the series this season.

Last season, his first with Marlboro Team Penske and sixth overall, de Ferran won two races and five pole positions with one of each carrying great historical significance. His first triumph of the season came at Nazareth Speedway and it was the milestone 100th win in the storied history of Penske Racing. His final pole position came in the season finale at California Speedway and established a world closed-course speed record of 241.428 miles per hour.

The key, however, to de Ferran's success was his remarkable consistency as he scored championship points in 15 of 20 events and qualified among the top five drivers in 16 of those starts. The performance earned de Ferran the Mario Andretti Award as the leading vote-getter on CART's second annual All-Star Team.

Not to be overlooked in de Ferran's historic season was the breakout performance of his teammate Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard). Castroneves tied for the series lead with three victories, added three pole positions and finished a career-best seventh in the championship during an impressive first season with Marlboro Team Penske. He is considered among the serious contenders for his teammate's crown.

Marlboro Team Penske went through an off-season of upheaval prior to the 2000 campaign, changing every key component of its package, from the drivers to the equipment they piloted. The most recent off-season saw the Penske organization maintain status quo in an effort to build upon the spectacular successes of last year.

Not so for many of its chief rivals chasing this season's FedEx Championship Series title. Three former series champions are driving for different teams this year, as is last year's runner-up in the championship chase. The team that ranks second to Penske Racing in FedEx Championship Series career victories has changed its power plant, as has the team that produced the second- and third-place finishers in last year's championship.

In short, it has been an off-season fraught with change, the most significant coming at newly formed Team Motorola. Michael Andretti, CART's all-time victory leader (40) and a two-time All Star, will ply his trade at newly formed Team Motorola after spending 10 of his past 11 Champ Car seasons at Newman/Haas Racing. Andretti's eighth-place finish in last year's championship represented his 16th top-10 result in his past 16 CART campaigns, and he established a new series record by winning at least one event in his 13th different season.

Team Motorola, operating as a technical partner with Team KOOL Green, has given Andretti the Honda/Reynard/Firestone package that has powered the past five FedEx Championship Series champions, dating to Jimmy Vasser in 1996. Thus, Andretti, always a contender, becomes a genuine favorite to collect his second FedEx Championship Series title, bookending the one he earned in 1991.

Two other former champions who were part of an unprecedented run of four consecutive FedEx Championship Series crowns (1996-99) at Target Chip Ganassi Racing are looking forward to fresh starts with different teams. Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard), the 1996 series champion, has moved from Target Ganassi to Patrick Racing, where he will team with veteran Roberto Moreno (Visteon Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard), who comes off a career-best third-place finish in last year's championship.

Meanwhile, the most heralded return to the FedEx Championship Series will be made by Zanardi, the 1997-98 series champion who is back in the fold following a two-year absence. He returns to the Champ Car cockpit for second-year team owner Morris Nunn, who engineered Zanardi's 15 race victories and 10 pole positions from 1996-98 at Target Ganassi. As in those glory years, Zanardi will pilot a Honda-powered Reynard, with sponsorship from Pioneer and WorldCom.

Adrian Fernandez, runner-up in last season's championship, launches a new team in friendly surroundings this weekend as Fernandez Racing makes its FedEx Championship Series debut in his native Mexico. The two-car entry is owned by Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Honda Reynard) and Tom Anderson, former managing director at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Fernandez' career-best runner-up performance in last year's championship included two victories and a series-high 17 points-producing finishes. He also led the FedEx Championship Series in laps and miles completed and earned a berth on the five-man All-Star team.

The most significant equipment changes have come at Newman/Haas Racing, second to Team Penske with 58 victories in CART annals, where drivers Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Newman/Haas Toyota Lola) and newly arrived Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline Newman/Haas Toyota Lola) have switched from Ford to Toyota power. Also making that switch is Patrick Racing, after seeing Fernandez and Moreno finish second and third, respectively, in Fords last season.

The Toyota camp also added the PacWest Racing Group, which will campaign veteran Mauricio Gugelmin (Nextel PacWest Toyota) and rookie Scott Dixon (Powerware Panasonic PacWest Toyota), the 2000 Dayton Indy Lights champion.

A significant chassis change, meanwhile, took place at Team Rahal, which has opted for the Lola chassis for its driving tandem of Max Papis (Miller Lite Ford Lola) and Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Lola). Papis earned his first career FedEx Championship Series victory in last year's season opener at Homestead to become one of a CART-record 11 different race winners in 2000. Brack's inaugural FedEx Championship Series season concluded with a spectacular fourth-place finish in the championship and the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award.

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

Like Marlboro Team Penske, Team KOOL Green returns its driver/equipment package intact, spearheaded by two-time All Star Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard). Tracy tied Castroneves and Montoya with a series-high three victories en route to a fifth-place finish in last year's championship. For the fourth season, Tracy will be teamed with Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard), the 1999 championship runner-up who looks to bounce back from a trying 2000 season that was marred by a preseason testing accident that sidelined him for more than six weeks.

The Player's Forsythe Racing tandem of Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Ford Reynard) and Alex Tagliani (Player's/Indeck Ford Reynard) maintains status quo after a 2000 season that saw Carpentier finishing a career-best 11th in the championship despite missing three events and Tagliani earning a pole at Rio de Janeiro and contending for a pair of race victories in his rookie campaign. Tony Kanaan (Hollywood Honda Reynard) figures to benefit from Zanardi's veteran savvy and a new Honda power plant as he returns for a second season at Mo Nunn Racing.

Beyond the extensive roster of legitimate championship contenders, the FedEx Championship Series rookie crop boasts an impressive pedigree. In addition to Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which struck gold with Zanardi and Montoya, looks to repeat the feat with rookies Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian, who finished first and second, respectively, in last year's European Formula 3000 championship. Both will pilot Target-sponsored Toyota Lolas. Another championship winner joins the series in Tora Takagi (Pioneer/DENSO Special Toyota Reynard) of Walker Racing, the winner of the 2000 Japanese Formula Nippon title.

Herdez Bettenhausen figures to draw plenty of interest this weekend as native Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez Ford Lola) makes his first Champ Car appearance in his homeland. Dale Coyne Racing, meanwhile, has entered a pair of Ford-powered Lolas for Luiz Garcia Jr. (Embratel 21 Special Ford Lola) and German rookie Michael Krumm (The Dark Dog Ford Lola).

New teams are entered at Fernandez Racing, where second-year driver Shinji Nakano (Avex/Alpine Honda Reynard) teams with the team's namesake; Sigma Autosport, which has put 1999 Dayton Indy Lights champion Oriol Servia (Sigma Autosport Ford Lola) in the cockpit and Arciero/Brooke Racing, where rookie Max Wilson (winner B2B.com/Arciero/Brooke Racing Phoenix Lola) will handle driving duties.

Zakspeed/Forsythe Championship Racing, which competed in only one event as Forsythe Championship Racing during the 2000 season, is back for a full campaign this year, with a new co-owner in Peter Zakowski and Bryan Herta (Zakspeed/Forsythe Championship Racing Ford Reynard) in the cockpit. Herta finished fourth for the team at Laguna Seca in its only 2000 start.

The Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix Presented by Herdez kicks off CART's most ambitious schedule yet, with a record-21 events spread out over seven countries on four continents. In addition to its annual visits to Australia and Japan, CART makes its first trip ever to Europe this season, with back-to-back September events scheduled for Lausitz, Germany and Corby, England.

Round Two of the championship, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, is scheduled for April 6-8 on the streets of Long Beach, Calif.

WHO'S HOT

Michael Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard) of Team Motorola has won three of the past seven FedEx Championship Series season-opening starts (1994 Australia, 1997-98 Homestead). He also owns podium finishes of second in the 1999 season opener at Homestead and third in the 1988 opener at Phoenix. Overall, Andretti owns seven top-five finishes in 16 season-opening starts, including fourths at Phoenix and 1987 and '89.

Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing has scored championship points in six of his past seven FedEx Championship Series season openers, including a victory at Homestead in 1996. Also included in the run are finishes of third (Homestead '97), fourth (Australia '94, Homestead '99), eighth (Miami '95) and 10th (Homestead 2000).

Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green owns podium results in two of his past three season-opening starts, finishing second at Homestead in 1997 and third last year. Tracy did not compete in the 1999 season opener per a CART ruling for a driving infraction late in the 1998 season.

Defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has finished seventh or better in four of his past five FedEx Championship Series season openers, topped by a runner-up effort at Homestead in 1996. He also finished seventh at Homestead in '98 and sixth in 1999 and last year. He has also qualified fourth or better for four of his six season-opening starts, including a pole at Homestead last year.

Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Newman/Haas Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing has finished ninth or better in five of his six career starts in FedEx Championship Series season-opening events. The run consists of fifth at Miami in 1995 and Homestead finishes of sixth in '96, fourth in '98, ninth in '99 and seventh last year.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske has developed an affinity for FedEx Championship Series competition on permanent road courses such as the one that will host the season-opening Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix Presented by Herdez. Castroneves claimed two of last season's three victories on permanent road circuits (Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca). He also recorded top-10 finishes of seventh at Portland and ninth at Road America in the other two road course events, won pole positions at Portland and Laguna Seca and recorded 221 of his 372 laps led on permanent road courses. Castroneves' overall laps led total was second in the FedEx Championship Series to Juan Montoya.

Roberto Moreno (Visteon Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing has finished fourth or better in three of his past five FedEx Championship Series starts on permanent road courses. He finished second at Laguna Seca in 1999 while driving for Newman/Haas Racing, and added finishes of second at Portland and fourth at Road America last year.

Reigning series champion Gil de Ferran has finished sixth or better in six of his eight FedEx Championship Series starts on permanent road courses spread over the past two seasons. The run encompasses victories at Portland in 1999 and 2000, runner-up efforts at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca last year and sixth-place efforts at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca in 1999. De Ferran also started on the front row at all four road-course events last year with a pole at Mid-Ohio and outside poles at Portland, Road America and Laguna Seca.

MANUFACTURING SUCCESS

Ford Cosworth, the defending CART Manufacturer's champion, has won three of the past four FedEx Championship Series season openers and six of the past eight. The victories have come from Nigel Mansell (Australia '93), Michael Andretti (Australia '94, Homestead '97 and `99), Jacques Villeneuve (Miami '95) and Max Papis (Homestead 2000).

Honda-powered drivers made a clean sweep of the four FedEx Championship Series events contested on permanent road courses last year with victories from Gil de Ferran at Portland, Helio Castroneves at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, and Paul Tracy at Road America. Honda has also won six of the past eight FedEx Championship Series road-course events, including victories by de Ferran at Portland and Dario Franchitti at Road America in 1999.

NOTEWORTHY

CART is implementing a number of significant rule changes as it prepares for the upcoming FedEx Championship Series season. Among them is the mandatory implementation of the HANS (Head and Neck Support) Device for use by all drivers at all oval-track events. It is also recommended, but not mandated for use by all drivers on road/street events. Also, effective in Round 4 - the May 6 Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota - all FedEx Championship Series teams will be required to utilize a single-point refueling/venting system to fuel their cars. CART has also mandated a maximum allowable intake manifold (turbocharger) pressure of 37 inches for season, a reduction of three inches from the previous pressure of 40. The change is expected to result in a decrease of 50-60 horsepower. The decrease represents the first step in a planned reduction to 34 inches of boost for the 2002 season.

The Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix will mark the inaugural event at which CART implements its new road-course qualifying format. Unlike in previous years, provisional pole qualifying will not be held Friday; a practice session will take its place. A single qualifying session will be scheduled for Saturday at all FedEx Championship Series road/street course events. For this Saturday's qualifying, drivers will be divided into two groups according to points earned during the 2000 FedEx Championship Series season. The group with the fewest points will qualify first, beginning at 1:45 p.m. local time. The group with the most points, as well as the two fastest qualifiers from the most recent road/street course event, will qualify beginning at 2:30 p.m. local time. When an odd number of competitors are entered, the smaller group will consist of the drivers with the fewest championship points. At future FedEx Championship Series road or street course events during the season, the groups will be divided according to championship points earned at the time of the event.

Fan Appreciation Activities inaugurated during the 2000 FedEx Championship Series season will continue this year, highlighted once again by the All-Driver Autograph Sessions, which will be hosted at every 2001 event. The season's first All-Driver Autograph Session is scheduled for Friday afternoon at 4:15 p.m. local time in the team transporter area.

With the season just around the corner, a number of teams concluded their off-season testing programs last week. Patrick Racing drivers Roberto Moreno and Jimmy Vasser spent three days at Homestead Miami Speedway, with Moreno spending Monday on the oval and Vasser completing Tuesday and Wednesday on the road course. Moreno completed nearly 250 miles with a best lap of 26.72 seconds. "We made significant progress from where the car was the last time we ran on the Homestead oval," Moreno said. "I am particularly pleased because the [car] was very consistent. We ran almost the same time on old tires as new ones. I think the progress we made today was important because we made the car consistently quick, which is the key to having a good race." Vasser likewise completed 250 miles over his two days of testing, saying afterward, "We ran very competitively and I think we are well-prepared for the start of the season. The Homestead road course is very similar to the Monterrey track, so a lot of the things we worked on [during] the last two days will help us at the season opener. We definitely have a good base and direction to start with down there." Alex Tagliani (Player's/Indeck Ford Reynard) of Player's Forsythe Racing completed his off-season testing with 165 laps on the Homestead oval. "We managed to take 1.5 seconds off our previous fastest lap, and we did it without the updated version of the Ford engine," a pleased Tagliani said afterward. A number of other teams, meanwhile, tested in Arizona last Monday and Tuesday, using both the Phoenix International Raceway oval and the Firebird International Raceway road course. Among the participants were Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) of Team KOOL Green; Michael Andretti of Team Motorola; rookies Bruno Junqueira (Target Toyota Lola) and Nicolas Minassian (Target Toyota Lola) of Target Chip Ganassi Racing; Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Ford Reynard) of Player's Forsythe Racing; Mauricio Gugelmin (Nextel Pacwest Toyota) and rookie Scott Dixon (Powerware Panasonic PacWest Toyota) of the PacWest Racing Group; rookie Tora Takagi (Pioneer/DENSO Special Toyota Reynard) of Walker Racing and rookie Max Wilson (winner B2B.com/ Arciero/Brooke Racing Phoenix Lola) of Arciero Brooke Racing. Andretti completed 138 miles in the Motorola Honda Reynard at PIR on Tuesday, as the team focused on set-ups for qualifying. "I feel like we ended our testing on a good note," Andretti said after he and several other drivers were rained out of an additional test day on Wednesday. "The car was fast and comfortable and I am very happy with the way the car feels on the oval. I think we will be competitive when we get to Texas {for the inaugural Texas 600 at Texas Motor Speedway] in April." Junqueira and Minassian completed 160 miles each at Firebird, bringing their combined off-season testing total to more than 4,200 miles.

"I'm having dreams about seeing the green flag waving and taking my first lap, so I think that's a sign I'm ready," Minassian said. "With the race coming up in Mexico, it was very important to find a good race set-up for that track, and I think we have accomplished that. We've worked hard in the off-season. Now, the fun part begins." While PacWest's Dixon and Arciero/Brooke's Wilson practiced pit stops at Firebird, Gugelmin and rookie Takagi saw limited action while dodging raindrops at PIR, completing 80 and 94 laps, respectively. "Although we didn't run as many laps as we would have liked because of the rain, we've certainly made strides since our last testing session here," Gugelmin said. "We're learning more and more about the car as we run, and the Toyota engine has been fantastic all winter. I put up a competitive lap time today [20.99 seconds] which is always good, but we'll continue to do some fine-tuning until the cars are loaded on the transporters for the trip to Mexico."

Dale Coyne Racing announced late last week that it had formed an alliance with Team PRG to enter two Ford-Cosworth-powered Lolas as season entries. The cars will run as entries of Dale Coyne Racing, based in Plainfield, Ill., and will be driven by Brazilian Luiz Garcia Jr. (Embratel 21 Special Ford Lola), who enters his third year in the FedEx Championship Series, and German rookie Michael Krumm (The Dark Dog Ford Lola). "If you look at what PRG has to bring to the table, and combine it with what our team has in place, it makes sense," Coyne said of the partnership. "Team PRG has worked diligently over the off-season to procure new sponsors while Dale Coyne Racing has the infrastructure and personnel to run a competitive two-car effort, as demonstrated by our strong end-of-season showing in 2000. Given the extreme competitiveness of Champ Car racing these days, we will be stronger together than apart."

Current Newman/Haas Racing driver Christian Fittipaldi and former team driver Michael Andretti will appear as guest stars in an episode of the original Disney Channel series, The Jersey, which airs Thursday. The Jersey follows the athletic adventures of 15-year-old Nick Lighter, who inherits a magical football jersey from his deceased grandfather that serves as a portal into the world of professional sports. Andretti and Fittipaldi join a list of past guests including Steve Young, Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning, Marshall Faulk, David Robinson, Sergei Federov and Nomar Garciaparra. The segment was filmed last October 25 at Irwindale (Calif.) Speedway. "We filmed the episode a few days before our last race of the season [October 29] and I won, so I hope the show brings me the same luck at the first race of the season in Mexico, since it airs right before the race," Fittipaldi said. "I saw a tape of the show and I think it turned out well. It's important for our series to reach kids and turn them into race fans early. This is the Number One show on the Disney Channel, so it is the best way to reach them."

ON THE AIR

Qualifying for the Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix Presented by Herdez will air 3 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. CART 2Day airs 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, with ABC-TV's live race broadcast beginning 4 p.m. ET. Twenty of 21 FedEx Championship Series events will be televised live on ABC-TV or ESPN, and 18 will be televised live on Eurosport, a European network which reaches 250 million viewers in 54 countries. Sunday's race will also air on the CART Radio Network and on CART's official website, at www.cart.com

-CART-

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Series IndyCar
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Dale Coyne Racing , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Team Zakspeed