CHAMPCAR/CART: Motegi Preview Notes

FIRESTONE FIREHAWK 500 NOTEBOOK Though he is getting a belated start on the 1999 FedEx Championship Series season, Team KOOL Green driver Paul Tracy feels there is still plenty of time to become a contender for the championship.

FIRESTONE FIREHAWK 500 NOTEBOOK

Though he is getting a belated start on the 1999 FedEx Championship Series season, Team KOOL Green driver Paul Tracy feels there is still plenty of time to become a contender for the championship. Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) was excluded from the season-opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota on March 21 by CART Chief Steward Wally Dallenbach as a result of his role in an on-track incident with Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Swift) at Australia last year. He became the first driver ever excluded from a FedEx Championship Series event for disciplinary reasons.

So Tracy's season begins in Saturday's Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan. He finished a season-high fifth in last year's inaugural event on the 1.549-mile oval, one of three fifth-place finishes he recorded during the season.

"It was frustrating to sit out the [season-opening] race, but things could be a lot worse," Tracy said. "We just look at it as a DNF [Did Not Finish]; we didn't have a good day. I am sure everyone is going to have one of those days somewhere along the course of 20 races. I think if you are narrow-minded [and] you look at it in the short term and what a negative it is, then it is going to end up being a negative. I think over 12 to 15 races, things will equal out and hopefully we can be consistent throughout and be in position for the championship." Tracy looks forward to his return to Motegi, one of four FedEx Championship Series events at which he led a lap last year.

"We had a pretty good race setup there, so we really are just going back with some stuff that we learned over the winter," Tracy said. "Once you find a setup that you are comfortable with, you pretty much don't really stray too far from it, you just tune to weather conditions and track conditions. So I am looking forward to Japan. Our race car was good and hopefully we can roll off the truck pretty well there. I feel good about it."

Tracy met with Dallenbach during the season opener to set the tone for the 1999 FedEx Championship Series season.

"He [Dallenbach] told me I am starting from a clean slate, nothing is going to carry over from last year," Tracy said. "So from my standpoint, we have just got to go out there and do the best job we can just try to keep our nose clean and just do the best job we can for the team."

Marlboro Team Penske announced that rookie Tarso Marques will fill in as the team's driver at this week's Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi, replacing veteran Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Mercedes Penske) who is recovering from a fractured ankle sustained at the season-opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota. A native Brazilian, the 23-year-old Marques is a veteran of Formula One, European Formula 3000 and South American Formula 3 competition. His 1995 victory at Estoril made him the youngest driver ever to win a Formula 3000 event, and his starts for the Minardi team at Brazil and Argentina at age 20 in 1996 made him one of the youngest drivers ever to start a Formula One event. He also made six starts for Minardi during the 1997 Formula One season, finishing four times. Unser Jr. is expected to be sidelined for four to six weeks while he recuperates from his injury.

Naoki Hattori (Alpine Honda Reynard), who sustained a double compound fracture of the left leg in an opening-lap accident with Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Mercedes Penske) at the season-opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami Presented by Toyota, has begun rehabilitation in Indianapolis. While there, he will be under the care of Dr. Terry Trammell, Orthopedic Surgeon and Chief Orthopedic Consultant for the FedEx Championship Series. "Naoki is doing very well at this time," Dr. Trammell said. "The swelling in his leg is resolving and he is regaining the movement in his toes and ankle. He will begin his recovery at [his Indianapolis] home. It is our intention to start a formal program of rehabilitation and therapies on Monday, April 5. He is not yet able to bear weight on his left leg, but will begin some light weight-bearing when he starts therapy. He may not be able to return to the Champ Car circuit for up to six months."

While most of his cohorts in the FedEx Championship Series have already competed in - or at least visited - Japan, the Firestone Firehawk 500 will represent the first-ever Japan trip for rookie Cristiano da Matta (MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard). "I am very excited to go to Japan because I have never been there before," says da Matta, winner of the 1998 PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship. "I haven't even visited as a tourist. I am mostly curious to see a whole new culture, because it is so different from America and Brazil [da Matta's homeland]. That interests me the most about this trip, besides the racing, of course. Japan is a very important event for us because it is the home of our engine manufacturer, Toyota. And I am looking forward to meeting the fans in Japan. They are already big fans of Formula One, so they know a lot about our kind of racing." Da Matta started his rookie FedEx Championship Series season impressively when he qualified sixth for the season opener at Homestead. It marked the best qualifying performance for a Toyota-powered driver in the engine manufacturer's four years of FedEx Championship Series competition.

The McDonald's Championship Racing Team Honda Reynard driven by Tony Kanaan will sport a new look at Saturday's Firestone Firehawk 500. The car will feature the word "McDonald's" in Japanese on the side pods as well as the front and rear wings. Japan represents McDonald's second-largest market outside the United States, including more than 2,000 restaurants across the country.

The Firestone Firehawk 500 will be broadcast live in the United States on ESPN, beginning Friday night at midnight ET (early Saturday morning).

Source: CART Online

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Tarso Marques , Paul Tracy , Naoki Hattori , Cristiano da Matta
Teams Team Penske