LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (Oct. 2, 2001) --- Based in the Greater Chicago area and having races in nearby locations like Milwaukee and Chicago, Newman/Haas Racing has a couple of home races. However, if there were a home race away from home for the...
LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. (Oct. 2, 2001) --- Based in the Greater Chicago area and having races in nearby locations like Milwaukee and Chicago, Newman/Haas Racing has a couple of home races. However, if there were a home race away from home for the team, then it would have to be this weekend's Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston. Created in 1983, Newman/Haas Racing picked up Havoline as a sponsor in 1989 and has had Texaco, Havoline, or both as a sponsor ever since. This factor, combined with team co-owner Carl Haas' role as a co-promoter with Texaco/Havoline for the race, has the team feeling right at home for the Round 18 in the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) FedEx Series.
"The Newman/Haas cars have run well in Houston the last couple of years and I look forward to going anywhere their cars run well," said da Matta who scored his third top-three finish of the season and fifth overall at the previous race in England. "It is an important race for me because I am the Texaco/Havoline/Kmart driver and you always want to do well for your sponsors everywhere you go but racing in your sponsors hometown at a race in their name pushes you even harder. I don't think it is extra pressure so much as it is extra motivation."
Raced on the streets of downtown Houston on a 1.527-mile course, both Newman/Haas Racing drivers Christian Fittipaldi and Cristiano da Matta, hope to capitalize on what appears to be the type of track the team has run strong on this season and bring longtime supporters Texaco and Havoline their first victory in their own event in their hometown.
After taking over the ride long held by CART's winningest active driver Michael Andretti, many felt da Matta would feel added pressure to perform. But the Brazilian took the first opportunity to silence those people by scoring an impressive victory in his debut with the team at the season-opening event in Monterrey, Mexico and following that up with a second place finish on the streets on Long Beach, Calif. Da Matta led the Championship standings through the first four events, but a variety of circumstances have now placed da Matta fifth overall but only 57 points out of first place with a mathematical chance at the top honor with four races to go although he is quick to acknowledge there are many variables that must work in his favor.
"The Championship is not in my mind right now although we are still mathematically in it but it would take a lot of luck and other guys not finishing races," said da Matta, who trains for racing via cycling, swimming and running and recently won a triathlon. "Winning the Championship depends on so many factors other than just my performance, which puts everything up in the air. We will take each event separately, race by race. Finishing in the top-five is my goal right now. Being that it was my first year with this team and we have scored three podium finishes including a win is good although we are no where near satisfied with those results."
Newman/Haas Racing has been strong on road and street courses this season and have continued to develop the Lola chassis via computer simulation because of an in-season-testing ban. Now with Newman/Haas Racing, the second most successful team in CART, da Matta hopes to put his Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota-Lola in victory lane after an 11th place finish in 1999 and 14th place finish after running as high as sixth in 2000 before contact with the unforgiving concrete wall dropped his result.
"We started off the season strong with a first and second place finish and then had some things out-of-our control happen and were not as competitive at a few places mid-season," said da Matta. "We have made a huge improvement with our road and street course set-ups so I think we will run well not only in Houston but also in Laguna and Australia."
Christian Fittipaldi, driver of the No. 11 Kmart Toyota-Lola has run in the top-five in the three previous events here but hopes to improve on his finishing positions. After starting seventh in 2000, he finished sixth. In 1999, he ran in second place late in the race but was forced to pit for fuel and dropped to a seventh place finish. The inaugural year was possibly his best chance at victory after being the fastest driver in the pre-race warm-up and starting the race in wet conditions, which suit the driver known by his peers as the "Rainmeister" due to his ability to control a 100+ mph car on a wet track. Unfortunately, his race ended on the third lap after the polesitter lost control of his car, spun and collected Fittipaldi. He looks forward to returning to the tight street course for a strong finish.
"We have been more competitive on street courses this season so I am looking forward to racing in Houston not only for that reason but also because it is a Texaco/Havoline event and (team owner) Carl (Haas) is involved," said Fittipaldi whose top finish this season of third place came on the road course in Portland.
While a victory by Fittipaldi or da Matta in Houston would be the first for Texaco/Havoline in their hometown, it would not be the first overall. Fittipaldi won his maiden CART race in 1999 at the Texaco/Havoline 200 on the road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisc. After climbing the racing ladder in his homeland of Brazil and in Europe, Fittipaldi came to the CART series from Formula One and thus has more experience road and street courses like the one in Houston.
Currently, Fittipaldi is 91 points out of the CART FedEx Championship lead, with 56 and is in 13th place to leader Kenny Brack who has 147 with four events to go that offer 22 possible points maximum per weekend. While others are still concerned with making conservative runs in order to not only guarantee a finish but score a good amount of points toward a Championship run, Fittipaldi realizes the title is now out of his hands so he is able to focus on winning a few races before the season is over as well as getting a head start on 2002.
"Our chances of winning the championship are slim to none right now but we are working toward being more competitive the rest of this season and possibly getting a win as well as focusing on next season," said Fittipaldi who won the 2000 season-ending Marlboro 500. "I think we will be strong in all four of the remaining events this season. I have run in the top five or six in all of the events in Houston but it would be nice to finish on the podium and keep improving our car. We need a good finish but first we need to finish in general because we have not done that as much this year."
The Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston, round 18 of 21, will air live on ESPN at 2 p.m. ET on Sunday, October 7. Twenty of 21 FedEx Championship Series events are being televised live on ABC-TV or ESPN and 18 are being televised live on Eurosport, a European network that reaches 250 million viewers in 54 countries. Sunday's race will also air on the CART Radio Network - which will provide audio to nearly one million American servicemen and women worldwide through the American Forces Radio Network - and on CART's official website, which will also carry Friday's qualifying, at www.cart.com .
Following the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston, the series heads west for the Honda Grand Prix of Monterey, Featuring the Shell 300 at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. on October 14, before making a transoceanic trip to Surfer's Paradise, Australia for the Honda Indy 300 on October 28. The 2001 season-finale Marlboro 500 will take place on November 4 in Fontana, Calif. Kmart driver Christian Fittipaldi is the defending winner.