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Saturday, November 16
Updated: November 17, 12:24 PM ET
CART needs new stars to emerge
By Robin Miller
MEXICO CITY -- As the drivers sat patiently for a group shot on Saturday morning, one of the photographers shouted at Tony Kanaan to smile.
"They kept telling us to smile but I couldn't because there is nothing to smile about," said Kanaan, who is reluctantly moving to the Indy Racing League in 2003. "This is a a very sad weekend for many of us and I don't feel like smiling."
Dario Franchitti echoed the sentiments of Kanaan, who will be his new teammate in the IRL next year with Andretti-Green Racing.
"I feel like we´re at a funeral this weekend," he said.
Christian Fittipaldi, bound for NASCAR next year, said he had mixed emotions.
"I don't know if I want this weekend to go slow or whether I just want it to be over but it´s definitely a bad feeling either way," he sighed.
Sunday's Gran Premio here at Autodromo Hermanos Rodrigeuz isn't just CART's season finale, it's also an emotional farewell for Michael Andretti, Kenny Brack, Cristiano da Matta, Scott Dixon, Kanaan, Fittipaldi and Franchitti.
They are leaving CART for the Formula One, NASCAR and the IRL and the picture of all the drivers together resembled The Last Supper.
With the departure of this veteran group along with some of their teams as well as manufacturers Honda and Toyota, it signals the end of an era in open-wheel racing that may not be reached again for a long time.
"All of this talent and depth is leaving and there must be a reason but I don't know why or I would try to help the situation because I've loved my seven years in CART," said Fittipaldi, who came to CART from F1 in 1995 and now joins Kyle Petty's stock car operation at the age of 31.
"It's a great series and I hope it continues."
CART isn't going away and will have at least 18 cars on the track in 2003, but it won't sport the level of competition it has cultivated since the mid-90s.
"It's sad because it took so much time for CART to get to this level and it's been the best racing series in the world for several years," said da Matta, the 2002 CART champion whose prowess in champ cars the past two seasons helped earn him an F1 ride with Toyota.
"It's the best package for a race driver to show what he's got, it's the best in terms of cost and benefits and just about everybody has a chance to win because we don't have any wankers.
"And it's all going away because of one race."
Naturally, da Matta was referring to the Indianapolis 500, showcase of the IRL and the best-attended, most-watched open wheel race in the world. Toyota is Indy bound because it's never been, Honda is going back because Toyota will be there and both of them gassed CART because they were fed up with the lack of leadership and direction.
"If we would have hired (Chris) Pook two years ago I don't think we would have lost either Toyota or Honda," said Derrick Walker, one of CART´s longtime owners. "They helped make our series great and now they´ve got a different business plan."
Pook, who inherited a mass of confusion, a mess of greedy car owners and several angry promoters, has circled the wagons as best he can. Next year's CART series will have identical Ford engines and he'll spend $30 million trying to patch all the holes in the lineup. He's got a plan for 2005 that likely includes Bernie Ecclestone and European manufacturers.
"We've got a lot more going for us than a lot of people think or want us to have," Pook said. "We've taken some hits, true, but drivers and teams come and go and we'll get through this tough period. But stick around because we've got some big things in the future."
Of course, the irony of this open wheel civil war is that several staunch IRL supporters will likely bite the dust next year and be replaced by two- and three-car efforts from CART regulars Chip Ganassi, Morris Nunn, Bobby Rahal and Barry Green (who sold his team to Andretti and two other partners).
These owners made business decisions which were driven by Honda's and Toyota's money and engines, plus a few major sponsors. And drivers like Dixon, Brack, Kanaan and Franchitti had to follow their contracts or instincts but not necessarily their hearts.
"I'm going to the IRL because that is where the best competition is going to be and that's the only reason," said Franchitti, whose loyalty to Honda earns him a rumored $5.5 million salary and eventually an F1 opportunity. "I'll miss road racing and the versatility of the CART series, but there are so many question marks hanging over CART right now."
Adds Kanaan: "We make our living doing what we love to do but sometimes you can't do what you love exactly where you want to. Do we want to leave CART? Hell no, but this is a business and I'm just a hired gun."
Andretti has been vilified for taking Green's team to the IRL, so his last memories of CART aren't exactly pleasant.
"I've been the bad guy in this deal, but this is all about business and anybody who knows me understands that," said CART's all-time winner. "I've had a lot of great memories in CART and I will miss the racing but I won't miss the politics.
"I think CART lost its way and I'm not sure it can ever recover."
With da Matta joining Juan Montoya, Alex Zanardi and Jacques Villeneuve in the ascension to F1, CART loses another champion who was just starting to get some recognition. Andretti has been CART's bell-ringer and most identifiable driver for nearly 20 years, while Fittipaldi was a fast link to a famous family. Franchitti, Kanaan and Dixon represented CART's future. Brack, still a fierce racer at age 37, got promoted from IRL to CART and now he's going back to the all-oval series that won't resemble the one he left after 1999.
And, while nobody in CART or the IRL has the star power of NASCAR's big hitters with the American public, those seven drivers will nonetheless leave a huge marketing hole for an organization that has shown little, if any, understanding of how to market its series.
Pook is correct in saying there are a lot of good, young, hungry drivers walking around who can become CART's new stars. But they've got to stick around longer than three or four years and they can't all be foreigners. They've got to include some deserving Americans like Buddy Rice, Alex Barron, Memo Gidley, Rocky Moran Jr., Alex Gurney, Joey Hand and Jon Fogarty.
For da Matta, racing will never be the same because he's going to F1 and no longer will run on and off the track every day with his Brazilian Brat Pack of Kanaan, Junqueira and Fittipaldi.
But he's more concerned with the state of his home the past four years.
"I know there are a lot of us leaving, but there are lots of talented drivers out there who can take our place," he said. "I really hope there is a future for CART. If not, what is the future of motor racing in the United States?"
For open wheel, that question will be answered in the next two years.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories
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