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St. Petersburg has a race, but who will drive?

CART's top priority is to keep teams from jumping to the rival IRL next season.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- Six months from today, open-wheel cars will zoom past the downtown waterfront for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Good seats are available.

In the cockpits.

While it appears certain CART will open its 2003 season here on Feb. 23 -- yes, tickets are on sale -- perhaps the biggest question concerning the inaugural event is who will drive the cars. Few teams have committed to the series for next season.

"That's priority No. 1 for CART right now -- we need to shore up our entries for 2003," CART spokesman Adam Saal said during a recent visit.

CART wants 18-22 cars in its events next season. Eighteen competed in Sunday's race at Road America, the minimum required to fulfill contracts with promoters.

Determined to overcame a variety of setbacks in recent years, CART is doing its best to keep drivers, teams and sponsors from switching to the rival Indy Racing League. First-year president Chris Pook announced Sunday a sponsorship-based incentive program that will pay each car $850,000 next season, up to 20 cars. That's in addition to a new engine-lease program that will save teams money.

Those programs "underscore CART's significant commitment to the future" and "make competing in CART one of the biggest values in motorsports," Pook said.

Yet, among the series' most recognizable drivers, only feisty Canadian Paul Tracy has publicly committed for 2003. Many await decisions by owners or opportunities in other series.

The most eagerly awaited decision is that of Michael Andretti, who recently purchased majority interest in Team Green, which next season will be Andretti Green Racing. Andretti, 39, is CART's all-time leader with 42 victories and the son of legend Mario Andretti.

But he seems torn.

Next season, manufacturers Honda and Toyota are leaving CART for the IRL. Andretti drives Honda equipment, and the manufacturer would very much like to retain the popular American. But Andretti's father is a staunch CART supporter, having recently invested in the Newman-Haas team in the form of a third car Mario will oversee.

"CART, at the moment, is in a very important time," Michael Andretti said last month when the sale was announced. "The jury is out on whether it will be positive or negative. Pook is working on a lot of positive things, but for now we have to wait and see how it will play out. In my heart I love CART, I love the series, I love the format, but the question is, is it too late?"

The team's drivers are Tracy, who has a handshake agreement to race in CART next season for owner Gerry Forsythe's Player's team, and Scotsman Dario Franchitti, who awaits Andretti's decision. Franchitti, married to actor Ashley Judd, has close ties to Honda, but prefers CART's road and street circuits to the IRL's ovals.

Brazilian Christian Fittipaldi, nephew of former F1 champion Emerson Fittipaldi, heads to NASCAR next season. He joined Petty Enterprises.

Newman-Haas, co-owned by actor Paul Newman, is likely to return to CART, but its top driver, Brazilian Cristiano da Matta, is considering Formula One. Da Matta leads the standings by a comfortable margin. Oddly, two-time winner Patrick Carpentier will not return to Forsythe's team next season. He wants to stay in CART but will consider other series in choosing the most competitive team.

Forsythe, CART's largest stockholder and a promoter of CART races in England and Mexico, has re-signed Canadian Alex Tagliani. In addition to his agreement with Tracy, Forsythe is pursuing former CART champion Jacques Villeneuve. The popular Canadian is disenchanted with his four-year foray into Formula One.

Chip Ganassi, one of CART's most successful owners with four championships in the late 1990s, currently has teams in CART, the IRL and NASCAR, but his open-wheel plans for next season are uncertain. Losing Ganassi, a respected racer and businessman, to the IRL completely one year after Roger Penske's defection would be a blow to CART.

Likely to return in 2003 is owner Bobby Rahal, the former CART champion who fields cars for Michel Jourdain Jr., who won the season opener in his native Mexico, and 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser, an American. Late-night television star David Letterman owns a share of Team Rahal.

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