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In single file, and stay there

CART's track in downtown Miami doesn't have room for passing, and race teams are afraid it might be a boring way to "race.''

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

MIAMI -- The blue, cotton-patched sky, the sun glinting off the water, open-wheeled race cars shrieking through downtown with a postcard backdrop of sailboats bobbing in the bay ... but enough about next year's St. Petersburg Grand Prix.

Today's Grand Prix of the Americas is both a preview and a sequel.

It is the return of the downtown street race, the first since 1995, when Championship Auto Racing Teams moved the Miami Grand Prix 30 miles south to an oval track in Homestead.

And for 105 laps, weather permitting, 18 cars will roar down the straightaway at 170 mph and crawl through 16 turns, several at a school-zone 15 mph, today with sailboats on one side and condominium towers on the other.

It will be an advance look at the kind of professional racing the Gulf Coast hasn't seen since 1990, when Trans Am cars competed in a waterfront St. Petersburg Grand Prix. In 1996-97 they ran a street course around Tropicana Field.

One thing, though, likely will be different between the Miami and planned St. Petersburg races: passing, and the lack of it today.

With particularly tight turns, one car-wide sections "and not much of a straightaway," said Scott Dixon, who starts in the front row next to pole-sitter Tony Kanaan, "I think it's going to be pretty much where you qualify is where you're going to end up."

Kanaan agreed. "If the guy doesn't want to let you go by, either you're going to crash or you're not going to make it."

Mario Andretti, Jimmy Vassar and Adrian Fernandez were the more prominent drivers whose cars grazed concrete walls or went nose-first into tire barriers. "If you get off line a little bit, you're gone," Fernandez said.

Add to that parts of a four-corner loop beyond the front straight that had to be repaved with concrete after asphalt crumbled in practice and qualifying, and where sealant has created a slippery surface, and "I think everybody in qualifying thinks they'll hit a wall or two," Dixon said.

Without much passing the race could be one long game of follow the leader. "The political answer would be to say it's fine, but it not a good thing," said Mike Hull, general manager of the Target-Ganassi team, for which Dixon drives. "The thing is, what we need to do is be able to revive entertainment for people in motor racing because there are so many alternatives for somebody on a Sunday. ...

"People have to be able to see drivers passing in the braking areas. In St. Petersburg, for example, I think the layout they have gives CART the ability to have wide passing areas," Hull said.

Cristiano da Matta, a six-time winner this season, leads Bruno Junqueira by 52 points, 191-133, and will clinch the CART points championship if he finishes this race 68 or more points ahead of his fellow Brazilian.

But he is starting sixth. "I think there will be a lot of yellows because of crashes," da Matta said. "I'm surrounded by guys that I'm fighting with for the championship. In front of me are guys who aren't in it for the championship. We'll have to keep adjusting our strategy based on our progress as well as how Bruno and Dario (Franchetti, third with 126) are doing."

Street racing is CART's strong suit. Events in Mexico, Canada and Australia draw six-figure crowds; Long Beach, Calif., where CART president Chris Pook introduced street racing to the United States in 1975, has crowds of 90,000.

But competition among CART drivers pales when compared to CART's battle for supremacy in open-wheel racing in the United States. The team of Andretti, Franchetti and Indy 500 runner up Paul Tracy are leaving CART for the IRL. Target Ganassi and a few other teams likely will follow.

And although he hasn't confirmed it, champion-in-waiting da Matta is expected to forsake CART next year and move to Formula One.

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