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Autos

CART brings flavor of season opener to area

An appearance is on tap Monday for the Feb. 23 race. Here's a primer.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003


Three weeks from today, one of the world's elite racing series will do its best to turn St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront into a mini-Monte Carlo.

No, not a shrunken Chevrolet.

The seaside city in Monaco, where thousands flock every year to take in the sights, sounds and spell-binding speed of world-class Formula One open-wheel racing.

Same scenario, smaller scale.

Championship Auto Racing Teams opens its season Feb. 23 with the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. For those unfamiliar with the international open-wheel series, CART visits today and Monday to acquaint people in Tampa Bay with its drivers, cars and unique brand of racing.

The fun stuff is Monday at the Bayfront Center: a parade of team transporters from 7:15-8 a.m.; a practice lap around the 14-turn, 1.78-mile temporary street circuit at 11:15 a.m.; and a pit-stop demonstration at noon. The activities are open to the public.

Teams are stopping on their way to Spring Training at Sebring International Raceway, a test session Tuesday-Thursday in which teams work out kinks in preparation for the 20-race season.

Here are five things to know about Champ Car racing:

Variety is the spice of life

Though based in the United States, CART enjoys its greatest popularity at international venues such as Australia, Canada and Mexico. Fittingly the paddock, known in NASCAR as the garage, is a blend of nationalities, cultures and languages.

The schedule tests drivers on a variety of tracks, from winding road courses and street circuits to high-banked ovals and superspeedways, where cars reach speeds in excess of 225 mph.

No Chevys allowed

Champ Cars are open-wheeled, meaning the wheels are not protected by fenders. The body is made of carbon fiber, which is lighter than aluminum, stronger than steel. For a street circuit such as St. Petersburg, the minimum weight for each car, including driver, is 1,550 pounds -- less than half what a Winston Cup car weighs.

Champ Car engines are 2.65-liter, turbo-charged V8s that produce about 800 horsepower, enough to go from 0-100 mph in less time than it took to read this sentence: 4.2 seconds.

The fuel is methanol, a form of alcohol that yields more power and requires less oxygen to burn than gasoline. A tank holds 35 gallons and Champ Cars get about 2 miles per gallon.

Lola and Reynard, both based in England, are the chassis manufacturers. Ford-Cosworth is the engine manufacturer. Bridgestone makes the tires.

What's that whine?

Unlike NASCAR's stock cars or the IRL's IndyCars, which produce a deep, throaty rumble, Champ Cars make a high-pitched whine similar to a swarm of bees.

The reason is turbo.

Champ Car engines are turbocharged, which, at the risk of getting technical, means they get a power boost from a system of fans that increases the amount of fuel and air packed into the cylinders. The fans spin at nearly 100,000 rpm.

But like NASCAR, CART looks to keep teams on a level playing field in this regard. If too much pressure is created by the turbo system, the pop-off valve goes off, resulting in a sudden drop in horsepower. The valve is so named because it makes a loud pop.

Gotta have a 'DAG'

Champ Car racing, much like Formula One, is highly technical. The small cockpit looks more like that of an airplane than an automobile. An LCD on the steering wheel is the equivalent to gauges and telemetry data taken from sensors on the car is displayed on LEDs on the dash. That means every team, in addition to a driver, car chief and crew, must have a "DAG" -- Data Acquisition Geek.

Working the wind

As in any form of racing, aerodynamics play a critical role. A Champ Car's wings -- one mounted on the front, one on the back -- work in conjunction with the car's ground effects, or grooves on the bottom of the chassis, to create downforce. This is vital to keep a car glued to the road. A Champ Car's wings are basically upside-down versions of airplane wings.

Just one more thing.

Green means "Go!"

-- Information from CART.com was used in this report.

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