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Spirit is lone U.S. hope

The lone American driving representation in the series comes courtesy of Swede Stefan Johansson's new team.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 14, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- The way Stefan Johansson tells it, former CART champion Jimmy Vasser was his first choice in his search for a veteran driver to anchor his first-year team.

Vasser happens to be American.

What a coincidence.

Vasser and rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay, the only Americans CART drivers this season, are teammates at American Spirit Team Johansson. In addition to winning, they hope to promote Champ Car racing to a somewhat reluctant American audience.

"Hopefully, fans will latch onto the whole concept because Jimmy and I are carrying the flag and we'll need that support," said Hunter-Reay, 22, from Boca Raton. "Our whole color scheme, our whole motto is based on American spirit."

Vasser, 37, a native Californian, has name recognition. Entering his 12th CART season, the 1996 series champion has 10 wins, eight poles and will extend his series record for consecutive starts to 164 with the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

"With Jimmy, we know we have a driver capable of winning the championship," said Johansson, a former CART and Formula One driver who also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1997. "And his experience will be an asset to our team. I know that Ryan possesses considerable talent and I am looking forward to watching him develop."

Hunter-Reay is a poster boy for CART's ladder system. He was the Barber Dodge Pro Series rookie of the year in 2000 and won three races last year in the Toyota Atlantic series.

"To drive in the Champ Car World Series is truly a dream come true," Hunter-Reay said. "I've been working for this since the first day of karting and finally everything is happening. I just have to be a sponge this season, and I'm going to be going 110 percent from the first turn."

Though Hunter-Reay has enough on his plate learning to drive Champ Cars, he hopes to introduce the series to American fans whose sports interests seem to run counter to the rest of the world. Though based in Indianapolis, CART's most enthusiastic audiences are in Canada, Mexico and Australia.

"Formula One and soccer are the biggest things everywhere in the world and then you get to the United States and its baseball, basketball, football," Hunter-Reay said. "We cross the border to Canada and I feel like I'm in the Super Bowl, but some of the races here we're struggling to get people out. We're trying to get more American interest."

Vasser hates to think CART racing cannot be popular in the United States without an influx of American drivers, but understands the value of nationalism.

"It's kind of closed-minded to just cheer for Americans only, but nationalism is important," said Vasser, who contemplated moving to NASCAR, the most popular form of racing in the United States, until Johansson's offer. "It is important to have Americans in the series and Ryan and I are on the same team. I think it will be well-received."

Of course, the best way to create a fan base is to succeed on the track. Though American Spirit Team Johansson turned its first laps just two weeks ago at CART's spring training test session at Sebring International Raceway, Vasser said the team is not inexperienced.

"On paper, we may be a new team, but we have a number of key people with tons of Champ Car experience to guide us," Vasser said. "It's got the feel of a team that's been established. Winning races and perhaps the championship is always the goal no matter what team you're on, and with the personnel we have we can achieve those things."

Even if the owner is a foreigner.

"Having lived here close to 10 years now, I admire most things American," said Johansson, a native of Sweden who lives in Indianapolis. "It's a great country and I think it's a positive thing to embrace the whole American spirit. I think American Spirit is a pretty cool name."

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