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New faces will fill field of new race

By MIKE STEPHENSON, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Champ Car racing is new to St. Petersburg, and many of the racers coming to St. Petersburg are new to Champ Cars.

Nine rookies are in the 19-driver field for Friday's qualifying, leaving longtime fans not far ahead of newcomers when it comes to knowing the personalities.

France's Sebastien Bourdais, driving for Newman/Haas, might be the first name to learn. He was the European Formula 3000 champion last year and ran fast times in preseason testing at Laguna Seca and Sebring.

He and the other rookies hope to quickly prove their worth.

"To start the season and a new experience on a street course is always difficult because the type of track is asking for more concentration to not make any mistakes and stay off of the walls," Bourdais said. "It will also be more difficult because it will be my first race in a single seat race car that will last for two hours. It will be a busy weekend, but the car is good and the team is good so that will make the weekend run smoother."

Veteran Paul Tracy, whose 19 wins are more than any active CART driver, said he wasn't worried about sharing the track with so many newcomers.

"I think we all know to give everyone a wide berth out there until we get to know each other and the way everybody drives," Tracy said. "But these guys were all stars in the series they came from, so they should be pretty good."

PRESTO CHANGE-O: CART made several changes to the cars in the offseason, including eliminating traction control and reducing horsepower with the new Ford Cosworth engines.

Still, in preseason testing, the cars were going slightly faster.

"It proves that the human side of this sport is so vital," chief steward Chris Kneifel said.

EXPANSIVE VIEW: CART's troubles in the United States, including many sponsor defections, have gotten much attention, but its president, Chris Pook, likes to take a more North American view.

The series has five Mexican drivers, including veterans Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain Jr., and races in Mexico City and Monterrey draw well. Canadians Patrick Carpentier, who finished third in the standings last year, Alex Tagliani and Tracy have great appeal north of the border where races in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver are popular.

Pook noted that several major Mexican businessmen had been promoting the development of young Mexican drivers through sponsorship of the local series.

"If you keep pumping out this young talent you're going to win a championship," Pook said.

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