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Jourdain ready to move to the front

Inspiration has come from an NFL star and now Team Rahal.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- The driver, born in Mexico and raised on auto racing, knew little about the NFL.

Then he watched the tapes, saw No. 34 running the football for the Chicago Bears and realized Walter Payton was more than someone simply dabbling in CART as co-owner of a race team.

"I saw the videos of him playing and he could do anything," Michel Jourdain Jr. said. "The things he did were amazing."

The youngest driver to start a CART race when he did so at 19 in 1996, Jourdain spent his first three full seasons driving for Payton-Coyne Racing.

The team enjoyed limited success, but Jourdain departed with an understanding of just what Payton meant to those whom he encountered as well as his enthusiasm for auto racing.

"Walter as a team owner was the best person and the best friend you could ask for in your life," said Jourdain, entering his second season with Team Rahal. "He was so nice, so smart. His mentality, the way he thought about everything, was unbelievable. I just learned so much from him."

Those first 54 races with the Payton-Coyne team from 1997 to 1999 served as a foundation for a now-blossoming career.

Days from starting his seventh full season, one that holds as much promise as any before, Jourdain is a fascinating combination of youth and experience as Team Rahal's lone entry in the inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

He ranks fourth among active drivers in career starts (120), yet at 26 years old remains one of the series' youngest competitors.

"He was so unbelievably young when he first started, and still is young," said team owner Bobby Rahal. "He's been around so long that everybody thinks he's in his mid 30s."

Having finished no higher than 20th in the standings in his first five seasons in CART -- he drove for Bettenhausen Motorsports in the 2000 and 2001 seasons -- Jourdain enjoyed a breakout performance in 2002.

Rahal expected as much when he hired Jourdain before the season.

"I had the chance to see him from both the track (as a driver) and the pit lane (as an owner) and just always felt he was better than it looked or better than it appeared," Rahal said.

"When the opportunity came about for us to join together, I had no qualms about it because I felt with our team he could show what he really had."

Jourdain set career highs with a 10th-place finish in the standings, five top fives, 14 top 10s, 24 laps led. He eclipsed Rahal's record of consecutive points -- scoring in 17 consecutive races -- and led the standings for the first time in his career, doing so after the fourth race.

"We started very good, but then things didn't go right for many reasons," Jourdain said. "Then at the end we started going pretty fast again."

Qualifying became an issue and hampered what might have been an even more special season. Thirteen times he qualified 12th or lower.

"While there were some races that were disappointing, I won't lay the fault completely at his feet," Rahal said. "There were some races where we were quite good and some races that we were not so good. For the most part he had his best year ever."

Jourdain, Rahal and the rest of the team are encouraged about this season. The elimination of traction control and various other rule changes made by CART during the offseason should even the field.

"The opportunity for me is here," Jourdain said. "It's going to be very competitive, the level of the drivers is so good, and it's going to be hard."

But what has the team truly excited were the results from a three-day test session this month at Sebring. Jourdain posted the third-fastest lap among all 18 cars that tested.

"I think, definitely as the time went on last year, Michel's maturity level grew," Rahal said. "He doesn't make mistakes in the races. He's opportunistic. His race pace is very good.

"I think now with a little more confidence and really kind of being the leader of the team, another side of him should come out. There's no reason why he can't win a race."

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