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Just when it appeared CART had lost most of its connections to racing royalty, a majestic figure joined the ranks.
Emerson Fittipaldi announced last week the formation of Fittipaldi-Dingman Racing, which he co-owns with James Dingman. The team will debut this weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with driver Tiago Montiero.
Fittipaldi's addition is a big boost to a series that has lost many marquee names in recent seasons. Al Unser Jr., Roger Penske and Michael Andretti all are former CART loyalists who now are competing in the rival IRL. Even Fittipaldi's nephew, Christian, left CART for the greener -- as in dollars -- pastures of NASCAR.
But Fittipaldi, a two-time Formula One champion who won the CART title in 1989, believes CART is poised for a turnaround.
"I am very proud to return to Champ Car racing at a time when the sport is in the midst of its most significant turnaround in history," Fittipaldi said in announcing his new team.
Organizers of the local race are happy to have Fittipaldi on board.
"Any time you have a dual champion, Formula One and CART, as part of your event, that's huge," said Tom Begley, general manager of the Grand Prix. "He's a known and respected man worldwide. That brings instant credibility and respect. In addition he's a very nice man."
Fittipaldi, 56, has owned a race team before, and it didn't go well. The Brazilian ran a team with his brother, Wilson, in Formula One in the 1970s and '80s and lost plenty of money.
"It was a difficult experience, but I learned a lot," he told ESPN.com at a media session last week in Indianapolis. "But in the back of my mind, I've always wanted to be a team owner again and now is the perfect time."
CART aggressively has recruited team owners and provides an engine program and a financial incentive package that greatly have reduced the costs of fielding a team. The Fittipaldi-Dingman operation will share headquarters with Mi-Jack Conquest Racing this season with hopes of expanding.
"CART is very cheap compared to what it used to be, and I think it's been a very difficult period for CART. It reached the bottom last year but now we're coming back," Fittipaldi told ESPN.com. "Sometimes the bad times is the good time to get started, and I'm excited about the future of this series."
Montiero, 26, is from Portugal and was a teammate in the F3000 series last year with Champ Car rookie Sebastien Bourdais, driving this season for Newman/Haas Racing. Montiero didn't even test a Champ Car until this week.
"The first race is going to be like a live test for us," he told ESPN.com, "and Emerson is going to calm me down and make sure I get as many laps as possible and not do something stupid."
And Fittipaldi sees many laps in CART's future. While many see the series' demise as imminent, he believes it has a bright future both in North America and around the world.
"I feel a lot of enthusiasm in the CART paddock," he told ESPN.com, "and I think people will be surprised at how good the competition is."
© Copyright St. Petersburg Times.