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His appreciation for fast and unusual cars was born in the late 1970s in his father's foreign auto repair shop in tiny Dublin, Ga. But Pedro Campuzano's career as a racing mechanic actually started in St. Petersburg several years later, just a few miles from the site of this weekend's Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Campuzano, 40, will return to his adopted hometown -- he moved down with his parents, sisters and brother in 1980 and is the only one who doesn't still live in the area -- for what could be one of his finest moments in racing. He is the newly appointed chief mechanic for Newman/Haas Racing's No. 2 car, led by rookie driver Sebastien Bourdais, who turned in the fastest lap of CART spring training two weeks ago in Sebring.
As chief mechanic, it's Campuzano's job to oversee the preparation of Bourdais' race and backup cars. He has worked for Newman/Haas -- best known among casual racing fans as the team co-owned by actor Paul Newman -- for nine years, most recently as crew chief over both of the team's cars in 2001 and 2002. In the pit on race days he acts as tire changer, but his experience and people skills have boosted him into a larger role.
After attending as a spectator at the earliest St. Petersburg Grand Prix races in the mid-1980s, Campuzano got his start in racing in 1987 with the now-defunct, St. Petersburg-based Apache Racing, a sports car team that competed in "grass-roots racing stuff," Sports Car Club of America and the International Motor Sports Association Camel GT series. He left St. Petersburg for Indianapolis in 1990 to work as mechanic and crew chief at Ralt America, the factory Ralt team in the Atlantic Championship series. After his team won the Atlantic championship in 1994, Campuzano moved up to the CART Champ Car series working for Newman/Haas.
Now married with two children, Campuzano has lived in the Chicago area since 1994. After spending eight seasons on a circuit that has taken him all over the world, he is eager to begin his ninth in the place where his career began.
"I'm excited," Campuzano said. "It's great to be down in a place I used to just hang out in. To actually run a race there is neat. . . . (My family gets) to come to a race every once in awhile, but it will be nice to have all of them there."
Campuzano good-naturedly notes that CART has been "a little stingy with tickets," and jokes that his supporters alone might boost attendance. It has taken a family effort to get enough seats for both the Campuzano clan and his longtime friends.
He hardly could pick a better time for a homecoming. Bourdais, a Frenchman who is a week shy of his 24th birthday, won the Formula 3000 championship in 2002 and blew away the Newman/Haas team in a series of preseason evaluations with his quick adjustment to CART Champ Car racing and even quicker driving. At Sebring International Raceway on Feb. 6, Bourdais' 118.781 mph lap was the fastest of spring training.
Campuzano said rookie driver or not, the No. 2 car should have a solid chance in St. Petersburg, a course that will mix some wide-open lanes (the runways of Albert Whitted Airport) with tight turns through the buildings downtown.
"It looks like it's going to be a pretty nice course," he said. "Lots of passing. I think it will be a pretty good race. It's always exciting to go to a new city and new course.
"I'd definitely like to come back every year. (CART races tend to) turn into a big party. . . . St. Pete has seen some racing before, but nothing this fast. These are about the fastest you'll see."
© Copyright St. Petersburg Times.