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After losses, CART counts on its youth

The future arrives quickly for teams that hope for the next Zanardi, Montoya or da Matta.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- Veteran CART driver Adrian Fernandez is having a bit of trouble with all of the rookies in the series this season, but it has nothing to do with their driving.

It's their cars.

He can't keep them all straight.

"A lot of these rookies have a lot of experience, very good qualities," Fernandez said. "But right now, for me, it's hard to recognize the cars, to know who they are."

He'd better learn.

In fact, everyone should.

After a gloomy 2002 marked by the departures of key sponsors, owners and drivers, the CART series is reborn, banking on a crop of fresh-faced drivers hungry to be the next big thing. Nine rookies will compete in today's inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The future is calling.

"All these guys want to do is get in race cars and drive and win," said CART president and CEO Chris Pook, the man charged with rebuilding the international open-wheel series.

"They don't want to moan and complain. This new breed is getting younger by the day and more determined by the day and braver by the day. If you look at a couple of them walk, they've got a little swagger about them. ... Not many people know who these guys are today, but after a couple races people are going to be saying, 'Where'd he come from? Gosh, he's quick.' "

CART has a long tradition of making stars of largely unheralded drivers. Before they came to CART, few in America had heard of Juan Pablo Montoya, Alex Zanardi or Cristiano da Matta, all of whom used the CART championship as a steppingstone to Formula One (or back there, in Zanardi's case).

But the exodus of top drivers the past two years to F1, the rival Indy Racing League and NASCAR has been pronounced. Michael Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran, Christian Fittipaldi and da Matta are among the top stars who left CART, fearful it might not survive.

There is the perception today's newcomers are merely benefactors of empty cockpits, the best available landing CART rides before they are truly ready.

Think again.

"We can drive these things," said Darren Manning, 27, a rookie with Walker Racing who starts 11th today. "I've been test driving Formula One for the last few years, and they don't let you drive those unless they think something special of you. We won't be shouting from the roof tops, but quietly we'll be trying to prove a point."

Well on his way is Sebastien Bourdais. A Frenchman who turns 24 Friday, Bourdais was the 2002 F3000 champion with three wins and seven poles. He also was a F1 test driver for Renault. He won the coveted second seat at powerhouse Newman/Haas during offseason test sessions.

It's easy to see why.

Bourdais has wasted little time making a name for himself in Champ Cars. He was fastest in CART's Spring Training test at Sebring International Raceway and was the fastest in qualifying Friday and Saturday to earn the pole for today's race.

Bourdais insists teammate Bruno Junqueira, last year's championship runner-up, is the team's top driver and only title contender, but Bourdais' results say otherwise.

"We don't have the same target," Bourdais said. "I'm a rookie, and he's trying to win the championship. I still have some things to learn. But there is not that pressure on me. Each time I do well they say, 'Hey, great.' It's the ideal situation to learn and start the series."

Manning spent the past two years as a F1 test driver for BAR/Honda. He made his CART debut last year at Rockingham Motor Speedway in his native England and turned heads by leading 18 laps and finishing ninth. He hopes to make a similar splash this season.

"It's fantastic," Manning said. "Hopefully, I can make myself one of the main guys here. I've worked hard for everything. If I work that hard and at this level now, the world is my oyster, really. It's a good opportunity for me to become a worldwide name."

Ryan Hunter-Reay, 22, would settle for nationwide. The Boca Raton native grew up a few hours from stock car hotbed Daytona Beach, but fell in love with open-wheel racing for its technical demands -- turning left and right.

Hunter-Reay is a CART success story.

He came through the ranks of CART's ladder system, graduating from the Barber Dodge Pro Series, where he was rookie of the year in 2000, to the Toyota Atlantic Series, where he won three races as a rookie last year.

Hunter-Reay makes his Champ Car debut today for American Spirit Team Johansson, starting 12th. He and teammate Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 CART champion, are the only Americans in the series.

"I was drawn to open-wheel racing because it's so much more of an art," Hunter-Reay said. "It's a beautiful blend of road courses, street circuits and ovals.

"I believe in CART. CART has been at its low and now everything is going to be uphill from here. I can guarantee that people are going to be saying good things about CART. It's going to be all positive. I like to think of myself as part of the new generation of CART."

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