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Fontana Diary:
Day Three
One Perfect Day, One Perfect Race

Fontana, CA, November 3 — If I had known before Sunday started that I was going to have a great talk with Bryan Herta, get an exclusive about a new CART team that no one has reported about, have a pointed interview with Michael Andretti, and see a just about perfect race – I would have started my day earlier!

Fortunately for me and my Deep Throttle cohorts, Jeff, Julie, and Michele, I had no idea that Sunday November 3rd was going to be so fantastic. So they all got to sleep in and eat breakfast!

Lacking company, I went into the morning’s main press conference on “Stars of Tomorrow.” Never being strong about the technical aspects of the sport, I nonetheless appreciated being able to learn about Bryan Herta’s karting program and its importance to American open wheel racing.

According to Herta, he found US go karting to be a fragmented sport when he acquired a track a few years ago. Championships were rendered meaningless and most importantly, FIA standards were practically unknown. As a result, fewer talented American drivers have been identified. So, if you were wondering why there are so many Brazilians as opposed to Americans in CART, this was your press conference.

The Brazilians have been promoting the FIA standards – called CIK – for years. Hopefully, Stars of Tomorrow, which becomes the first rung in the CART ladder, will help change this. In the words of Bobby Rahal, “If you want to see an American driver in the US Grand Prix in 5 years, you need to understand that driver is now 14 years old and in go karting.” Rahal cited as examples for this theory the success of F1 drivers such as Kimi Raikkonen and his strong karting background.

I could not resist the chance to talk to Bryan, who did not have a CART ride in 2002. I had two questions, and he answered both with great candor. The first was, did the announcement and press conference mean that the lawsuit he filed earlier this year had been settled. Herta assures us that this has long been the case, and that he’s very pleased with the progress of his program, which will now be marketed by the Rahal Group.

Secondly, I wanted to know if there was any chance of a return to CART? We have learned exclusively that Bryan Herta is in talks with several teams and a return to CART is “highly likely.”

Wayne Taylor Photo Needing to catch my breath, I had no chance because I found out moments later that racing great Wayne Taylor is very likely going to field a CART team next year and that he definitely won’t be a driver.

Now, bear in mind I have heard absolutely nothing about Bryan Herta on any of the “Silly Season” boards around the net and no word of Taylor’s team – at all. It seems rather strange. But, if Taylor is fielding a team next year and Bryan puts his CART helmet back on, remember – you read it here first!

California Speedway provided us with a nice lunch before the race, and I fortunately got a chance to catch up with Jeff, Michele, and Julie while we were eating. The hospitality at the speedway was outstanding, and someone pointed out to me that fantastic seats could be had with my press credentials. I didn’t have to be told twice, and it turns out, our seats were right above pit road and on such a hot day, it was unexpectedly luxurious to have a screened “roof” overhead. These were by far the best seats I’ve ever had for a race, and it was well worth getting there early to get them. But, wait, it gets better!

After all the talk of leaving oval racing to the rival IRL, who could have expected that the Sunday CART race would have been such a spectacular example of why that should not happen? There have been many things written about the 500 – how fast it was, how competitive – but I have to tell you, for me the most amazing thing was how fast the time went by. It was by far the most exciting race I’ve seen in years. And, if you love racing the way I do, it is absolutely impossible to not get emotionally involved with what’s going on – on the race track.

We always strive to be absolutely professional while representing Deep Throttle. We don’t, for example, wear any clothing with any type of team or manufacturer logos. If we get them as gifts, the way we did Bridgestone hats on Saturday, they quickly get put away and they’re never worn with a press credential. The Deep Throttle gang does not want anyone to think that we aren’t entirely fair in our reporting.

However, in spite of impartiality, it was also impossible not to notice how strong Jimmy Vasser’s Shell car was during practice and especially during warm up. If it doesn’t break, which is always a risk in a 500-mile race, I thought, that car could be a factor. And, a strong finish for a Southern Californian like Jimmy would certainly be popular so close to his hometown of Canoga Park, California. Not, of course, that other cars did not look strong at first.

Winner Jimmy Vasser Photo Tony Kanaan was strong and fast all weekend, but I honestly never got the feeling he was going to win. He didn’t talk, however, like a driver going over to another series, which seems a little curious, at least to me. Michael Andretti, on the other hand, exploded only once the green flag waved, and I was thinking for at least awhile that he would win. That is, until Cristiano da Matta started pressing Jimmy for the lead. However, his consistency and winning ways seemed to be eclipsed on Sunday, and his Chevron car “blowed up” right in front of us.

That left it pretty much the Jimmy and Michael show, and I have to confess, being a Socal kid myself, I was thrilled when Jimmy Vasser took the checkered flag. Impartiality went out the window, and we all enjoyed seeing him succeed. Jules thinks I’m always bringing good luck to Vasser, and if this is the case, Jimmy, I am available if you want to fly me in to selected races in 2003!

The final press conference was crowded as expected with the top three drivers trickling in. First came Michael Andretti, and a few minutes later, Patrick Carpentier arrived. Vasser entered about 5 minutes after Carpentier, presumably being detained by post-race interviews by the video guys. As press conferences go, this one was fairly tame and was highlighted by the announcement that it was the fastest 500-mile race in history.

For me, the press conference only got interesting when I was able to talk to Michael Andretti one on one. Drivers, if you’ve ever interviewed one, are much more ordinary in manner than say, rock stars, and Michael is no exception. I sought him out because I felt badly about how he was treated during the weekend – being called a “traitor” and worse. I also wanted to find out what he wanted his fans to know.

Michael Andretti Photo Well, it turns out that Michael “tunes out” and never listens to bad things said about him. Wise move, on his part, I think. I feel bad all over again by bringing up the things he never hears. But, I recover instantly and ask him about his fans – and about how he feels about the criticism of his decision to go over to the IRL.

When Michael starts talking, I immediately understand why so many writers publish quotes from him that make him sound like he doesn’t appreciate CART. It’s rather easy to pick a sentence or even a phrase of his and to make him appear this way. But, Andretti is a thoughtful man who doesn’t talk in sound bites. He is not a creature of the media.

While he has certainly drank the “IRL Kool-Aid” and believes in his new series, his heart “has been very heavy, especially during the last CART races.” The latter is spoken with utmost sincerity, and so the truth, for those of you who want to hear it, is that Michael Andretti has some ambivalence about leaving CART, no matter what those articles and press releases say.

Those who criticize his decision “simply don’t know all the facts.” The IRL move is a business decision on his part, but he would love to remain in CART if it made economic sense for him and his team to do so. It doesn’t, and I’m glad I learned this from him, and can’t help but wish him well.

CART, after all, will survive, and today’s race was one reason why. So, while I didn’t know I’d have such an incredible day at the track, I am so glad I did.

Until next time…

Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

 
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