New American Says He Still Has Much to Prove

TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

Since January, it has not been Roberto Guerrero of Colombia it has been Roberto Guerrero of Columbia, as in the gem of the ocean.

On the 19th day of the year, Guerrero was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, trading the Colombia behind his name in Indy car racing results for San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

"I'm very proud of that, too," he said Friday, after practicing for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Now, if only he could make a strong showing in a Long Beach race.

And if only people would believe him when he says he is fine, suffering no lingering effects of an accident during testing at Indianapolis in September of 1987 that left him unconscious for 17 days with severe head injuries.

He is more than willing to prove himself.

"I just want to finish it," he said of the race. "It's my local race--I only live 40 miles from here--and I've run here two years in Formula One and five times in Indy cars and never finished. I don't even ask to win, just to finish.

"Of course, I know when that happens I won't be satisfied, but for now, that's all I want here, just to finish."

Considering that Guerrero is racing for Pat Patrick's highly regarded team, which last year prepared the cars in which Emerson Fittipaldi won the Indianapolis 500 and the national Indy car title, that would seem a modest request.

Things change fast in Indy car racing, though, and Patrick's team of 1990 bears little resemblance to the '89 version.

Fittipaldi is gone, for one thing, having joined Roger Penske. And Patrick's former partner, Chip Ganassi, split after last season, too, taking the team's Penske-Chevrolets with him.

So now, the Patrick team is running unproved March-Alfa Romeos, supposedly improved versions of the largely experimental cars that Guerrero drove with little distinction in the last two-thirds of last season. The cars weren't ready at the start of the season and had trouble finishing once they got to the track.

So, for all the Patrick team has going for it, it also is facing formidable odds.

Guerrero, though, is happy to be aboard. He is back with Morris (Mo) Nunn, the engineer with whom he has enjoyed most of success; team manager Jim McGee is acknowledged as one of the best in the business, and the organization of the Patrick team rivals the renowned Penske outfit.

"The new engine is a big improvement over last year," Guerrero said. "They're making progress and they're working on it all the time. Hopefully, next year everybody will want an Alfa. Seeing the commitment (Alfa Romeo has) and the money they are spending . . . it has to work. Now, having this team's guidance as well, we're making progress a lot faster than last year. Eventually, we're going to have a great package. We've already got a great team."

Guerrero said he, too, is in great shape: "I feel better than I have for many years. I haven't been more excited for the season, I can't remember since when."

Still, he had to "audition" to keep his ride or believes he did.

"I felt very confident in myself and I knew I had a good relationship with Alfa, and I knew they supported me 100%," Guerrero said. "It was just (a matter of) convincing the rest of the parties.

"For instance, Miller's (beer) wanted to sponsor the team, but they weren't too happy to do it at the time with me. They wanted an American driver," he said, laughing, and added, "They got an American driver now.

"I would say on the team side, they've never admitted it and I don't think they ever will, but they wanted to make sure, like everybody else, that I was still OK after the accident."

So, using one of last year's Penske-Chevrolets, the team went to Memphis to get a look at Guerrero in a competitive car.

"They wanted me, before we really got going with the Alfa program, to get a feeling of a really good chassis and a really good engine. It served its purpose because we tested first with this car--it was the first place we tested--and we got a straight back-to-back from the Penske-Chevrolet to the March-Alfa.

"That was the reason I was doing that test, but I think the other was part of it, too. But they never admitted it."

Passing tests was sort of an off-season pastime for Guerrero, who also had to prove his worth as a potential citizen.

"You have to speak and write English, and that was no problem for me," he said. "But you also have to know United States history and government. I didn't know any of that, and when they gave me the books, I only had a few days to learn. Now I feel I know more than some (native-born) American citizens."

And if he can finish Sunday's race, he might be well on his way to proving that he is fine--and exactly the driver who ought to be helping Pat Patrick's team show the racing world that a March-Alfa is the wave of the future in Indy cars.

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