It might not come under the heading, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you," but CART driver Dennis Vitolo is coming close.
In a race underwritten by a tobacco product, the Marlboro 500, Vitolo's car in Sunday's 500-mile race is being sponsored by SmithKline Beecham, the makers of the NicoDerm CQ patch and Nicorette gum.
Besides driving the car, Vitolo is challenging racing personnel to quit smoking. NicoDerm CQ/Nicorette will donate $500 to the American Cancer Society for each team member who quits and will work with race promoters to establish smoke-free zones at race sites.
Next year's Marlboro 500 will be run Sunday, Nov. 1, it was revealed when CART announced its 1998 schedule. Two races, one on the streets of Houston and another on an oval in Japan, have been added to the season, which has grown to 19 races. The Long Beach Grand Prix will remain in its regular spot, April 5, one week after the race in Japan.
Between showers, a hole-in-one contest for drivers was held in the California Speedway infield. No one aced the 165-yard hole, but PJ Jones was closest to the pin with a shot 7 feet 6 inches away.
A persistent rain washed out Indy Lights practice. To make up for the lost time, practice will start today at 7:30 a.m., instead of the scheduled 9.
Patrick Carpentier, the Canadian driver who is leading in CART rookie point standings, will return to his Bettenhausen Motorsports Reynard-Mercedes after missing the last two races at Vancouver and Laguna Seca. Carpentier broke his collarbone in a bicycle accident near his home in Indianapolis.
Carpentier holds a 27-10 lead over Gualter Salles and Dario Franchitti, who is not racing in the Marlboro 500.
Alex Zanardi is the first Italian-born Indy car champion since Mario Andretti's last of four championships in 1984. Other Italian-born drivers to win the American championship include Ralph DePalma, 1912 and 1914, and Dario Resta, 1916.
Marlboro 500 practice starts officially today at 11 a.m., but most teams have tested extensively on the new two-mile, D-shaped oval. Mauricio Gugelmin, in one of the PacWest Reynards, is the fastest to date with a lap at 235.5 mph. Close behind were 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser, 234, and Greg Moore, 233.5.
Qualifying is set for Saturday, noon to 2 p.m.
Race at a Glance
* What: Marlboro 500.
* When: Sunday, noon; practice today; qualifying Saturday.
* Where: California Speedway, Fontana.
* TV-Radio: ESPN, 5 p.m., delayed; KCKC, 1350-AM, noon Sunday.