Ribeiro Unwrapping Penske 'Package' at Homestead

It's not driving a car now, it's piloting a "package" of chassis, engine and tire. Al Unser Jr. isn't at the wheel of the No. 2. He's in a Penske- Mercedes- Goodyear.

Where once there was concern about putting on races, now CART is a "content provider," according to organization President Andrew Craig. "We don't own stadiums or concrete poured into the ground, but apart from that, we are no different" from any other commercial concern.

Holy Harvard Business Review!

CART, seeking to become vertically integrated, has bought the Indy Lights series, is looking for a driver's school and, as of Tuesday, is being traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It opened at $16 and shot up to $20.

It's as though they are trying to plug champ car--not Indy car anymore, now that the lawyers have picked over those bones--racing into a classroom computer model, or maybe trying to reinvent CART as IBM. And you get the idea that if it wouldn't get in the way of the lug nut, they would make Rob Hill wear a tie when he changes the right front tire of Alex Zanardi's car, er, package, on a pit stop.

And then you get to Sunday, and you remember why CART exists. The organization opens its season at Homestead, Fla., on a reconfigured track that is wider and faster, with some old faces in some new places.

CART's value might be $231.5 million, according to its stock offering, but to drivers, the bottom line is the checkered flag, and Michael Andretti will be trying to get his second in a row at Homestead (in a Swift-Ford- Goodyear, if you please).

Andre Ribeiro will be trying to get his first for his new boss, Roger Penske.

For all of the newfound grow-your-own emphasis on drivers by CART, Penske knew where to get a pilot for his package when he and Paul Tracy parted company after last season.

Penske went to Tasman, Steve Horne's team, and took away Ribeiro in a negotiating session that lasted all of 48 hours and probably didn't have to take that long.

"Roger just told me what his plans were for next season and he asked me what my goals were," Ribeiro said.

Penske planned a new car and Ribeiro had a goal of winning races.

Penske hired a driver who has won three times in three years on the CART series, to go with Unser, who hasn't won in two years. Penske no longer had Tracy, who won three races last season and complained that he didn't have the equipment to win more.

"They had won three races and said it was a down year," Ribeiro, 33, said. "I said I would like to race for a team that considers three wins a down year."

He had been happy enough with Tasman.

"We were like a family," Ribeiro said. "There's a big difference [in working for Penske]. It's a big organization. I worked for a smaller organization. One isn't better or worse than the other. It's just different.

"I was comfortable with Tasman, but we were never pushing each other to get better and sometimes you need a push."

No problem getting a push with Penske, who employs 156 people pushing a new car, designed around a smaller but no less powerful Mercedes engine. Two cars, actually, because the one used this weekend at Homestead and then in Japan will be about 4 1/4 inches taller than the one that will debut at Long Beach on April 5. That one is so low that Ribeiro and Unser will almost be supine while they drive.

As with any new car, er, package, there is a learning curve and it won't just be the eight degrees of Turn 1 at Homestead.

"I'm not going to be trying to win the race on the first lap," Ribeiro said. "We need to get better with time. This series is getting more and more competitive."

With competition, however, comes opportunity, and Tracy saw his when he moved to Team Kool Green and joined Dario Franchitti in a Reynard-Honda-Firestone.

They, and everybody else, will be chasing the Target-Ganassi team of Zanardi and Jimmy Vasser, one the doughnut-cutting winner of last year's series, the other the 1996 champion.

And among the posse for the final time will be Bobby Rahal, who has announced his retirement at 45, but who is trying to turn the season into something other than a Grand Tour.

They will be after the PPG Cup, which is still named that, even though PPG as a CART sponsor is history. It's the FedEx CART series now, so presumably the PPG Cup will be delivered to its winner by overnight mail.

WINSTON CUP

There's no race this week, which is probably good for Darrell Waltrip, who finds himself, helmet in hand, looking for money.

For seven years, Waltrip's Chevrolet was sponsored by Western Auto, which got out of the NASCAR game after last season and was replaced by Speedblock Inc., an Ohio outfit. That lasted four races, in which Waltrip finished 33rd at Daytona, 41st at Rockingham, 35th at Las Vegas and 40th at Atlanta.

Then Speedblock failed to meet the payment schedule of its contract, according to Waltrip's spokesman, Keith Waltz.

Looking for help is something Waltrip has never had to do but at 51, he is 40th in driver point standings.

"Sponsors have always been lined up at our door," Waltz said.

There's no line, though, for a 51-year-old driver who isn't winning.

Waltrip said he will keep the team going, and preparations are being made for Darlington, March 22. And there is testing in Nashville next week.

Oh, and that Waltrip retirement talk? It was just that, talk to try to keep Western Auto interested, perhaps in a scaled-down partial-season deal. With NASCAR's points system, it's difficult to race part time and be able to make fields.

FORMULA ONE

The Australian Grand Prix essentially was a one-turn race, and that has so turned off the public that it may not be allowed to happen again.

McLaren-Mercedes driver Mika Hakkinen beat teammate David Coulthard into Turn 1, then Coulthard, later running up front, pulled over and let Hakkinen pass with two laps to go. In an arranged finish. They had agreed beforehand that whichever of them was first into Turn 1 would be the race winner if they were running 1-2 at the end. But while the checkered flag few in Australia, the race wasn't over until days later in Paris, after a meeting of FIA.

FIA, which sanctions Formula One events, said it was no problem, that such things were a matter of course, but invited the World Motor Council to decide if the practice should be prohibited. The Council's pitch is scheduled for March 18 in Paris.

Could it happen here? Yes, but not in the first race of the season, said Andretti, for a brief time a Formula One driver, now back with CART.

"If it was the last race and [teammate] Christian [Fittipaldi] had a chance of winning the championship or whatever, I would give up a win for him to do that," Andretti said.

Regardless of what the World Motor Council does, there will be one change in Formula One racing. British bookmakers now will offer odds on teams winning a race, not just drivers.

IRL

They're practicing at Phoenix for the March 22 race, and among the fastest drivers in testing has been Roberto Guerrero, turning laps of 20.8-20.9 seconds in an unsponsored car for Allan Pagan.

Make that mostly unsponsored.

Fans Carol and Ray Barrett of Springfield, Mo., sent Pagan a check for $50 and a note of support.

"I just couldn't believe it," Pagan said. "I've never had anything like this happen in all of the years I've been involved in racing."

NASCAR TRUCKS

Rahal will continue to own a CART car after he retires from driving, and he's adding a NASCAR Truck Series machine to a stable that he plans to grow.

"I look to potentially own a Winston Cup team somewhere down the line, and I felt this was a good way of dipping our toes in the water and gaining some understanding of the system," he said.

Rahal is partners with Tom Gloy, a former Trans-Am sedan series driver, in the truck series, and they have a shop near Charlotte, N.C. They have a solid sponsor in Miller, Rahal's CART sponsor, and have hired Dave Rezendes to drive the Ford pickup.

PIT NOTES

The 39th March Meet will be held Friday through Sunday at Bakersfield Raceway at Famoso, with the Goodguys Vintage Drag Racing Assn. holding an auld lang syne meet involving more than 500 pre-1973 entries, plus a car show and swap meet. The grand marshal is Art Chrisman of Santa Ana, the first top eliminator in 1959. . . . Yorba Linda's Rip Williams will seek his fourth consecutive victory in a Sprint Car Racing Assn. event at Perris Auto Speedway on Saturday night. Williams has struggled elsewhere, finishing sixth at Yuma, Ariz., and 20th at El Centro.

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