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On the Street

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Alex Zanardi, perhaps the most exciting driver to watch in the world today, may also be one of the most sought after.

The CART PPG Cup champion is in the last year of his contract with Chip Ganassi’s team, so Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach could be the last chance for Southern California fans to see him where he excels: on a temporary street circuit.

Although Zanardi insists that he will make no decision on his future until August, he also makes no bones about missing his home in Monte Carlo and his family and friends in Italy. He also says, frankly, that he has talked with Formula One teams that are trying to lure him back to the scene he left four years ago when the Lotus team folded.

“I have spoken with Formula One people since before I first came to the United States,” he said. “Then, it was mostly me calling them. Now it is them calling me, but so far I have not entered into any serious dialogue with any F-1 team.

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“Despite what some people have said and written, Formula One has been neither my dream nor my target. It is merely an option. But I guarantee you that no decision has been made for 1999.”

Driving a Reynard-Honda, Zanardi has accomplished about all he set out to do with CART.

He was rookie of the year in 1995, winning three races and six poles, climaxing the season with his spectacular cut-the-corner pass of Bryan Herta in Laguna Seca’s unique corkscrew on the last lap of the last race. Zanardi finished third in the season standings.

Last year he won five races, starting with Long Beach, where he introduced his trademark “doughnut spin” to celebrate his victory. He also won at Cleveland, the U.S. 500 at Michigan, Mid-Ohio and Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wis., joining Jacques Villeneuve as the only CART drivers to win rookie and championship laurels in successive seasons.

“Personally, the win at Michigan was the most satisfying,” he said. “In motor racing’s own little world in the United States, you can be considered a good driver if you can win on a street or road course, but to be accepted as one of the best, it means you must also be able to win on an oval.

“So, when I won at Michigan, it proved I was a complete driver who can win in all types of conditions.”

That victory did not come easily. Zanardi had to overcome a drive-through penalty for running over an air hose on his first pit stop.

He took over the PPG Cup lead at Michigan and never gave it up in racing toward the $1-million champion’s bonus.

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“Michigan was important to me, but psychologically, in terms of intimidating my opposition, Cleveland was probably more important,” he said. “It was where we showed our superiority, our ability to overcome any adversity.”

He had started on the pole, but on Lap 23 was ordered to the rear of the field for coming in when the pits were closed.

“To drop from first back to 22nd, then come back to win, it must have been quite discouraging for the other teams to watch something like that,” he said. “If we had stayed in front from the start, the effect would not have been the same, but under the circumstances, we had no choice but to, if you’ll pardon the expression, drive the hell out of the car.

“I cannot do better than what I did that day.”

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Joe Montana, the former pro football quarterback who is partners with Ganassi in the racing team, said, “I’ve been associated with a lot of comebacks in my day. This one was great.”

Asked to analyze his success, Zanardi said it is his ability to go fast in high-speed corners, without losing control.

“I try to be smooth,” he explained. “Every nervous movement with the steering wheel or with the pedals will upset the setup of the car and put the driver in trouble.”

Zanardi said he was looking forward to Long Beach because, despite having won at Michigan last year, he still prefers street courses.

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“Historically, our series always seems to start on ovals, so coming to Long Beach will be like getting a pure breath of oxygen--finally,” he said. “Motor racing is unpredictable. It doesn’t always go according to plan, but I feel good about Long Beach. I like the course--I like any course where I have won--and I like my car, so there is no reason--other than bad luck--that we will not have a good result Sunday.”

In the first race this year, Zanardi finished third, behind Michael Andretti and Greg Moore, at Homestead, Fla. But in Japan last weekend, he tagged a wall midway through the race.

“I am still on the steep part of my learning curve for ovals,” he said. “I first put a wheel on an oval when I arrived here in 1996. I grew up on road courses. It makes a big difference.”

Ganassi took a chance on Zanardi as a teammate for 1996 champion Jimmy Vasser on the strength of recommendations from Lotus boss Peter Collins and builders of the Reynard cars that Ganassi’s team uses.

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Ganassi said, “I needed another driver and the people at Reynard couldn’t say enough good things about Alex, although they called him Alessandro then. It was a great decision to hire him. He and Jimmy have brought us two straight championships and two straight 1-3 PPG Cup finishes.

“The only way we can improve this year is for them to finish 1-2, and that’s what I told them I expected.

“Long Beach will be important to both of them because it will be a rubber match. Jimmy won in 1966 and Alex last year. I hope it’ll be a great shootout.”

Even though the lure of returning to Italy is strong, Zanardi says he and his wife, Daniela, have developed close ties in the United States.

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“I like life in this country,” he said. “I find no down aspect in American living, except that I miss my family and my close friends. Life is different in Italy and America, in the way people socialize.

“Here, people meet in an elevator and by the time it hits the bottom floor, they are big buddies, ready to go to dinner together. In Italy, there is more a sense of family, of close relationships that last forever. I admit, I do miss the guys who I choose to be friends with.”

The Zanardis have a lakefront residence in Noblesville, Ind., a suburb of Indianapolis, but home is in Monte Carlo, or Bologna, where Alex’s mother lives.

“I miss seeing my mother more often,” he said. “It is only about a three-hour drive from Monaco to Bologna, maybe six hours the way you Americans drive, three hours for Italians.”

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Maybe that’s where the 31-year-old Italian gained the edge he seems to hold over American drivers.

It makes one wonder if he spins doughnuts when he reaches his mother’s driveway.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Grand Prix of Long Beach at a Glance

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* When: Friday-Sunday. Practice and qualifying Friday and Saturday. Support races Saturday and Sunday. CART race on Sunday.

* The Course: A 1.59, eight-turn circuit in downtown Long Beach.

* Drivers: Include defending and PPG Cup Champion Alex Zanardi, six-time Long Beach winner Al Unser Jr., Jimmy Vasser, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy.

* TV: 1 p.m. Sunday, ESPN.

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* Radio: XTRA (690).


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