In Open Wheel, Dominance Has Become a Foreign Subject

What has hap- pened to American drivers in this country's open-wheel racing series?

All four champions are foreigners: Italy's Alex Zanardi in CART champ cars, Sweden's Kenny Brack in Indy Racing League, Brazil's Cristiano da Matta in Indy Lights and Canada's Lee Bentham in Formula Toyota Atlantic.

CART's rookie of the year is Brazilian Tony Kanaan. When it came time to pick a young driver to replace Zanardi, who is heading back to Formula One, championship team owner Chip Ganassi chose a Colombian, Juan Pablo Montoya.

In Indy Lights, the official development series of CART, nine of the top 10 drivers are foreigners--three from Brazil and one each from France, Japan, Austria, England, Ireland and Spain.

"What's the matter with that?" retiring Bobby Rahal, a three-time Indy car champion, answered with a question when asked about the unusual turn of events. "Why should auto racing be any different?

"Talking about foreign drivers being a problem is a total misrepresentation of the concept. The fabric of sports in America is baseball, yet somehow it is acceptable that the major leagues are full of players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan and other countries.

"And basketball and hockey, which were once totally American and Canadian, now have rosters loaded with Europeans and it's applauded.

"How come that doesn't hold true for auto racing? In my mind, and I think in the minds of most racers, that's the way it should be. Bring on the best."

Gil de Ferran says the trend to foreign involvement in U.S. open-wheel racing is attributable to Nigel Mansell's appearance in Indy cars in 1993.

"One cannot underestimate the appeal of a world champion, especially a very popular world champion," de Ferran says. "Maybe the appeal inside America was varied, but not for motor racing fans around the world, and the motor racing media.

"Nigel didn't even defend the title in Formula One. When he came here in 1993, it was like someone turned the spotlights onto the series. All of a sudden, CART was talked about all over Europe, and elsewhere."

De Ferran, a Brazilian who went to Europe when he was 21 to pursue a racing career, made his CART debut in 1995 with Jim Hall's team and now drives for Derrick Walker.

"Some of the internationalization you see now is as a consequence of that. It's what I call the 'Nigel Mansell Effect.' It certainly made me reevaluate my opinion of CART.

"I'm sure the same happened to other drivers, sponsors and many millions of fans."

One answer as to what has happened to American drivers might be that they've gone to NASCAR.

A look at stock cars' top 10 finds Jeff Gordon from California, Mark Martin from Arkansas, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt from North Carolina, Bobby and Terry Labonte from Texas, Jeremy Mayfield from Kentucky, Rusty Wallace from Missouri and John Andretti from Indiana.

WINSTON CUP

If Gordon scores 12 points more than Martin in Sunday's Dura Lube/KMart 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, he will clinch his second consecutive Winston Cup championship. He also won in 1995. The last time the championship was decided with two races left was 1994, when Earnhardt won the last of his seven titles.

Jeff Ward, a multi-champion motocross rider who switched to open-wheel racing with the Indy Racing League, will take a shot at Winston Cup stock car racing this weekend. The San Juan Capistrano driver will debut in a car owned by Bill Strauser of Walla Walla, Wash. The Phoenix track is where Ward won his first IRL pole in March.

Ernie Irvan hopes to return to full-time action at Phoenix. Last week, recovering from an accident at Talladega, Ala., Irvan turned his Skittles car over to Ricky Craven after 13 laps of the Pepsi 400 at Daytona.

"A big part of my decision to get out of the car was because it was Daytona," Irvan said. "It's a hard track on a driver, especially if you take a hit. I don't think Phoenix will be as tough on me."

The running of the Pepsi 400 under the lights at Daytona resulted in a record 4.7 cable rating for The Nashville Network production. It was an 18% increase over last year's July 4 daytime race. The 4.7 rating equates to nearly 3.5 million households watching, according to NASCAR.

PARTY TIME

Racing won't be the only excitement for followers of the CART FedEx championship series next weekend at California Speedway, where the season will end with the Marlboro 500.

On Friday night, a charity extravaganza called Runway Madness will take place at the Lockheed hangar of the Ontario airport.

On Saturday, after qualifying for the 500, there will be a Halloween party at the speedway infield featuring drivers in costume.

Runway Madness, produced by Shelley and Al Unser Jr., will be a mix of food, entertainment, a dunk tank with championship car owner Chip Ganassi as the victim and an auction conducted by Tommy Kendall and Bob Varsha to benefit CARA Charities, Championship Drivers Assn. and Loma Linda Children's Hospital.

Trick-or-treaters 12 and under will be guests in the drivers' VIP motorcoach area, where drivers such as Mark Blundell, Unser Jr., Paul Tracy, Michel Jordain and Dario Franchitti will be in costume to greet them.

Following trick-or-treat time, there will be a costume party and fireworks.

SPORTS CARS

Klaus Ludwig, one of endurance racing's all-time greats, will conclude a 25-year career this weekend by driving a Mercedes-Benz in the FIA FT world championship at Laguna Seca Raceway. Ludwig, 49, has won the 24 Hours of LeMans three times in a Porsche and has won three times at Laguna Seca. He and Ricardo Zonta hold a four-point lead over Mercedes teammates Bernd Schneider and Mark Webber going into Saturday's 2 1/2-hour final race.

Ludwig, on being a race driver: "The ability to drive at the limit is a thing that God gives you. It's more of a feeling. Something you either have or don't have. Something you're born with.

"I don't think it's something you can learn. It's either given to you or it's not."

In the GT3 class, Bill Auberlen of Redondo Beach leads teammate Mark Simo of Carlsbad, 160-156, in BMW M3s. Simo's twin brother Brian--they own No Fear--was runner-up in the Trans-Am championship.

A three-hour World Sports Car championship race Sunday will conclude three days of racing.

LAST LAPS

Former motocross champions Micky Dymond and Guy Cooper will be among a group of riders competing in a new event, Freeride Motocross, on Saturday night at Costa Mesa Speedway at the Orange County Fairgrounds. The objective is not to win a race, but to do the craziest stunts in the air. Judging will be similar to figure skating or skateboarding, with points for style as well as aerial artistry, for a $50,000 purse.

Jason Leffler of Long Beach clinched the U.S. Auto Club's Silver Crown championship Sunday at Gateway Raceway near St. Louis, and is leading in defense of his USAC midget crown. He is 19 points ahead of Jay Drake of Canyon Country. Only four races remain, with the season closing Thanksgiving weekend with the Turkey Night Grand Prix at Bakersfield Speedway on Nov. 26 and Las Vegas on Nov. 28.

Lifetime achievement awards from the National Hot Rod Assn. went to James Warren, Ronnie Hampshire, "Big" John Mazmanian, Lou Senter, Al Teague and Larry Sutter during last weekend's California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield.

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This Week's Races

NASCAR WINSTON CUP

Dura Lube/Kmart 500K

* Schedule: Today, first-round qualifying, 1:30 p.m.; Saturday, second-round qualifying, 11 a.m.; Sunday, race, 11 a.m. (TNN).

* Track: Phoenix International Raceway (oval, 1.0 miles, 11 degrees banking in turns 1-2, 9 degrees in turns 3-4), Phoenix.

* Race distance: 312 miles (500 kilometers), 312 laps.

* Last year: Dale Jarrett raced to the last of seven 1997 victories, beating Rusty Wallace by 2.105 seconds. Bobby Hamilton finished third.

* Last week: Jeff Gordon won the fire-delayed Pepsi 400 in Daytona Beach, Fla., holding off Bobby Labonte in a three-lap sprint to the finish. Gordon, closing in on his third Winston Cup title in four years, has 11 victories this season and 40 in 186 career starts.

* Next race: ACDelco 400, Nov. 1, Rockingham, N.C.

****

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS

GM Goodwrench Service Plus/ACDelco 300K

* Schedule: Today, second-round qualifying, 9:30 a.m.; Saturday, race, 12:30 p.m. (TBS).

* Track: Phoenix International Raceway (oval, 1.0 miles, 11 degrees banking in turns 1-2, 9 degrees in turns 3-4), Phoenix.

* Race distance: 186 miles (300 kilometers), 186 laps.

* Last year: Joe Ruttman raced to the fourth of five 1997 victories, beating Roush Racing teammate Chuck Bown by 0.419 seconds.

* Last week: Dennis Setzer won the Dodge California Truck Stop 300 in Bakersfield, holding off series leader Jack Sprague by 0.990 seconds.

* Next race: Sam's Town 250, Nov. 8, Las Vegas.

****

NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSN.

Revell Nationals

* Schedule: Today, first-round qualifying, noon and 4 p.m.; Saturday, second-round qualifying, 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.; Sunday, final eliminations, 9 a.m.

* Track: Texas Motorplex, Ennis, Texas.

* Last year: Cory McClenathan matched the Top Fuel record with his sixth victory of the year, overpowering the field with a performance that included the first 320-mph run in drag racing history. Al Hofmann won the Funny Car division, and Jim Yates topped the Pro Stock competition.

* Last week: McClenathan reached six victories again, winning the rain-delayed Parts America Nationals in Topeka, Kan. Warren Johnson raced to his eighth Pro Stock victory of the season to win his fourth series championship. Ron Capps won the Funny Car division.

* Next event: Matco Tools Supernationals, Oct. 29-Nov. 1, Houston.

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