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Formula One, Indy Racing League Open It Up

With NASCAR’s Nextel Cup series taking a rare week off, two open-wheel racing organizations will quietly open their seasons this weekend, hoping to squeeze out at least some interest. Both beleaguered series, however, may be upstaged again by NASCAR, which is exporting its second-tier Busch series to Mexico City on Sunday for the first points-paying race held outside the U.S.

Formula One, threatened by a split of major teams -- except Ferrari -- from the vise-like grip of Bernie Ecclestone, will showcase new lineups when the field gathers for the Australian Grand Prix on Sunday -- Saturday here -- on Melbourne’s Albert Park circuit. But will new lineups chasing Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari make much difference?

The road to the Indianapolis 500 begins Sunday in Homestead, Fla., where the Indy Racing League opens its 10th season with the Toyota Indy 300, and it’s a good thing there is an Indy 500, because without it, there would be little reason for an IRL.

F1 and the IRL have been threatened by dwindling attendance and, worse, almost minuscule television ratings, the barometer of sports success today. A look at what to expect:

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Formula One

Hope for the anti-Ferrari crowd heightened over the winter when McLaren Mercedes paired the combustible Juan Carlos Montoya with the quiet Finn, Kimi Raikkonen. Some F1 critics claim it is the strongest McLaren team since Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late 1980s. Montoya came from Williams, which also lost Ralf Schumacher to Panasonic Toyota, where his teammate is Jarno Trulli.

Even with new regulations involving tires, engines and aerodynamics -- all designed to lower speeds and cut costs -- few expect Schumacher’s amazing streak of five consecutive Grand Prix championships and seven overall to end. He and Ferrari’s No. 2 driver, Rubens Barrichello, won 15 of 18 races last year. They will start the season in last year’s cars -- their new ones won’t be ready until after the third race -- but the same thing happened last season and Ferrari still dominated.

Tires, however, may be the equalizer. Tires used in qualifying must remain on the car throughout each race, except for punctures or damage. This will make it imperative for drivers to save as much rubber as possible for the final laps. It could be interesting because Ferrari is the only top team using Bridge- stones. The others will be on Michelins.

There also will be an undercurrent of hostility as teams continue to plot their break from Ecclestone by 2007 when, they say, they will start a series known as the Grand Prix World Series.

Indy Racing League

Most of their races have been close and exciting, the essence of open-wheel racing, but where are the fans?

For five years, one of the beefs was that open-wheel racing was dominated by foreign drivers. Five years in a row, the Indianapolis 500 was won by a foreigner -- Kenny Brack, Montoya, Helio Castroneves twice and Gil de Ferran.

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Now the IRL has an American, Buddy Rice, to showcase as its Indy champion. Foreign names still dominate the roster, but homegrown stars such as Sam Hornish Jr., Scott Sharp, Alex Barron and Bryan Herta are contenders.

And Bobby Rahal is introducing Danica Patrick this year, claiming she will be the brightest of female drivers following in the path of Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher. Patrick will be part of Rahal’s three-car team with Rice and Vitor Meira.

Rice, who started the season last year as a fill-in for the injured Brack, gave an indicator of what as coming when he won the pole for the Homestead-Miami opener. Hornish won the race, but Rice had solidified himself in the Rahal team, so it was no surprise when he won the pole at Indy, then became the first American since Eddie Cheever in 1998 to win the 500.

Still the team to beat will be Andretti Green Racing, the powerful foursome put together by Michael Andretti. His drivers are IRL champion Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Herta. Significantly, the AGR team is powered by Honda, winner of 14 of 16 races last year.

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Toyota, despite being the choice of Roger Penske, all-time Indy Car winning owner, won only two, both by Penske’s Hornish.

General Motors, which in the IRL’s early years furnished power for most of the field with its Oldsmobile and Chevrolet engines, will be racing its final season, bowing to the overwhelming weight of Honda and Toyota expense accounts. Only one team, Panther Racing with Tomas Scheckter and Czech rookie Tomas Enge, will be using Chevrolet power.

Not the First

With NASCAR running a Busch series race in Mexico City this weekend, much has been made of the appearance of such Mexican drivers as Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain Jr. becoming part of the NASCAR driver landscape, as though it were something new.

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In its first year of existence, 1949, NASCAR had a Latino presence in Francisco Eduardo Menedez, who drove four races in the inaugural season and won three in 1951.

In the record books, he is known as Frank Mundy, the “Georgia Rebel” from Atlanta. Mundy was born in 1918 to a Mexican father and Irish mother and as a teenager got his racing lessons at Atlanta’s Lakewood Speedway.

Mundy also drove in the first NASCAR race west of the Mississippi, April 8, 1951, at Carrell Speedway in Gardena. After coming west, Mundy learned that the car he’d expected to drive was not ready, so he rented a Plymouth from Hertz, whitewashed numbers on its sides, installed a seat belt and went racing. Stock cars really were stock in those early days.

“I collected $100 for finishing ninth or 10th and the car rental was $37, so I cleared $63, which was a pretty good payday back then,” Mundy recalled.

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He still lives in Atlanta and received a lifetime achievement award from the Living Legends of Auto Racing organization last month in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Last Laps

Ventura Raceway will open its season Saturday with racing in four of its top classes -- VRA 360 sprint cars, VRA modifieds, dwarf cars and pony stocks. Racing will start at 5 p.m. at the Ventura County Fairgrounds Seaside Park. Details: (805) 985-5433.

After being rained out two weeks ago at Perris Auto Speedway, the USAC/CRA sprint car series will try again Saturday night with a 30-lap main event on the half-mile clay oval. Josh Wise and Dave Darland, from the USAC national sprint car circuit, are entered against such local favorites as defending champion Rip Williams, Mike Kirby and Damion Gardner.

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Irwindale Speedway will hold an open-house practice for

NASCAR short-track drivers on Saturday from noon to 6 p.m. The public is invited, free.

Former NHRA top-fuel champion Gary Beck will be the honored guest at the Goodguys 46th March Meet on March 11-13 at Famoso Raceway, north of Bakersfield. It is the opening event in the five-race Goodguys West Coast championship series, in which competition is restricted to 1972 and earlier drag racing machines.

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This Week

*--* NASCAR BUSCH Telcel Motorola 200

*--*

* When: Saturday, qualifying (Speed Channel, 10 a.m.); Sunday, race (Channel 11, noon).

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* Where: Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez (road course, 2.518 miles), Mexico City.

* Race distance: 201.44 miles, 80 laps.

* 2004 winner: Inaugural race.

* Next race: Sam’s Town 300, March 12, Las Vegas.

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*--* FORMULA ONE Australian Grand Prix

*--*

* When: Today, qualifying (Speed Channel, 6 p.m.); Saturday, qualifying, 3 p.m. (Speed Channel, 5:30 p.m.); race (Speed Channel, 6:30 p.m.).

* Where: Albert Park Circuit (3.28 miles, 16 turns), Melbourne.

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* Race distance: 190.24 miles, 58 laps.

* 2004 winner: Michael Schumacher.

* Next race: Malaysian Grand Prix, March 20, Kuala Lumpur.

*--* INDY RACING LEAGUE Toyota Indy 300

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*--*

* When: Saturday, qualifying, 8:45 a.m.; Sunday, race (ESPN, 11 a.m.).

* Where: Homestead-Miami Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles, 18-degree banking at bottom, 19-degree banking in middle, 20-degree banking at top), Florida.

* Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps.

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* 2004 winner: Sam Hornish Jr.

* Next race: XM Satellite Radio Indy 200, March 19, Avondale, Ariz.


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