CART's global flavor not to U.S. taste


April 09, 2000|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA -- Luiz Garcia Jr. did everything right in terms of designing his career to reach his dream.

The dream? To be a Formula I race-car driver.

He started by racing go-karts in his native Brazil in 1985 and won three national championships. He moved up to Formula Ford and won the 1991 national championship. Then, he moved to Europe to drive in Formula Vauxhall, and finished runner-up to Dario Franchitti. From there, it was on to Formula 3000, and another runner-up finish in 1996. It was then he should have stepped into an F-1 race car. But in F-1, openings are rare. So, eventually, Garcia, like many other foreign open-wheel drivers, looked to the United States.

"You have to go where the opportunities are," he said. "Guys I raced with in Europe are here now -- [Juan] Montoya, Franchitti, [Max] Papis. So the two series, F-1 and CART, are about on the same level. But CART is more competitive."

The CART FedEx Series, as Garcia says, is every bit as international as F-1. Drivers from all over the world are competing in races that are scheduled everywhere from Nazareth, Pa., today, to California next week to Brazil, Japan, Canada and Australia.

Around the world, the series is gaining attention and creating excitement. But, strangely enough, the very thing that makes F-1 so appealing elsewhere -- its international flavor and flair -- seems to be one of the hindrances to CART's popularity at home.

U.S. fans apparently prefer to root for U.S. drivers. Witness the growth of Winston Cup racing, which has had just one foreign-born race winner (Canadian Earl Ross in 1974). By contrast, foreign drivers have won five of the past seven CART championships.

Several young, talented American drivers who started in open-wheel competition have migrated to NASCAR's Winston Cup Series -- Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, to name the two most prominent.

This week at a media gathering here in the City of Brotherly Love, former CART and F-1 world champion Mario Andretti, an Italian-born American, was working hard to promote today's Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix. He said he knows there are many, many open-wheel fans in this part of the country, but that they have not been supporting the race as strongly as they could at Nazareth.

"It's my hometown, and I don't want to see Nazareth lose the race," said Andretti, 60. "And it will lose it if it doesn't get the support it should, because there are other sites standing in line for these races."

When asked if the lack of American drivers was part of the problem, Andretti acknowledged that it might be, but at the same time insisted it shouldn't be. "I'm very strong on the international flavor being a positive," he said. "I think it is up to us, to the American drivers, to step up and earn our positions. Look at the golf at Augusta. The days of provincialism are over. "Golf is a series a lot like ours."

Golf, he said, isn't less exciting because of Bernard Langer, Jose Maria Olazabal and Nick Faldo; it's more exciting because they helped provide the stronger competition that makes Tiger Woods a better player.

"Our drivers have to meet the best drivers in the world and prevail over them," Andretti said. "And I think we have a farm system in place, with the Indy Lights and Atlantic series, that has prepared a number of Americans to be just about ready to appear. They're just around the corner.

"It's true that Gordon and Stewart went to NASCAR, but they weren't trained as road racers. The oval series suits them. Our series is more versatile and there are just more challenges than ever before, and that is good."

Young drivers like Garcia, 28, hope the competitiveness and soundness of the product will be enough to bring more fans to the races. The idea that his presence and that of other international drivers is a detriment doesn't make him happy.

But he said he also understands some of the hesitancy of Americans to embrace foreign drivers like himself and series defending champion Juan Montoya. Even now, after victories in seven races as a rookie last season, few casual fans have heard of the 24-year-old from Bogota, Colombia. When he did win, it was difficult for him to communicate with his fans because of the language barrier. His English was such that Montoya has worked hard to improve his language skills since then.

"It is very important to be able to communicate in the language of the country where you compete," said Garcia, who hopes his Arciero Project Racing Group team will one day be as successful as Montoya's. Garcia, a warm, friendly man, said all this in perfect English. He, his wife, Patricia, and his 19-month old daughter, Bruna, live comfortably in Miami.

He said he is lucky because his parents sent him to The American School in Brasilia, Brazil's capital, and he was able to learn the language from first grade on.

"Speaking English isn't only important because of the American press," he said. "It is important because it helps my communication with my team. And English, well, if you speak English, you can go anywhere. Maybe it is still hard in Japan without Japanese, but English is better than Portuguese. With English, I will not starve anywhere."

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