For de Ferran, ovals are shape of things to come

ON MOTOR SPORTS

Auto Racing

March 17, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Gil de Ferran's voice is a mixture of joy and sadness as he answers a question about his Penske Team's move from Championship Auto Racing Teams to the Indy Racing League.

"I am missing and going to miss, probably my whole life, road racing," he said, referring to leaving the versatile CART series, in which he won the past two season championships while competing on road, street and oval courses, for the purely oval-based IRL. "That's how I started racing. That's what I fell in love with.

"But, I'm trying to make myself as good an oval driver as I can. I want to learn enough to challenge for a championship -- make no doubt about that."

At 34, de Ferran is adjusting to life as an oval driver. Last weekend in Homestead, Fla., he finished second to IRL defending-champion Sam Hornish and emerged smiling from his race car.

"I've always enjoyed racing ovals," he said during a conference call this week. "Homestead was actually a lot of fun. There's a fun factor in oval racing."

Still, there are challenges, said the affable Brazilian. There are new tracks, new cars, new competitors.

He has raced in Phoenix, where today's Bombardier ARV Copper World Indy 200 will be run. He has raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where his teammate, Helio Castroneves, won last May. And he has raced in Fontana, Calif., where he holds the world closed-course speed record (241.428 mph), and where he clinched his first championship.

And it is at these tracks where he feels it is "urgent" to collect as many points as possible in the title hunt, because when he goes to such places as Richmond International Speedway, Kentucky Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway, he will have zero familiarity.

"Tracks like that will be the most challenging for us," he said. "We will just try to do the best we can. That's the way I approach every day: try to do the best I can."

The IRL year is 15 races long. De Ferran plans to be challenging for the title in September, when he rolls into Texas Motor Speedway for the last race of the season.

"Sam Hornish is the series champion," de Ferran said. "He's the guy to beat and I have a lot of respect for him and a lot of other guys out here. But now, it's up to us to raise our game and try to beat him."

Mixed feelings

NASCAR's one-engine rule, which requires teams to qualify, practice and race with the same engine for each race this season, was given its severest test in the 500-miler at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend. Teams emerged with conflicting views.

Bill Davis, whose car won the Daytona 500, said he is "real reserved" about it.

"I think in the overall scheme of things, it could be a good thing for us," he said of the rule designed to lower racing costs. "[But] one blown motor, falling out of one race will cost a team owner more than he could possibly save with the one-engine rule.

"Practice motors and qualifying motors really and truly don't cost a lot of money. They're used parts and you use them over and over again."

Pole-sitter Bill Elliott finished the race without trouble. The Joe Gibbs teams had mixed results, with Tony Stewart winning and Bobby Labonte dropping out. The Yates' teams, always known for their engine power, proved durable.

"I think I'd like to see NASCAR keep it the way it is," said engine builder Doug Yates. "We've made a rule, so let's try and ride it out a little bit. When you show up, you've got what you've got, and you've got to make the best of it. Right now, we're starting to see some guys make better of it than others."

Mack support

NBA players Penny Hardaway, Shawn Marion and Bo Outlaw will be supporting IRL rookie driver George Mack as 310 Racing, the IRL's first African-American-owned and -driven team, competes in its second race today at Phoenix International Raceway.

Mack finished a better-than-expected 13th in a field of 27 at Homestead.

"I feel good that in my first IRL race our team not only finished, but came in 13th," Mack said. "But we can do better. I know we can finish in the top 10 and that will be my goal in Phoenix."

Nuts and bolts

NASCAR has decided to treat speeding into pit road the same way it treats speeding out of pit road. Both infractions will require the offending driver to come around and make a pass through pit road at the required speed. A driver who speeds during the pass-through will be brought back in for a stop-and-go penalty, as will a driver who speeds coming in and going out of pit road. ...

Stewart has gone from 43rd to fifth in the Winston Cup points standings in three races. ... Defending Winston Cup champ Jeff Gordon has not had a top-five finish since winning at Kansas Speedway last September. That's 12 long races ago. He is 11th in points. ...

SPEED Channel delivered a .53 rating for its first live race broadcast of a CART FedEx Championship Series event -- the Monterrey Grand Prix last Sunday. The .53 rating is 18 percent higher than ESPN's 12-race season average of .45 in 2001, but translates to just 264,000 households. ...

Today will mark the 500th race for A.J. Foyt as a driver and owner in Indy car racing. His first Indy car start was in 1957. Foyt retired from driving Indy cars in 1993, but he has continued to field the cars as an owner. ...

Winston Cup driver Mark Martin, driving in a series that sometimes has three times as many races as the series Foyt drove and competes in, will make his 500th career start at Bristol next week. Martin ran his first Winston Cup race in 1981.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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