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Faithful race backer losing CART religion

G.I. Joe's president won't pledge funds for iffy 2004 race

For 20 years, Norm Daniels and his company, G.I. Joe's, have stuck by Championship Auto Racing Teams through the good times and the bad.

His company has put up a lot of sponsorship money to help stage the CART race at Portland International Raceway. Daniels likes the racing, likes the attention the race brings to Portland and remains loyal to the event he helped started.

But Daniels will not pledge money to this year's race, tentatively set for June 18-20, even though the Portland promoter needs some promises now and the Open Wheel Racing Group Ñ which hopes to take over CART's assets after bankruptcy hearings and go racing Ñ wants its sanctioning fee soon.

'We'll lose out, or not be part of something that may not happen anyway,' says Daniels, G.I. Joe's president. 'Two times zero is still zero.'

An Indianapolis court will hear the bankruptcy hearings Jan. 28; other bids will be taken Jan. 23, and the rival Indy Racing League may go after some of CART's assets. IRL officials have long expressed interest in racing in Portland. The Indy Racing League could be here as soon as 2005, PIR Manager Mark Wigginton says.

But Portland city officials and Wigginton need an answer this week about whether the CART/Open Wheel race will be held this year. Portland promoter Mike Nealy of Global Events Group, who is in Hawaii, had not announced any sponsorship commitments or plans to stage the race as of noon Thursday.

Everybody, it seems, will wait until the bankruptcy court decides CART's fate. Even big series sponsors like Tecate are said to be holding onto their purse strings instead of giving upfront financial support to races such as Portland's.

'Our position is we will look at a CART sponsorship if and when there is a firm commitment to come to Portland, and if the new national sponsor (Open Wheel) is a compatible partner with G.I. Joe's,' Daniels says.

Meanwhile, a city-appointed committee that includes Daniels, Wigginton and Bob Ames, another Portland CART race founder, has been exploring other races. Wigginton and Ames have talked to the IRL.

Ames says the IRL could race in Portland 'in a heartbeat' Ñ not this year because of logistics, but easily next year. The city and CART do not have a contract, only a handshake agreement.

Three road-racing venues Ñ PIR, Mid-Ohio and Road America Ñ are often mentioned as possible sites for the IRL's venture into road racing because they do not have CART race contracts. They are free agents, if you will.

But the IRL probably would first try to race on the streets in Long Beach, Calif., where one of its manufacturers and major sponsors, Toyota, has supported a race for years.

'Beyond Long Beach, they're looking at natural road courses, and we have a challenging and safe natural road course, and we can deliver the Northwest part of the country,' Wigginton says.

'Let's assume CART collapses,' he adds. 'The IRL has done road testing (on brakes and gearbox), and they could realistically plug Long Beach into their schedule this year. It's within the realm of possibility. Portland's in a different situation because we're not sitting here with a huge sponsor.'

Says Daniels: 'I don't think the IRL is any great shakes better than CART. Actually, I think the CART racing in the past has been superior to the IRL, except the IRL has the Indy 500.'