Bringing up the rear
• CART series will try to lure fans to the track with a cast of hardworking unknowns
Fans at Portland International Raceway will get to see Mario race on Sunday.
But it'll be Mario Haberfeld, not Mario Andretti.
Also Sunday, Emerson Fittipaldi makes his return to the G.I. Joe's 200. But Tiago Monteiro will be driving, with Emmo observing as the car owner.
Welcome to the new-look CART Champ Car World Series, where nearly half of the 19-car field will be drivers you've never heard of, unless you really, really, really love auto racing. Eight rookies are expected to line up on Sunday. Ten rookies have started races this season.
Gone are the open-wheel stars of yesteryear Ñ many are now in the rival Indy Racing League Ñ the big-money engine manufacturers whose heated competitions fueled CART for years, and many big-bucks sponsors.
The cars are still fast, they make gnarly noise, and high-end racers such as Bruno Junqueira, Paul Tracy and Adrian Fernandez still put on an occasional good show.
But who in the name of Hiro Matsushita are these guys? The backmarkers are unknowns, if not as infamous as Mr. Matsushita, the moving violation of the 1990s. Ever heard of Joel Camathias and Rodolfo Lavin?
'Hey, without us, they'd only have a few cars,' Monteiro says. 'They needed us, and we needed them. It's a good match.'
Indeed, many of CART's 13 teams had not been formed until weeks before the Feb. 23 opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., and then those teams had to find drivers. Michael Schumacher, Juan Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon weren't available. Neither were their cousins, uncles, brothers or grandfathers.
So the new-blood transfusion began, with lowly paid rookies hooking up with neophyte teams with thin budgets, all formed with CART's financial help to allow the series to literally stay alive. It was like finding bit actors to support Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore.
Upstart American Spirit Racing hired American Ryan Hunter-Reay, fresh from the feeder Toyota Atlantic series. Craig Pollock's PK Racing settled for Patrick Lemarie, who the team let go in favor of veterans Bryan Herta and now Max Papis, who will start Sunday.
Mi-Jack Conquest Racing signed Haberfeld in December but started practicing only one month before St. Pete.
'The first time I went to Indianapolis,' Haberfeld says of the team headquarters, 'there was only one mechanic and one truckee. No cars, no anything. They did a good job to employ people and get all the equipment. My first four races, I had four different engineers.'
Then you have the Fittipaldi-Dingman team, which sprinted to the start. 'I signed a contract two weeks before the first race. It was amazing,' says Monteiro, an affable 27-year-old from Portugal.
Even the more established teams scrambled. Dale Coyne Racing signed Camathias and then Alex Yoong days before the first race, after Roberto Gonzalez did not work out. Geoff Boss replaced Yoong at Laguna Seca last weekend.
Walker Racing signed rookies Darren Manning and Lavin. Newman/Haas signed the most ballyhooed rookie, Sebastien Bourdais, the 2002 Formula 3000 champ who has lived up to his billing with two victories. The 24-year-old Frenchman clearly has the best situation among the new drivers. 'Put any rookie in his car and they'd be good,' Monteiro says.
It is all part of CART's plan to nurture no-name drivers through its ladder system and pluck the best young pilots from Formula 3000 before Formula One or sports car racing gets them. The strategy gives CART a distinctive Triple-A feel.
Haberfeld and Manning have done fairly well. Haberfeld, a Brazilian, ranks ninth in points with two top-five finishes. Manning, a Brit, is 10th. They are doing more than just getting in the way of the leaders.
Never mind being inexperienced on makeshift teams, many rookies also are working with the old Reynard chassis. The Reynards don't create as much downforce as the Lola, which 'is so much quicker in the turns, it's ridiculous,' Monteiro says.
And the rookies are seeing tracks like PIR for the first time.
Thus, the results have not been 'Sports Center' material: Monteiro ranks 14th in points, Hunter-Reay 15th, Lemarie 16th, Camathias 17th, Yoong 18th and Lavin 19th.
'I'm becoming more comfortable. Every time I give my best effort,' says Lavin, from Mexico, who completed just 10 laps last weekend at Laguna Seca because of gearbox troubles. Manning went out two laps later. 'Definitely, the goal is to be on top, winning races,' he says.
Others are realistic.
'We can aim for top five and eventually podium,' Monteiro says. 'We would need some luck to win.'
'I think we can be top 10 every race,' says Camathias, of Switzerland. 'I have faith, but I don't know if we can win a race.'
You don't know who the heck he is. But you have to admire his honesty.