Overhead deck Portland International Raceway brims with a hero, villain and intrigue regular: 2.5/18/1: Adrian Fernandez scores a feel-good win at G.I. Joe's 200
CART Champ Car World Series officials yearn for great theater. They got some last weekend in the 20th G.I. Joe's 200.
The race had a hero.
Adrian Fernandez broke a 47-race drought at Portland International Raceway, winning Sunday in front of thousands of adoring Hispanic fans, driving the car sponsored by prominent advertiser Tecate beer and celebrating in the hometown of fiancee Michelle Davis and co-owner Tom Anderson's mother.
The race also had a villain.
Bad boy Paul Tracy drew the wrath of many drivers for blocking during Friday's qualifying. Fernandez, Jimmy Vasser, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Bruno Junqueira fired off verbal shots.
Tracy also punted Alex Tagliani from behind, and Tags ripped him, too. On Saturday, Tracy responded, telling the drivers with 'glass jaws' to keep their mouths shut.
Then, on Sunday, Tracy drew a five-second penalty for leaving his pit too abruptly to get ahead of leader Michel Jourdain. Tracy eventually tangled with Jourdain in the Festival Curves, with each pointing the finger at the other. 'I was the last car he managed to hit all weekend,' says Jourdain, who never recovered and finished 12th.
The race also had an antagonist and subplot.
Under the specter of financial disaster, and threats made by Chief Executive Officer Christopher Pook to take his Northwest race and go to Seattle, CART announced plans Ñ a verbal agreement ÑÊto return to PIR for the next three years. If CART still exists, of course. And if the Indy Racing League doesn't pull an end run and wiggle into the Portland scene.
Ticket sales and sponsorships were way down at PIR this year, with organizers blaming the economy, and G.I. Joe's still hasn't committed backing for next year. At least the Rose Festival didn't lose money again; now it is CART, which conducts the race with hired hand Global Events Group, potentially bathing in losses. No question, the race remains Portland's grandest single-day sporting event, but what will become of it?
The 40-year-old Fernandez's first victory as owner-driver provided the feel-good ending on Sunday. Team ownership has been more difficult than he imagined, as he settles internal disputes and worries about money rather than simply racing. He has 50 employees in the $8 million operation.
'It's like having a lot of kids,' says Fernandez, who also owns an IRL team.
His CART team had seven engine problems in 2001, then more engine problems and two accidents last year. He still does physical therapy for his hip every Monday, working out in Phoenix with famed pitcher Randy Johnson. 'This win, after what's been going on, it's fantastic,' he says.
Villain goes on offensive
Fernandez started third and waited for his opportunity. Tracy, even after his five-second penalty on lap 72, led Fernandez out of the pits. With 14 laps to go, Tracy braked early heading into PIR's first turn, and Fernandez scooted by him for the lead Ñ because CART rules now prohibit drivers from blocking, Tracy couldn't stop him.
From there, Fernandez's Lola and his Bridgestone tires were too good. And front-end damage precluded Tracy from pushing at the end. 'I gave the victory away to Adrian,' says Tracy, whose No. 1 qualifying position and runner-up finish elevated the Player's/Forsythe driver to first in Champ Car season points with 99, ahead of Junqueira (95) and Jourdain (91). 'Had I stayed in front, I probably could have held him off.'
Fernandez said Tracy 'behaved like a champion' in defeat. He and others couldn't say the same during qualifying, after which comments dripped of animosity and resentment toward Tracy and his big-bucks team.
To wit, Tracy said in a television interview, 'I've got one thing to say to all those wimpy race-car drivers: You shouldn't throw stones if you live in a glass house. If you've got a glass jaw, you should keep your mouth shut.'
Tagliani, who finished third, and Tracy exchanged stone-faced glances after the race and did not shake hands.
Referring specifically to Hunter-Reay, whose second-place qualifying position Friday was negated because his Reynard came in underweight, Tracy said, 'It really doesn't matter what he says because he was cheating.'
Some CART officials quietly applauded Tracy for his theatrics, one telling him 'to keep it up' and jokingly suggesting he would slip him some cash to elevate the confrontations to shoves and fisticuffs, a la NASCAR. 'We've got to beat them to the punch,' the official said.
Jim Francesconi, a Portland city commissioner, says the agreement to re-up with CART will be signed within three months Ñ but only after CART passes certain performance measurements regarding such things as TV ratings, the number and quality of cars and attendance.
In turn, Francesconi says the city realizes CART's desire to see improvements in PIR's pit lanes and Festival Curves, 'and we know that bridge (to the infield) needs to be built. We're very aware of it.'
Pook threw out the threat to race in Seattle, although it would take three years and 80 permits. Pook also conceded that if IRL decides to race on permanent road courses, 'they'll take a run at it,' meaning Portland, where CART simply rents the racetrack. How binding would a CART-Portland agreement be?
'I don't think it's as imminent as what it once seemed,' Global's Mike Nealy says of IRL road course racing. 'And, they'll look at other venues before Portland,' such as Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Road America.
But one organizer of the Portland race says he has been talking to IRL officials about having an IRL race here. He points to CART burning cash in promoting and operating its events and subsidizing teams as an indicator of the series' loss of viability and appeal and why Portland should consider an IRL event.
If Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone and others buy CART Ñ and it may just be a smoke screen Ñ they would have to take the company private and pay off investors, four of whom own half of the stock, led by team owner Gerald Forsythe's 23 percent.
And then the buyers would have to recapitalize, a daunting task without deep-pocketed sponsors and a rights-paying TV deal.
We'll see what the Pookster and CART can do. It could be good theater.