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What debate? CART is king of open-wheels
By Jim Litke, Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS -- Case closed.

There is no more doubting where the best teams in open-wheel racing work. Four years after speedway boss Tony George chased away the Championship Auto Racing Teams drivers and owners and started a rival circuit, CART owner Chip Ganassi was back home again in Indiana with Juan Montoya in tow and kicking the door back in.

Chip Ganassi
Chip Ganassi's victory just might make other CART owners reconsider their decision to stay away from Indy next year.

Until now, the alphabet war between CART and George's Indy Racing League produced half-truths from guys with axes to grind. Montoya proved just how much louder action can be, winning the Indianapolis 500 on his first try.

"I feel the same," he said, "just happier."

Ganassi drove in the race himself five times in the mid-1980s, but grudgingly stayed away from the track as the CART-IRL war escalated. He still bases his racing operation here, though, and when two of his biggest sponsors insisted he go, then ponied up $2.4 million to ease the transition, Ganassi jumped at the opportunity.

"Everybody here welcomed us back with open arms," Ganassi said afterward. "This is the biggest moment of my life."

But Montoya was much less impressed.

He cracked jokes over the two-way radio in the middle of the race. His car needed so little service most of the way -- just fuel and fresh tires -- that the guys from the neighborhood garage could have manned the pit. He toyed with Buddy Lazier, his closest pursuer at the end, as if they were in line in the drive-through at McDonald's.

The only thing that would have made Montoya's win more dominating is if he revealed he had the car on cruise-control when he took the checkered flag.

The IRL has been locked in a struggle with CART for credibility and audience share. But until Sunday's race, the only thing neither side disputed was how much they were damaging each other -- to the continuing benefit of NASCAR.

Now there is at least one more point of agreement.

"He's the best of the best," George said about Montoya, just moments after handing over the trophy in Victory Lane. "He's raced against the best, and whatever level he's been at, he's won.

"The best team won today, with the best driver. He was just on it -- smooth, collected. My guess is this was just another day for him."

Good guess.

"I had fun out there, to be honest," Montoya admitted.

The 24-year-old Colombian won the CART championship as a rookie last year, his victory dovetailing with Ganassi's fourth consecutive title as an owner. Montoya may be headed for the Formula One circuit, perhaps as early as the end of the year.

If so, his Indy debut won't soon be forgotten.

Montoya showed the complete range of skills needed to master CART's different tracks -- ovals, road courses and street circuits. IRL drivers, running strictly on ovals, rarely master those skills. Montoya got into dogfights when he had to, ran and hid with the lead when he could and, in the single most impressive maneuver in Sunday's race, fended off Lazier coming out of a restart on Lap 149.

As the green flag dropped, Lazier tried to jump Montoya on the low side of the track, using the slower car of Steve Knapp in the middle to seal off Montoya. In a daring move, Montoya swooped into the space just ahead of Lazier before the gap closed.

"You've got to keep aggressive," Montoya said though a wide smile.

The good news is that Montoya wasn't the only one who felt that way.

Several attempts at a CART-IRL reconcilliation have fallen through, and there were signs in the days leading up to the race that the rift was still very much on people's minds. When defending IRL champion Greg Ray bumped Montoya off the pole, high-fives were exchanged by IRL crew members, and several of the league's drivers made a very public show of congratulating him.

But on race day, everybody got the same treatment -- rough -- whether they were IRL or CART drivers the rest of the year.

"I got shut out. I got hammered," Lazier said. "I got boxed in, and the guys that did it were IRL drivers."

But he wasn't complaining. What Lazier wanted was the chance to run against the best, fair and square, and he finally got it.

The best won, but then they usually do.

For four long years, we've heard George deny that something was missing from the race and CART deny that it missed running on the most storied oval open-wheel racing has to offer. Sunday proved honesty is still a pretty good policy.

"Hats off to the IRL," said Vasser, a former CART champion himself. "They did a great job and provided tough competition."

As George watched Montoya take off for a victory lap, he had to wonder what message that victory was going to send. Somebody broke into his reverie to ask whether Montoya's showing should encourage more CART teams to make the considerable investment -- different chassis and engines are required in the IRL -- to run at Indy.

George swallowed hard.

"I'd like to see," he said bravely, "whoever wants to run."
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