Tagliani paces Friday's practice

FONTANA, Calif. -- Alex Tagliani was the fastest of a very
quick field Friday, the opening day of practice for the 500
presented by Toyota and California Speedway.

The Canadian driver, behind the wheel of a Ford-powered Reynard,
turned a lap of 233.726 mph on the 2-mile oval as teams prepared
for Sunday's 500-mile event.

"There was a tow involved in my lap for sure,'' Tagliani said.
"We were working with the downforce throughout the session and we
were pretty trimmed down.

He was fast in practice in Rockingham, England, in September.

"We qualified ninth there,'' he recalled. "I think the times
are representative of how we'll do in the race.''

Jimmy Vasser, who won the 500-mile race here in 1998, was second
at 232.988, followed by Tony Kanaan at 232.891, Dario Franchitti at
232.743 and Patrick Carpentier at 232.063.

The top five will be favorites for the pole in Saturday's

"I'm not too worried about qualifying,'' Kanaan said. "We're
just working on having a good race car. It's obviously a long

Cristiano da Matta, who wrapped up the 2002 CART championship
last month and is the defending winner here, was ninth at 231.496.
Da Matta will break the series record of eight victories in a
season if he wins the last two events this year. He also leads the
series with seven poles in 2002.

Fast healer
Despite fracturing two neck vertebrae in a crash
last Sunday in Australia, Adrian Fernandez is hoping to be back in
his race car in time for the season-ending event Nov. 17 in Mexico

Fernandez, the only owner-driver in the CART series, said he
already is doing physical therapy and will undergo another CT Scan
to determine if the injury is healing enough to allow him to race
in his native country.

"I'm sure the latest we can do it, maybe the Monday of the week
of the race,'' said Fernandez, who was wearing a large white neck
brace at the track on Friday. "That's two weeks. My body heals
very quickly, I think it's due to the physical shape that all the
drivers are in; not just myself but every driver in CART. I have a
lot of optimism that I'm going to be OK.''

This is the second time this season that the 37-year-old driver
has missed a race because of injury. He was hit from behind in
Vancouver on July 28 and had two hairline fractures in his left
pelvis. That forced him to miss the race at Mid-Ohio.

Max Papis, who replaced Fernandez in that event, also is driving
his car this weekend.

Fernandez is hoping he will only miss one race this time, as

"I'm very hopeful,'' he said. "For me, it's a dream come true
to go to Mexico City and race in front of all our fans after so
many years of trying to bring a race there. We've been working to
have a race in Mexico City for so many years, and for me not being
there, it would be a very tough situation.''

Fast stop
Team Rahal won the Craftsman Pit Crew Challenge
Shootout at California Speedway on Friday.

Vasser was at the wheel of the Ford-powered Lola as his
crew changed four tires and got him out of his pit stall and past
the timing light in 35.042 seconds. That was easily the fastest
stop of the day. It came in the first of two rounds and Vasser
didn't have to make the second run to win.

The CART teams earn points throughout the season with the lowest
total time in the pits at each race. The top five in the points
then meet in the finals.

"We were the favorites as bad as we kicked everybody's rear end
all season,'' Vasser said. "It would have been even a bigger
margin if we had had better luck and finished more races this

The winning team, which had the total fastest time in eight of
the first 17 races in 2002, shares $50,000.

The Newman/Haas Racing team of da Matta was second at
35.282, followed by teammate Christian Fittipaldi at 35.920. Chip
Ganassi Racing's Bruno Junqueira was fourth at 36.459, with
Tagliani's Team Players' crew last at 40.325.

Kenny Brack was the Team Rahal driver last year and the only
returning crewman on the car was Greg Cates, who changed the
outside rear tire. Other members of the winning crew were Bharat
Naran on the outside front tire, Matt Motyka on the inside front,
Jeremy Johnson on the inside rear and Doug Hoerig on the air jack.

Spark plugs
The 2.029-mile California oval was the site of Gil
de Ferran's
record closed course run of 242.428 mph in qualifying
for the 2000 race. ... California Speedway also holds the
distinction of having the most lead changes in a CART race, with 73
among 19 drivers last fall. ... Michael Andretti, who will move to
the rival Indy Racing League in 2003, will start the 308th race of
his 20-year CART career on Sunday.