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Friday, January 25

Ganassi: Not yet a story
By Robin Miller

When Roger Penske officially announced he was leaving Championship Auto Racing Teams for the Indy Racing League in 2002, Chip Ganassi suggested he might not be that far behind Penske.

And he wasn't kidding.

With his ties to Target and Toyota, and neither happy about CART's expanding international schedule, Ganassi looked to be a good candidate for being full-time IRL by 2003.

But has learned that Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George recently approached Ganassi about fielding an IRL team for Jeff Ward -- this season.

"Do I have two IRL cars and some IRL engines? Yes. Have I had conversations with Jeff Ward? Yes. Would I like to run him in the IRL in 2002? Yes. Do I have the sponsorship to do it? No," replied Ganassi, who is campaigning Kenny Brack and Bruno Junqueira this year in CART and Jimmy Spencer and Sterling Marlin in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

"I have commitments to major sponsors in CART and NASCAR and I'm going to be there. If something comes up in the IRL, then I'll take a look at it but it's not on my front burner.

"I'd love to be in CART, NASCAR, IRL and the NHRA but somebody's got to pay for it."

It's well known that George has shopped Al Unser Jr. to several IRL teams because the two-time Indy 500 winner has no ride since Rick Galles closed his doors.

George, who pays Unser's $4 million salary, also has spent lots of money helping keep several financially-challenged IRL teams alive the past six years but reportedly is trying to discontinue that practice.

Ward, a former motocross champion with a pair of poles and three runner-up finishes in his 45 IRL starts, doesn't have anything lined up for 2002.

However, getting both Ganassi and Penske to join his all-oval track series in 2002 would be a major coup for the IRL founder since they've captured the last six CART championships. If it took $2 to 3 million to snag Ganassi, that would likely be money well spent.

George was unavailable for comment.

The other part of this equation that makes it viable is that Ganassi is the factory team for Toyota, which will begin competing in the IRL in 2003 with a normally-aspirated engine. Starting next June, Ganassi's team will likely test the new Toyota IRL motor following every IRL race so it would make sense, logistically, if he were to run Ward in the IRL this season.

Would it behoove Toyota to financially help Ganassi compete in the IRL in 2002?

"Assisting Chip with running an IRL car that doesn't carry Toyota power makes no marketing sense," said Les Unger, Toyota's national motorsports manager, referring to the fact Ganassi will campaign a Chevrolet engine this May in the Indy 500 with Brack and Tony Stewart. "Nothing is impossible, but helping out somebody running a competitor's powerplant is highly unlikely.

"As of today, Chip hasn't signed anything to indicate he's running in the IRL in 2003."

Ganassi, the first major CART owner to come back to Indy (in 2000, where Juan Montoya triumphed) following the IRL/CART split of 1996, claimed he's talked with a few people about a 2002 IRL deal, but has yet to see the color of their money.

"It has to make economic sense. Period," Ganassi said. "Right now, it's not a story."

Pook gets down to business
New CART CEO Chris Pook's first meeting with his constituency last Tuesday and Wednesday in St. Petersburg, Fla., went much smoother than most owners' meetings, according to Morris Nunn.

"It was very professional, no screaming or shouting, and it was conducted much better than ever before," said Nunn, who is fielding cars in both CART and the IRL this year. "The guy knows motor racing, he's got a lot of good ideas and I think people respect him.

"We should have had him in here long before now."

Among the major topics of conversation were new races in Florida, how to make the show better, cost containment, rules stability and engine rules. Pook took the owners on a tour of the proposed layout for a street race at St. Pete that would also incorporate a nearby airport (a la Cleveland) and early indications are this venue could open the 2003 season, possibly in February.

There is also a good chance a street race in Miami could be added near the end of this year's schedule.

As for races in Chicago, Laguna Seca and Mid-Ohio (all supposedly still unsigned for their CART dates in 2002 because of balking at the high sanction fees), Pook has a plan for CART to be more of a co-promoter at these, and other, venues.

"CART is trying to get the balance of economics that a promoter can live with and CART is going to be much more of an active participant in these events," said Bud Stanner, president of IMG Motorsports, promoters of the CART races at Cleveland Australia.

Pook also wants to return to Friday qualifying at road and street circuits (last year Friday was merely a test day) because he realizes it's a much better sell for fans and media.

Cosworth presented a proposal to furnish a spec, turbocharged engine for 2003, but it supposedly received little support and CART will, indeed, be switching to the 3.5-liter, normally-aspirated engine it voted in last fall.

Whenever CART finally settles on the specifics of its new engine, there will be a four-year rules freeze on engines and chassis, from 2003-06.

Another NASCAR defector
Kasey Kahne, the talented 19-year-old who has impressed everyone the past two years in the U.S. Auto Club and was being groomed by Ford Motor Company for CART, is joining the open-wheel exodus to NASCAR.

With Ford's help, Kahne landed a Busch ride with Robert Yates for 2002 and 2003 and follows the path of past USAC stars Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jason Leffler.

Less than a year after Dan Davis, director of Ford's racing technology, put Kahne in an F2000 and Toyota Atlantic and vowed not to let another open-wheel guy get away to NASCAR, he joined the crowd.

"Let's face it, open wheel looks pretty bleak at the moment and is it viable commercially for Kasey? Not compared to NASCAR," said Davis, whose company will pull out of CART following the 2002 season.

"For an American to have a steady job and make good money, NASCAR is not a bad option. We're sticking with him and he'll run a partial schedule this year and a full one in 2003 so we can see what his potential is."

Part of Davis' plan was to get an American back into Formula One, but he didn't sound optimistic.

"When Bobby (Rahal) was running Jaguar is looked like we had a chance, but now nobody wants to talk to us," said Davis, who hinted Ford might help Kahne get to the Indy 500 next May.

Quick hitters

  • Dale Coyne, who sat out last year's CART season because he had insufficient sponsorship, is telling people he'll be back in the FedEx Championship this season. Possibly with two cars.

  • Hideki Noda, a veteran of F1, F3000 and Indy Lights, is starting an IRL team known as Convergent Racing and it's composed of several members of the now-defunct Team Xtreme.

  • Sigma's Tom Wieringa made it official last week that Max Papis is replacing Oriol Servia in his CART ride for 2002, but still no official word from PacWest on hiring Servia (despite the fact he tested for them last week in Florida).

  • Tomas Scheckter, son of former F1 champ Jody who was a test driver for Jaguar's F1 program last year, tested Eddie Cheever's IRL car last week at Fontana, Calif. Cheever will announce the second driver on his Red Bull team soon.

  • Wally Dallenbach, who was CART's only chief steward from 1979-2000 before stepping down and giving way to Chris Kneifel last year, will be back in his old position this season.

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