DETROIT--The FedEx Championship Series kicks off its first of four consecutive oval events in grand fashion this weekend with Championship Auto Racing Teams’ inaugural foray to the spectacular Texas Motor Speedway for the Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer (3 p.m. ET Sunday, live, ESPN).
CART’s visit to the 1.5-mile oval, located in Fort Worth, for Round 3 of the record 21-race season initiates the prominent oval portion of the schedule with the Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer being the first of four in a row. The run continues with the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota at Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway (May 6), the Firestone Firehawk 500 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan (May 19) and the Miller Lite 225 at The Milwaukee Mile (June 3).
Newman/Haas Racing will launch a double-pronged attack on TMS that figures to make it one of the teams to beat this weekend. The effort begins with Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota/Lola), the FedEx Championship Series points leader who is off to a spectacular start in his first two races with the team after replacing long-time Newman/Haas pilot and all-time CART victory leader Michael Andretti.
Da Matta opened the season by earning his second career FedEx Championship Series victory at Monterrey, Mexico and followed with a runner-up effort on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. That gives him 37 championship points heading into the weekend, seven more than defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran (30) and 10 more than de Ferran’s Marlboro Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves (27).
The other half of the Newman/Haas attack is paced by Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Toyota/Lola), who reigns as the most recent winner of a FedEx Championship Series oval event. Fittipaldi won the season-ending Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota in October at California Speedway and collected the $1 million first-place prize in the process.
Like da Matta, de Ferran (Marlboro Honda/Reynard) has finished on the podium in each of the first two events of his championship defense. He was runner-up to da Matta at Monterrey and third to Castroneves and da Matta, respectively, at Long Beach.
Castroneves (Marlboro Honda/Reynard) comes to the Lone Star state off an utterly dominant showing at Long Beach which saw him lead all 82 race laps while winning from the pole. He collected the maximum 22 points (20 for the win, 1 for most laps led, 1 for the pole) and vaulted from eighth to third in the championship.
Team KOOL Green’s Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda/Reynard), with six career oval victories, and Patrick Racing’s Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota/Lola), with five, should also rate among this weekend’s favorites. They stand fourth and fifth, respectively, in the championship, with 26 and 18 points.
Andretti (Motorola Honda/Reynard), meanwhile, will be seeking his CART-record 41st career victory and his 15th on an oval. By taking the green flag for Sunday’s event, he will also tie Al Unser Jr.’s CART record of 273 career starts.
Among all the drivers on this weekend’s entry list, only one–Team Rahal’s Kenny Brack–has competitive experience at Texas Motor Speedway. Brack made five starts at TMS during his three seasons in the Indy Racing League, with a best finish of third in the first of two events at Texas in 1998. His top start was also third, in 1997.
Following the inaugural Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Toyota, the FedEx Championship Series travels to Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway for Round 4, the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, May 4-6.
• FedEx Championship Series points leader Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota/Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing has scored podium finishes in his first two events of the FedEx Championship Series season and as a result maintains the first-ever championship lead of his three-year career. Da Matta, the 1998 Dayton Indy Lights champion, claimed his second career FedEx Championship Series victory at Monterrey, Mexico to open the campaign, and followed with a runner-up finish at Long Beach earlier this month. With 37 points, he leads defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran of Marlboro Team Penske by seven.
• Marlboro Team Penske driver Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda/Reynard), the defending FedEx Series champion, has finished on the podium in five of his past seven FedEx Championship Series starts. He also has been among the top five in eight of his past 11, dating to a third-place effort at Chicago Motor Speedway last July. The run also includes finishes of second at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca last year and Monterrey last month; and third at Houston and California Speedway last year and Long Beach this year. De Ferran also qualified fifth at Long Beach to extend a run which has seen him qualify among the top-five drivers for 18 of his past 22 FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to the pole he won for last year’s season opener at Homestead.
• Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda/Reynard), winner of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach from the pole, registered his seventh consecutive scoring performance and his ninth in the past 10 FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a victory at Mid-Ohio last year. Also included is a victory at Laguna Seca last year. The 22 points Castroneves collected at Long Beach for winning from the pole and leading all 82 race laps moved him to third place in the FedEx Championship Series championship, with 27 points.
• Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda/Reynard) of Team KOOL Green owns top-four finishes in the first two events of the FedEx Championship Series season, third at Mexico and fourth at Long Beach. He stands fourth in the championship with 26 points, one behind Helio Castroneves.
• Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota/Reynard) of Patrick Racing has scored championship points in eight of his past nine FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a fifth-place finish at Road America last year. The run also includes a victory at Houston last year. Vasser, the 1996 FedEx Championship Series champion in his first year with Patrick Racing, owns finishes of sixth at Mexico and fifth at Long Beach in his first two starts of this season.
• Rookie Nicolas Minassian (Target Toyota/Lola) of Target Chip Ganassi Racing has recorded points-paying finishes in each of his first two FedEx Championship Series career starts. He finished 11th in the season opener at Mexico and eighth in Round 2 at Long Beach. Minassian leads all FedEx Championship Series rookies in the chase for the Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award, with seven points.
ON THE RIGHT TRACK
• Roberto Moreno (Visteon Toyota/Reynard) was second to Juan Montoya, the 1999 FedEx Series champion, in FedEx Championship Series points on ovals last year, with 86. Moreno finished sixth or better in seven of nine starts on ovals, including podium finishes of second at Homestead and California and third at Japan and Gateway. He ranked third in the series in laps completed on ovals, with 1,705 of a possible 1,870.
• Michael Andretti (Motorola Honda/Reynard) of Team Motorola scored 77 of his 127 championship points on ovals last year, third in the FedEx Championship Series. His performance was highlighted by a victory at Japan and runner-up efforts at Milwaukee and Chicago.
• Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Telmex Honda/Reynard) of Fernandez Racing completed more laps on ovals last year than any other FedEx Championship Series driver, with 1,767 of a possible 1,870. His season included a victory at Rio de Janeiro and fifth-place finishes at Nazareth and Chicago. Fernandez scored championship points in eight of nine oval events, and has scored in eight straight dating to his victory at Rio last season.
• Defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran finished second in the 2000 FedEx Championship Series in laps completed on ovals, with 1,728 of a possible 1,870. He won at Nazareth – the 100th victory in the history of Penske Racing–and added podium finishes of third at Chicago and California Speedway. Overall, de Ferran scored championship points in seven of nine starts on ovals during the 2000 season.
• Toyota-powered drivers have won four of the past five FedEx Championship Series events contested on ovals, getting victories last season from Juan Montoya at Milwaukee, Michigan and Gateway and from Cristiano da Matta at Chicago. Only Christian Fittipaldi’s victory for Ford-Cosworth in the season finale at California Speedway interrupted the run. However, Fittipaldi is Toyota-powered this season as his Newman/Haas Racing team switched engines at the conclusion of the 2000 campaign.
• Ford-Cosworth-powered drivers have won six of the past seven FedEx Championship Series events contested on 1.5-mile ovals, dating to Michael Andretti’s victory at Homestead in 1997. Andretti also won at Homestead in 1998, while Adrian Fernandez won at Japan in ’98 and ’99. Victories last year by Max Papis at Homestead and Andretti at Japan also contributed to the run.
• When he takes the green flag for Sunday’s Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer, Michael Andretti will equal the CART record of 273 career starts currently held by Al Unser Jr. Andretti’s first career start came at Las Vegas in 1983 in a race won by his father, Mario. His last 127 starts have come consecutively, dating to the 1994 season opener at Australia, which he won. Michael Andretti is also CART’s all-time leader in victories (40) and laps led (6,409) and is second in career pole positions (32). His 273rd start would rank him fifth with Unser Jr. in all-time Champ Car history (1909-current). Mario Andretti is the all-time leader with 407 starts.
• Rookie drivers Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon of the PacWest Racing Group and Tora Takagi of Walker Racing utilized one of their three allotted in-season testing days at Nazareth Speedway last Saturday, in preparation for Round 4 of the FedEx Championship Series, the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, May 4-6. Unofficially, Junqueira (Target Toyota Lola) led the group with a lap of 176.470 miles per hour (20.4 seconds) on the one-mile oval
“I’m glad we tested here in November,” Junqueira said. “It has made my trips to other ovals much easier. I like this track. It is very challenging. You can’t run flat out, like [you can] on some of the other ovals. I’m looking forward to coming back here in a couple weeks.”
Dixon (Powerware Panasonic PacWest Toyota), the 2000 Dayton Indy Lights champion, was unofficially second fastest of the quartet, at 20.6 seconds (174.757 mph). He was the only member of the group with previous racing experience at Nazareth, having finished fourth in a 1999 Indy Lights event.
“We [rookies] get three extra days to test, and I think we chose Nazareth because in pre-season testing we struggled a lot on short oval tracks,” Dixon said. “Nazareth is one of the harder ones, and with Indy Lights not [having raced] at Nazareth last year, we felt we could learn a lot.”
Takagi (Pioneer/Denso Toyota/Reynard), making only his third appearance on an oval, posted a fast lap of 20.8 seconds (173.077 mph), while Minassian (Target Toyota/Lola) was just a tick further back at 20.9 seconds (172.249 mph). Target Chip Ganassi Racing has won two of the past three FedEx Championship Series events at Nazareth, getting victories from Jimmy Vasser in 1998 and Juan Montoya in 1999.
• The first transporter parade of the 2001 FedEx Championship Series season will take place Wednesday, with the first vehicle slated go off at 11 a.m. from Cowboys Arlington in Arlington. Sponsors of the event are FedEx, Firestone and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and media support is being provided by radio stations KSCS (96.3 FM), WBAP (820 AM), KHCK (99.1 FM) and the Star-Telegram. More than 30 CART and team transporters are expected to participate. Over the past several years, transporter parades have provided an impressive kickoff to FedEx Championship Series event weekends at selected race venues. Additional 2001 transporter parades are scheduled at the Miller Lite 225 in Milwaukee; the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit; the Freightliner/G.I. Joe’s 200 Presented by Texaco in Portland, Ore.; the Molson Indy in Toronto; the Miller Lite 200 at Mid-Ohio; the Molson Indy Vancouver and the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston.
• The CART FANatics program, which was launched successfully at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, will continue at this weekend’s Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer. The FANatics program offers more than two dozen lucky fans the opportunity to be a part of pre-race activities on the starting grid of every FedEx Championship Series event. Each CART driver is assigned a randomly selected fan who experiences the rare thrill of becoming part of his or her driver’s team in the moments prior to the green flag. FANatics receive the opportunity to meet their respective drivers one-on-one, watch pre-race introductions, and take candid photographs as the team prepares the car and the driver takes his place in the cockpit. FANatics also receive a gift pack via FedEx courier notifying them of their selection. Texas Motor Speedway has enhanced this weekend’s FANatic experience by allowing all 28 FANatics to view the Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer from seats in the TMS Victory Lane Club. In addition, a grand-prize winner selected from among the FANatics will participate in a champagne toast with the winner of Sunday’s race, and will also receive a one-year membership to the TMS Speedway Club.
• Current FedEx Championship Series points leader Cristiano da Matta of Newman/Haas Racing will hold a media press conference noon Wednesday at the Nazareth Speedway media center to discuss the upcoming Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota (May 4-6). Da Matta, in his first season at Newman/Haas after two years with the PacWest Racing Group, has taken the early lead on the strength of a season-opening victory in Mexico, followed by a runner-up effort at Long Beach. His best finish at Nazareth is fourth during his rookie season of 1999, which stood as the best-ever FedEx Championship Series performance for a Toyota-powered driver until last season.
• Second-year FedEx Championship Series driver Kenny Brack (Shell Ford-Cosworth/Lola) of Team Rahal, winner of the 2000 Jim Trueman Rookie of the Year Award, finished second to reigning NASCAR series champion Bobby Labonte in Saturday’s second round of the International Race of Champions (IROC) series at Talladega Superspeedway. Brack, who started eighth, collected 17 points for the effort and moved into third place in the IROC championship with 29 points, trailing Labonte (34) and NASCAR’s Ricky Rudd (31).
“It was an interesting race; kind of wild,” Brack said. “I thought I could catch Bobby at the end, but they were running two-wide and I couldn’t get anybody to push me along.” The IROC series matches 12 drivers from a variety of motorsports disciplines, competing in equalized Pontiac Firebird Trans-Am race cars. Round Three of the four-race IROC championship is scheduled for Saturday, June 9, at Michigan International Speedway.
• Newman/Haas Racing driver Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Toyota/Lola) was the overall winner in the Buitoni 5K run at Key Biscayne, Fla. last Friday. Max Papis (Miller Lite Ford Reynard) of Team Rahal also participated in this event. Meanwhile, Fittipaldi finished sixth overall and Tony Kanaan (Hollywood Honda Reynard) of Mo Nunn Racing was 11th in Sunday’s Coca-Cola Triathlon. Both events were part of the Florida Triathlon Championship.
ON THE AIR
• Qualifying for the Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer will air 1 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. CART 2Day airs 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, while ESPN’s live race broadcast begins 3 p.m. ET. Twenty of 21 FedEx Championship Series events are being televised live on ABC-TV or ESPN, and 18 are being televised live on Eurosport, a European network which reaches 250 million viewers in 54 countries. Sunday’s race will also air on the CART Radio Network and on CART’s official website, at
THE FIRESTONE FIREHAWK 600 PRESENTED BY PIONEER
WHAT: Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer.
WHERE: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth, Texas.
WHEN: Thursday-Sunday, April 26-29.
SUPPORT EVENTS: Dayton Indy Lights Championship.
CART SCHEDULE (All Times Local)
THURSDAY, APRIL 26 –Indy Lights practice, 3:30-4 p.m.; Indy Lights practice, 4:30-5 p.m.
FRIDAY, APRIL 27–Indy Lights practice, 8-9:25 a.m.; Champ Car practice, 9:45-11:45 a.m.; Indy Lights practice, Noon-12:30 p.m.; Champ Car practice, 1:30-3:15 p.m.; Indy Lights practice (as required), 3:30-4 p.m.; Indy Lights qualifying, 5-6 p.m.
SATURDAY, APRIL 28–Champ Car practice (two groups, 45 minutes each), 9:30-11:15 a.m.; Indy Lights warm-up, 12:15-12:30 p.m.; Champ Car qualifying, 1:30-3 p.m.; Indy Lights race, 3:15-4:30 p.m.
SUNDAY, APRIL 29–Champ Car warm-up, 10-10:30 a.m.; Grid Champ Cars, 1:15 p.m.; Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer, 2 p.m.
BROADCAST: TV – (ESPN, live, 3 p.m. ET).
RADIO: CART Radio Network.
PRE-RACE PROGRAMMING: Firestone Firehawk 600 Presented by Pioneer pole qualifying, 1 a.m. ET Sunday, ESPN2; CART 2Day, 11 a.m. ET Sunday, ESPN2.
DEFENDING CHAMPION: Inaugural event.
DEFENDING POLESITTER: Inaugural event.
TRACK LAYOUT: 1.5-mile oval.
RACE LENGTH: TBD
TRACK RECORDS: Inaugural event.
RACE NUMBER: 3 of 21.
FedEx CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES POINTS LEADERS: 1. Cristiano da Matta, 37 points; 2. Gil de Ferran, 30; 3. Helio Castroneves, 27; 4. Paul Tracy, 26; 5. Jimmy Vasser, 18.
NEXT EVENT: May 6, Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, Nazareth Speedway, Nazareth, Pa.