Wednesday, February 12, 2003

NASCAR lures open-wheel drivers

By Steve Wilstein
The Associated Press

Fittipaldi, Andretti, Mears and Foyt. Those names once linked inextricably to open-wheel racing are at Daytona International Speedway, further evidence that NASCAR rules in the United States. The new generation of those illustrious racing families are drawn to stock cars by the competition and money, the big fields and the passionate fans. Even if their hearts remain attached to their first love, a single-seater roaring around ovals in Europe, South America or at Indy, they have come to see NASCAR as the place to be.

The name Fittipaldi conjures up images of the fearless Brazilian, Emerson, the former Formula One and CART champion and a two-time Indy 500 winner. Now, his nephew, Christian Fittipaldi - who started out in Formula One, switched to CART and finished second in the 1995 Indy 500 - is a NASCAR rookie trying to qualify for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Seeking to qualify, too, after coming over to NASCAR from open-wheel racing are Casey Mears, nephew of four-time Indy 500 champion Rick Mears, and Larry Foyt, son of four-time Indy 500 winner and racing legend A.J. Foyt.

John Andretti, a longtime NASCAR driver who switched from the Indy-style racing that made his uncle Mario and cousin Michael famous, also is entered in Sunday's race.

Jeff Gordon started the migration from open-wheel racing to NASCAR, and Tony Stewart gave it a boost when he went from IRL to NASCAR champ.

"If you want to be in the biggest form of motor racing in this country right now, it's definitely NASCAR," Fittipaldi said. "The crowds are huge, the fans are great. This is the purest form of racing in this country. If you like driving, if you like racing, enjoy the ride, you can be sure that you can race a lot the whole year.

"As a competitor you want to be out there with the toughest form of racing that there is. It pumps everyone up. If you do well, you're doing really, really well."

NASCAR qualifying times are incredibly close, and on any given Sunday at least 20-25 cars in the field of 43 can win the race.

"I don't see that happening right now in any other series," said Fittipaldi, whose father, Wilson, also raced in Formula One.

The 32-year-old Brazilian has a three-year deal with Petty Enterprises but is on loan at Daytona to Andy Petree, who had sponsorship but no driver for this race. The Pettys, trying to rebuild their family organization, want Fittipaldi to run a mix of Winston Cup and ARCA races this year, then drive a Cup car full time in 2004.

Kyle Petty figures that by putting a well-recognized name in the Petty Enterprises cars, they'll be broadening their business outside traditional NASCAR circles.

"People know our names in this country," Petty said. "People know Fittipaldi in Europe, people know Fittipaldi in South America. For us, the name recognition and the talent level is great.

"I think it gives us something we can sell on a global basis."

Fittipaldi's interest in NASCAR was sparked a couple of years ago when he attended the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Until then, he was like most open-wheel drivers who look down on the fender-equipped, heavy stock cars and often refer to them as "taxicabs."

NASCAR's soaring popularity and the declining state of the CART series convinced Fittipaldi that it was time make the move while he was still in his prime.

"Age is definitely a lot less of a factor over here than it is in my type of racing," Fittipaldi said. "Experience and patience are more important than anything else here. You need to sit cool and play the waiting game.

"The technical rules are different, the car handles a little differently, but a lot of things I will be able to translate from my type of racing. I need to go through a new learning curve to get to the very top over here."

The way he refers to single-seaters as "my type of racing" reveals how much Fittipaldi still feels like a novice in the NASCAR world. But he's made the commitment and isn't second-guessing himself.

"It's a huge change in my whole racing career," he said. "If I wasn't as serious as I am right now, maybe I shouldn't be doing it. I basically turned my back on open-wheel after 10-12 years and started something completely different."

Asked if he harbored any doubts that he chose the right direction, Fittipaldi laughed.

"Even if I do," he said, "I try to pretend to myself that I don't because now it's too late."

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