The Callahan Report: Sunday's U.S. 500 is the CART Main Event
22 July 1998
By Terry Callahan
The Auto Channel
BROOKLYN, MI: The world's fastest cars will have a chance to prove it Sunday. The CART FedEx Championship Series moves into the picturesque Irish Hills area of Michigan for the third annual U.S. 500 this weekend. The atmosphere surrounding the rural landmark of speed will be relaxed. The action on the track would make the pulse of a dead man rise.
The engineering masterpieces of the CART series will go "flat out" for the first time in the 1998 season. The U.S. 500 is the first of two super-speedway races on the circuit. The event has been the cornerstone of the series ever since the CART/IRL split.
The defending champion of the U.S. 500 is the current series points leader, Alex Zanardi. The multi-talented Zanardi has been a winner on every type of circuit contested in the CART FedEx Championship series. The third-year runner has already captured fourteen CART victories and has four in a row this season. Zanardi could set the record for the most consecutive CART victories with a win Sunday at the U.S. 500. He is the clear favorite for the win in Michigan. Zanardi is the lead driver for the powerful Target/Chip Ganassi Racing Team.
Jimmy Vasser fills the other seat on the Target team. Vasser was the winner of the inaugural U.S. 500 in 1996. He has completed every race this season. Michigan is a race of attrition. It requires patience and the ability to stay out of trouble. Vasser's team has already proven they can provide him with a reliable racing machine capable of running the vicious speedway. The 1996 CART champion has proven he has the ability. It is quite possible the top two spots on the Michigan podium will be dominated by the color red. The Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team of Zanardi and Vasser will be the top contenders with their reliability and talent.
Miller Lite driver, Bobby Rahal, is in the middle of his "farewell tour". Rahal announced earlier this year that 1998 would be his final season in the CART FedEx Championship series. His best chance at victory in this goodbye season could be at Michigan. Rahal has had memorable battles throughout his racing history on the Irish Hills high-banks. He has shown amazing speed on other ovals this year. Rahal was a strong contender last year in Michigan before a crash ended his day. The old man on the series could be a threat to drive his racer to Michigan's coveted victory lane Sunday.
Dario Franchitti lost his recipe for victory in the waning laps of the Molson Indy Toronto last weekend. The young Scottish driver was dominating the race before spinning out with a handful of laps remaining. He will be on fire this weekend in Michigan. Franchitti was the pilot of an under-funded car last year but still managed to lead the U.S. 500 for a total of twelve laps. He has always had the talent to present himself in the winner's circle. This year, he has the funding behind him to make it happen. Dario Franchitti has a better than average chance of becoming a first time winner on the CART FedEx Championship circuit.
It has been awhile since the Pat Patrick Racing team has visited victory lane. The U.S. 500 could mark the end of that drought. Scott Pruett would not need directions to victory lane in Michigan. He made his first trip to that area of the track in 1995. Pruett blew past Al Unser Jr. on the final lap for his high bank victory. Pruett was a leader here last year. He is always a threat at Michigan.
Although Alex Zanardi is walking away with the championship points, Michigan is a track were a number of drivers have a true shot at victory. The history at Michigan has produced several surprise winners. The 1998 running of the U.S. 500 should be no different.
The U.S. 500 will start at 1:00 p.m. (Eastern Time) Sunday July 26. Television coverage will be provided by ABC. The track is a 2 mile D-shaped oval with 18 degree turns.