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by Larry Roberts

February 13, 1998

In the coming months, motorsports fans will see auto giants Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Toyota do battle on oval, street and closed-circuit tracks all over the U.S., as well as in several foreign countries.

But unlike NASCAR, casual race viewers won't be able to identify the various brands by their production car profiles. If they attend the races in person, they'll probably have to use binoculars to spot the logos of their favorite brand on the sides of the 240 MPH racers.

The aegis under which these races will be held is that of the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) and the single-seat cars that will be competing are arguably the pinnacle of automotive design and technology. Only the engines that power the cars are designed and produced by the four members of the auto industry involved, and those powerplants bear no resemblance to anything found under the hoods of production cars.

The machines are called Championship Cars, or simply Champ Cars by members of the CART fraternity and aficionados. It's a name that has just been resurrected from the days when the American Automobile Association (and later the United States Auto Club) sanctioned the 500 mile race at Indianapolis as well as a series of events around the U.S. for a championship cup. The name Indy car, and its derivative IndyCar, was applied to these machines in the '70s, but CART lost use of the copyrighted name when it ceased sanctioning the Indy 500 in 1995.

Recently, the CART Champ Cars gathered at the 1.5 mile oval track in Homestead, Florida, for what is euphemistically called "spring training." In truth, it appears to be a couple of shake-down days during which teams have a chance to work out alleged "bugs" in new cars, but is more on the order of press demonstrations and a chance to publicize the upcoming series of CART races.

To show how closely matched the factory-produced and sanctioned engines perform, at the end of the second day of spring training, the top time was set by Jimmy Vasser in a Honda-powered Reynard R981, followed two-tenths of a second later by Michael Andretti in a Ford Cosworth-powered Swift. The third fastest time was set by Mauricio Gugelmin in another Reynard R981, but in this case powered by the all- new Mercedes-Benz IC 108E engine. The time difference between the cars of Andretti and Gugelmin was a scant nine one-thousandths of a second.

The only member of The Big Four that failed to post times in the top echelons was Toyota, whose engine powered the Reynard R981 of newcomer Alex Barron into the Number 17 slot. At that, Barron was less than a second behind the flying Vasser.

As with all venues of auto racing, the CART Championship Trail flourished in 1997 and increased by five percent over the previous year, due in part to the addition of a race at Roger Penske's California Speedway 40 miles east of Los Angeles. For 1998, CART has added a street race in downtown Houston, plus an event at the new 1.5 mile oval track in Motegi, Japan. The Japanese race is in addition to two races in Canada and one each in Brazil and Australia.

Also, the CART Championship series acquired a new series sponsor. Formerly underwritten by Pittsburgh Plate Glass (PPG), the CART races are now the turf of the internationally famous Federal Express company.

CART racing begins on March 15, 1998 at the Homestead track and continues until November. It's become a truly international series with drivers hailing from Brazil, Japan, Canada, Italy, Mexico, Great Britain, Germany and The Netherlands as well as the U.S.

Is Europe the next goal on the exciting Championship Auto Racing Teams marketing agenda? Bernie Ecclestone and the promoters of the international Formula One Grand Prix circuit sincerely hope not. But Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Toyota hope the expansion takes place since winning races is demonstrably good for business.