'97 RACING PREVIEW
by Tony Sakkis
February 7, 1997
As of the first weekend of February, the motorsports season has begun in earnest. Time to place your bets.
NASCAR WINSTON CUP - This looks like a good free for all. Yet Larry McReynolds, who moves over from Ernie Irvan's team, looks to make Dale Earnhardt even stronger than he has been normally. Cup gurus feel this is his year (again), and he's supposedly hungry. Of course, the same things that got Jeff Gordon to the title the year before last can easily vault him to the top again. Terry Labonte may still be a threat, but hasn't shown back to back potential ever; and Rusty Wallace says he's ready. If he is or not remains to be seen. Smart money is on Earnhardt. In fact, some people feel he'll win his first Daytona 500 mid-January. It would give him extra kick if he does.
CHAMPIONSHIP AUTO RACING TEAMS - Indy car racing is now called CART again -- is as exciting as it's ever been. No. Let's face it: this is the best field ever assembled. Not only do you have new game faces at Penske with the same old drivers Tracy and Unser, but you have major changes at Haas with the new Swift chassis, and changes at Patrick with Lola and better sponsorship bucks. If that isn't enough you still have guys that are hungry for wins -- like Mauricio Gugelmin, Brian Herta, Raul Boesel, to mention just a few -- and Ganassi Racing, the team which holds the championship title currently, looks like the team to take the championship yet again at the hands of hot young Italian Alex Zanardi. Give odds on Zanardi. He drives like an Italian.
FORMULA ONE - There's only one name on the F1 championship: Jacques Villeneuve. Sure Michael Schumacher is the Michael Jordan of Grand Prix racing, and sure Damon Hill is the reigning champ, but Villeneuve is the heir apparent. He has the machinery with Williams, the engine with Renault -- their last season -- and the guts and brains that comes as standard equipment with the name Villeneuve. Bet the house on the boy.
INDIANAPOLIS RACING LEAGUE - The IRL is still a mix up this season. There are really only two stories: Roberto Guerrero and Arie Luyendyk -- and now perhaps Eddie Cheever. Cheever won the first race in Orlando and may have broken his streak, which was like fifteen years without a win (in open-wheeled racing). But realistically, Luyendyk or Guerrero are the only drivers with the understanding of the series to really be able to win. Tat is, to win under normal circumstances. Being that some drivers never saw new engines until a few days before the race, it's still up in the air. But Luyendyk is the best in a straight up horse race.
SPORTS CAR CLUB OF AMERICA/INTERNATIONAL MOTOR SPORTS ASSOCIATION TRANS-AM - At the Daytona Beach opener of this complex series, Butch Leitzinger won co-driving with John Paul Jr., James Weaver and Andy Wallace. They may win Sebring as well, but the title will probably go to Ferrari, which has a power advantage over the Ford; Andy Evans' car if it's piloted mostly by Fermin Velez, and Gianpiero Moretti's car if they get Max Papis back (which they are not supposed to do). In Trans-Am, Tommy Kendall should be a shoe-in for his third straight title with Roush Racing, which paired with Kendall, obviously knows how to win a title.
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSOCIATION - Gary Scelzi won the NHRA Winternationals by beating Joe Amato after replacing the late Blaine Johnson. Wow. A championship is a bunch of good finishes back to back, but a debut win is still something. Amato, however, is due. He did well last season and may take it In Top Fuel. John Force, well, can anybody stop him in Funny Car? Not Cruz Pedregon, nor his brother Tony, nor ... well, you get the idea. In Pro Stock, look for the magical 200 MPH barrier to fall and Jim Yates to repeat as champ.
Let's talk again next November and see who's still holding winning tickets.