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NASCAR is new experience for Fittipaldi

Posted: Monday, October 21, 2002

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Christian Fitti paldi didn't expect a lot of support and understanding from his comrades on the CART FedEx Series when he told them he was leaving for a better deal.

He was right.

The news even caught his more famous uncle, former Formula One champion Emerson Fittipaldi, by total surprise.

The once-popular open-wheeled se ries is on its death bed, but defections usually don't land a driver so far off the beaten path as stock cars. While others are trying to find refuge on the Indy Racing League, Fittipaldi did the unthinkable by trading weekends of Italian leather, quiche and cocktails for blue jeans, fried chicken and beer.

Although Fittipaldi is fifth in the driver standings with three Indy car races remaining, his focus now is a bulky Dodge from Petty Enterprises. He will drive on a variety of stock car circuits next season to get a running start for his full-time entry on the Winston Cup Series in 2004. Apparently it takes a year to get used to the finer things of stock cars like roofs and bumpers.

The young Brazilian makes no apologies for his decision. He touts the fact that he's headed to the most popular form of motorsports both in attendance and television ratings in the country.

He finds solace in knowing he's headed to a series that continues to grow, while others are too proud and too stubborn to jump off a sinking ship.

''When you talk about motor racing, especially in America, you're talking about NASCAR,'' Fittipaldi said during a recent test session at the Atlanta Motor Speedway. ''The fact there's a split (between CART and the IRL) within the open-wheeled series, neither side benefits. That's something I weighed. There were a lot of things I had to put together to do this.''

Fittipaldi now joins one of his Petty Enterprises teammates at test sessions to give him a baseline. Stock cars are twice as heavy as the sleek Indy cars, and they have a fraction of the downforce. He is growing more comfortable with wrestling his car around the track without traffic. That's the easy part. Next year, when he jumps from the ARCA to the Busch to the Winston Cup series, that's when the real lesson of stock-car racing starts: traffic.

''NASCAR is very, very competitive,'' Fittipaldi said. ''What I see here, the teams in general don't bend the rules, but they play with what they have to get performance. In a bunch of ways, you're (NASCAR) a lot more advanced than you think you are.''

That's the message Fittipaldi preaches to his friends and family in open-wheeled racing. As CART tries to deal with yet another defection, he insists he never sold his soul. In fact, if the others could see just how competitive, how technologically advanced NASCAR really is, they'd understand.

''The truth is we're all just human beings. When you have a car with four wheels and a steering wheel, you're going to have problems, no matter what series you're in.''

Even if nobody in CART understands. Or cares.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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