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OWRS concerned about pullout(s)

3/12/2004

The ramifications of longtime Champ Car driver Adrian Fernandez's shocking decision Thursday night to move to the Indy Racing League in time for that series' race in Phoenix next weekend are being felt by OWRS officials.

With internet rumors flying that the series is DOA and owner Bobby Rahal hinting he could move Mexican driver Michel Jourdain to the IRL next, league officials were busy Friday morning.

The three owners of Open Wheel Racing Series, formed from the ashes of the bankrupt CART series last January, spent the day speaking to Fernandez, Rahal and sponsors for both teams.

"They're speaking with them to let them know how much we value them," said Eric Mauk, Champ Car news manager, who said his league was very concerned about the latest developments.

"Right now, Rahal is still with us and he's still said it's where he wants to be," Mauk said. "But it's most definitely a concern. Anytime a team pulls out of the series, it's a concern. And the Bobby thing is being kicked around -- I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned."

The Fernandez announcement was shocking given that the 40-year-old veteran of the CART series had arrived in Long Beach for Champ Cars' media day earlier in the week with his car and some members of sponsor Tecate's entourage.

But while Fernandez didn't tell reporters present of his plans, just 48 hours later he and his Champ Car team were heading to the IRL. Fernandez already was an owner in the IndyCar league, and since Rahal also has teams in both series, speculation immediately turned to Jourdain's ride.

Calling the move by Fernandez "ground-shaking,'' Rahal said,
"I still think where you go depends on what your sponsors want.''

Rahal already campaigns a car for Buddy Rice in the IRL. Jourdain is sponsored by Gigante, a Mexican department store chain.

"They are very concerned,'' Rahal said. "Adrian is an opinion
leader in Mexico and for him to do this speaks volumes.''

Champ Car plans to race in Monterey, Mexico and Mexico City in
2004, while the IRL has no Mexican venues on its schedule.

OWRS co-owner Paul Gentilozzi had spent his time in Long Beach assuring reporters there would be 18 cars for the season-opening Long Beach Grand Prix in mid-April, but one couldn't help but notice only 13 apparent rides on hand.

With the departure of Fernandez and the possible loss of Rahal's team, OWRS would be left woefully short of the 18 cars required by most of its race contracts.

Fernandez said his decision was influenced by that low car count with only five weeks left before the season opening race.

"We have reviewed a lot of things the past few days, and had to take a hard look at what we know at this point in time to determine what is best for our sponsors and the future of Fernandez Racing," he said.

Some believe that was the decision that broke the camel's back. In Canada, Le Journal de Montreal quoted an unidentified Champ Car official as saying, "It won't recover -- the Champ Car series is finished."

Mauk said the notion the series is already dead is not accurate.

"If Bobby were to leave, would it be the death blow? No," Mauk said. "If he were to leave, it's still just one car."

But the combination of Fernandez and Rahal's team departure -- should Rahal leave -- would equal two cars missing from an already slim lineup.

The big question is what will this mean for the rest of the teams in the series? After all, veteran standout Patrick Carpentier doesn't even have a series ride despite being under contract with Gerald Forsythe, who gave Carpentier's seat to second-year driver Rodolfo Lavin because he brought Corona sponsorship money to the table.

And who can forget that the powerful Newman-Haas team, which has been the most recognizable team in the series since Penske and Ganassi left for the IRL, owns an IRL car that it would love to run at the Indy 500?

Newman-Haas has no sponsorship issues with McDonald's and PacifiCare on board, but if Rahal follows the lead of Fernandez, it's hard to imagine Carl Haas sticking it out with a series that may not answer the bell come April 18.

Complicating matters is the Champ Car schedule, which has a race inked for May 23 in Monterrey, Mexico. If Newman-Haas drivers Bruno Junqueira or Sebastien Bourdais run in the Indy 500 on May 30, they likely would have to skip a Champ Car race.

"They have tested an IRL car," Mauk said of Newman-Haas. "They'd like to run the Indy 500. But with the scheduling the way it is, that presents a problem."

It's really just one of many problems facing a league that appeared to win its offseason battle with the IRL when a bankruptcy judge ruled in favor of OWRS picking up CART's assets in January.

The all-oval IRL had bid on selected CART assets, including the Long Beach Grand Prix race contract, as the league has said it intends to add road races to its schedule in the future.

Justin Hagey is a motorsport editor at ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.