Team Rahal Still Hopeful For Rest Of Season

By TIM PUET, Associated Press Writer

LEXINGTON, Ohio (AP) - One of open-wheel racing's biggest winners almost sounds as if he's starting to accept losing.

Bobby Rahal (pictured, right) says he's pleased with his team's two drivers, Jimmy Vasser and Michel Jourdain Jr., even though they haven't found the winner's circle this year.

"Jimmy just can't buy a break. In his case, if it weren't for bad luck, he'd have no luck at all," Rahal said at last weekend's CART Grand Prix at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. "As for Michel, he's doing far better than I'd imagined, especially considering we didn't sign him until late in the off-season when a sponsorship deal came together."

Vasser started first and finished second at the season's second race in Long Beach. Otherwise, his year has been a series of disappointments.

He's left three races in first-lap accidents, had mechanical problems twice and left the Vancouver event early because of his second collision this season with Kenny Brack, who drove for Team Rahal last year.

"I'll take the blame for Vancouver," Vasser said. "Michael Andretti spun in front of me and the brakes locked, and I ended up running into the back of Brack's car. But as for the rest, it does seem I've had some tough luck."

The 36-year-old Vasser, in his 11th CART season, said his experience keeps him from getting too upset about the early exits.

"I've been racing long enough that I know you can't let a few bad breaks get to you," said Vasser, the 1996 champion. "There's still a half-season to go and you can't draw conclusions too soon."

Vasser's bad luck reminds Rahal of the 1986 season, when he won the first of his three CART titles.

"It seemed like I couldn't do anything right that year, but I came on really strong in the second half," he said, winning four of the final seven races. "I think something like that could happen with Jimmy, because he's been driving well enough to deserve a better fate this year."

As for Jourdain, Rahal said he'd like to see his driver have better practice runs.

"He seems to struggle during qualifying, but come race day, he always gets it together. It's always difficult to make up ground when you start in back of the grid, but he seems to have the ability to do it," Rahal said.

Jourdain's only top-10 start this year came in the season's opening race in his native Mexico, but he's finished in the top 10 in every race except two.

He's the only driver in the series to finish and score points in all 12 races to date, putting him fifth in the standings with 76 points.

Though only 25, Jourdain already is in his seventh CART season. He was the youngest driver in series history as a rookie in 1996.

Before signing with Rahal, he spent the last six years as part of a sponsorship deal with Mexican retailer Gigante.

Jourdain said being part of Team Rahal, one of the better-funded teams in the series, has done wonders for his outlook.

"Sometimes in the past I've had to worry about a lot of things other than driving, and now it's a lot different," he said. "When the results aren't coming, you wonder when they are going to come. Every race might be your only chance all year for a good finish. Now I can feel confident that if there's a problem in one race, I can go out for the next one and compete strongly again."

Some CART drivers have announced plans to move to the Indy Racing League or NASCAR next year. That, combined with the series' financial difficulties, has caused considerable speculation about CART's future. Both Rahal drivers say they're CART loyalists.

"I've spent 11 years in this series and I wouldn't like to change at this point," Vasser said.

"Long-term, anything is possible, but next year, I want to be in CART," Jourdain said. "It's the best series in the world in terms of the variety of tracks."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)