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CART Blanch

For true believers like Simon Hanley, the sting of burning methanol in the nostrils is akin to holy incense and the deafening screech of 800-horsepower engines is the music of the spheres. With the possible exception of bullfighting and warfare, no sport intoxicates its fans like big-time auto racing, and Hanley was in a state of religious ecstasy all weekend when the born-again Grand Prix of Denver revved up and shrieked around a barricaded street course encircling the Pepsi Center.

"I love motor racing," Hanley said. "This isn't a hobby; it's a lifelong passion." In thrall to that passion, the 38-year-old petroleum engineer arose at his sister's house near Taos at four o'clock last Friday morning and brewed a jug of coffee. Then he jumped into his gray Porsche 911T and headed north, so that he'd get to Denver in time to catch Michael Andretti, Cristiano da Matta and the other Championship Auto Racing Teams stars in the first round of qualifying that afternoon. "It's a new course, a new race," Hanley explained. "Right away, you want to get a sense of nuance."

Nuanced or not, major-league car racing had been absent from the metro area since the failed experiments of 1990 and 1991, when Indy cars raced around an ill-planned street course in the heart of downtown, frustrating closed-off business owners, crippling regular traffic and encasing the Civic Center in a wall of noise. This time, sponsors and organizers promised, things would be different. A three-block stretch of Auraria Parkway would be the only public pavement in use, and the new management at previously unstable CART -- headed up by a testy 61-year-old Englishman named Christopher Pook -- assured everyone the weekend would run smoothly.

Except for a treacherous track surface -- back-road bumpy in some places and ice-slick in others -- and a line of trees blocking the view from the luxury suites, it did. When the green flag fell on Sunday afternoon, the demolition derby many feared never erupted, and Brazilian driver Bruno Junquiera led all 100 laps around the tight, 1.6-mile course, before a crowd of some 50,000. He took the checkers after just one hour and 22 minutes of racing -- no bargain for the throngs who paid 60 or 75 bucks a piece to sit in a dozen sun-scalded metal grandstands, but a qualified success. When it was over, the reviews were mixed, and officials promised to fine-tune the show for next year.

Meanwhile, Simon Hanley was in heaven. Sort of. "This wasn't the Grand Prix of Monaco," he allowed. "But it was good, solid, exciting racing. Some people don't get it, I'm afraid. But there's something about this sport that gets your blood going. They've got some fixes to make around here, but I'll definitely be back next year."

But will Michael Andretti be back? Or points leader da Matta? Why are engine manufacturers Toyota and Honda switching to the rival Indy Racing League in 2003? What does the future hold for the once-great racing series that returned to Denver after more than a decade? Has the city, under contract to host the race for at least the next six years, hooked its dreams to the wrong CART? What effects linger from the American economic downturn and the shadows of 9/11?

To hear president and CEO Pook tell it, everything's fine. After racing legend Roger Penske moved his celebrated two-car team from CART to the IRL this year, CART fielded only eleven racing teams in 2002, and starting grids featured just seventeen or eighteen cars, while the IRL averaged 24.8. Pook promises fuller fields next season, continued growth and more disciplined management at the top -- a quality sorely lacking in the organization since the rival IRL series took to the track in 1995 and took the prestigious Indianapolis 500 with it. First regarded as a minor-league upstart, the IRL, founded by Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George, has wooed away a wealth of CART talent -- and millions in financing. Driver Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indy 500 champion, was the first to defect, but Penske's move hurt more. His two drivers, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, finished 1-2 in the 2001 Indy 500 as CART stars piloting IRL-sanctioned equipment. Now they've left CART behind. Andretti, CART's all-time winner and the son of the great Mario Andretti, will surely be next. Almost certain to head up his own IRL team next year, he'll get plenty of bucks from Honda, which is also jumping to the IRL. Probable 2002 CART champion da Matta, who has won six of the series' fourteen races this year, will likely sign with Toyota on the glamorous Formula One circuit in 2004, joining former CART champions Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya.

Villeneuve, the 1997 F1 champion, recently turned down a three-year, $50 million offer from the Player's-Forsythe Team to return to CART. Strangest of all, eight-year CART veteran Christian Fittipaldi will take his movie-star looks and his impeccable pedigree in open-wheel racing (his uncle is former Indy 500 champ and F1 star Emerson Fittipaldi) to NASCAR, of all places. The sight of Fittipaldi driving a Dodge stock car for the justly famous Petty Enterprises Team is bound to startle many F1 and Indy-car fans, who -- true or false -- are still regarded as brainier and more technically oriented than the massive stock-car crowd. Witness the black-and-red T-shirts evident in the Denver Grand Prix throngs this weekend: "Too Dumb for Opera, Too Smart for NASCAR."

For his part, Pook sees the Indy Racing League as a conspiracy to kill CART, claims the defections of Toyota and Honda are a blessing in disguise, and accuses the media of willfully distorting the state of open-wheel racing. In an ESPN chat-room exchange two weeks ago, he denigrated the IRL defectors, claiming that just the slowest, oldest CART drivers have jumped to the rival series: "I think the IRL provides a good retirement opportunity for them," he sniped. And when CART begins using only Ford-Cosworth engines next year, he says, it will equalize CART racing again and eliminate what he calls "money lobbying" by defectors Toyota and Honda.

Certainly, the infighting and rumors of trouble have filtered down to racing fans. Heidi Alm, who graduated in May from Colorado State University, asked her father for Denver Grand Prix tickets as a graduation present, and Dave Alm responded by buying a pair of seats -- at $695 apiece -- in the tony, albeit tree-blocked, Pit Row Suites. On Saturday, the Alms were clearly enjoying the scene and the racing, but they had worries. "I hear only five teams have signed up for CART next year," said Heidi, whose first-ever, chill-inducing race was the 2001 Indy 500. "We'll see," said her father, who has been going to the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and other events for thirty years. "We very much want to see the Grand Prix do well here, but with the economy and the state of racing, who knows?"

Let's hope what driver Tony Kanaan had to say Friday about his Honda/Lola race car's adhesion on the untested Pepsi Center circuit doesn't also apply to the stability of CART. Said Tony: "I would say the grip level, it's zero. It's the worst it's ever been."

In any event, Colorado gearheads will get the chance to inhale big-league methanol fumes twice next summer. In June, the IRL circus returns to the one-mile oval at Pikes Peak International Raceway south of Colorado Springs, and on August 31, the CART racers return to Denver, where the course will supposedly be repaved for smoother running, trees will no longer block the high-rollers' view, and with a little luck, the sun will shine, the $5.50 beer will be cold, and racing will be quick. Already, the new circuit's wide yet extremely sharp turn five, at the end of a long, 190-mile-an-hour straightaway, has gained a rep as one of the most treacherous and challenging corners in racing: Virtually all of the thirty spins and collisions CART drivers found themselves in this past weekend occurred in turn five.

"That's motor racing," Simon Hanley says. "That's how legends are born and history is made. I've traveled to events in Europe and to Indy and to places like Watkins Glen and Montreal, and they all have their own special flavor. Denver will have that, too, just like Mile High Stadium did and Coors Field does. You don't create a tradition in three days, but this weekend they got a start on it. Let's just hope the series stays healthy and the good drivers stick around. For me, this is like going to church, and I never want it to end."