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Taxi Cab Drivers

INDIANAPOLIS — Maybe there is something to this "taxicab" racing promulgated by denizens of the NASCAR Nation. Certainly, I've gained respect for some of the closed wheel drivers in NEXTEL Cup over the past few seasons.

Tony Stewart, for instance, is way more than a one-trick pony, finding the fun in midget, sprints and, now sports car racing. Call him a throwback if you want. Just call him when you need a real driver.

And now I hear that Stewart is on a real fitness program — good news for fans of all motorsports and for Tony, as well. Maybe he'll be back at the Brickyard soon in a car without doors. Stewart's family is in the greater Indianapolis area and he has not lost touch with his open wheel [grass] roots one bit.

Last year's "Trading Paint" exercise at Indianapolis Motor Speedway really opened my eyes when Jeff Gordon came to grips with a year-old Williams-BMW FW24 in just six laps around the Brickyard's road and oval course. Sure it was a PR exercise, but the guy drove the car exquisitely and, with nobody else on the track you can hear gear changes, braking and winding out. Completely.

Gordon has been offered a four day test of a brand new Williams FW26 this spring; with both of his drivers likely leaving by the end of 2004, perhaps Sir Frank Williams can convince Gordon to set aside his lifetime contract with Rick Hendrick and take on the Euro bunnies who drive in Formula One. That would enhance ratings in the USA, wouldn't it?

So Jeff Gordon's a driver, Tony Stewart's a prime shoe and yes, even Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets my nod, after sharing a car at the 2004 Rolex 24 at Daytona with Stewart and Andy Wallace. The trio shoulda, coulda, woulda won the twice-around-the-clock race if rear suspension failure of their Crawford/Chevy Daytona Prototype hadn't made the back wheels fall off.

Which means that driving a race car until the damn wheels fall off is something to aspire to, right? Earnhardt Jr. was an absolute pleasure to watch in weather more adaptable to duck hunting than racing. It was a swamp out there in Daytona Beach and still these two taxicab drivers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart flogged on. Junior's talents sure have matured since he first co-drove a Corvette in the Rolex 24 with his father.

Now Robby Gordon is getting into the act. Again. The 35-year-old Californian was raised on BMX, motocross, off-road buggies and trucks, and earned titles in sports cars. After a spurt in Champ Car open wheel racing, Gordon joined the NASCAR ranks, first as an owner-driver then hooking up with Richard Childress Racing — after a second stint in open wheel.

Gordon is the type of driver who thrives with versatility. The guy, much like Stewart, lives to race and will try just about anything. He even wants to race the Paris-Dakar Raid rally next winter.

After nine tries without a win at the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, Gordon has decided the tenth year might be his lucky one and will field his own team from Huntersville, NC in the 88th Indy 500. Doing the "daily double" of running Indy on Sunday morning, May 30th, then using a Citation jet to fly back to Charlotte, NC for the Coca-Cola World 600 that evening, Gordon will attempt to do what no other driver has yet done: race and win both events.

His credo: "I hate to lose" makes Gordon among the fiercest competitors in the motorsports world. This will be his fourth try at the double and he's hoping to make it all work this time round with Thomas Knapp managing his team. Knapp was in the same position in 1999 when Gordon nearly stole the Indy 500, but for a gallon of methanol.

Specialization has become rampant in motorsports and it means drivers who might want to try something else normally can't, as contracts deny them the opportunity.

That won't stop three Champ Car stars, Adrian Fernandez, Michel Jourdain Jr. and Patrick Carpentier from competing in the preliminary USAC Ford Focus Midget Series show during the 2nd annual Mopar Twin 25s at Irwindale Speedway on March 27th.

This is a good sign for racing, don't you think? When racers from NASCAR and Champ Car are ready to try something different on a race track — or in the desert, as 1996 Champ Car titleholder Jimmy Vasser has done in the Baja 1000 — that bodes well for all fans of the sport.

Let's encourage taxicab and open-wheel drivers to keep mixing it up. We want to watch guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Adrian Fernandez and/or Robby Gordon working it out in the most unlikely places.

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