Driving Ambition

Speed thrills.

Imagine the exhilaration as your body is propelled forward in space. You're barely conscious of the elements or the senses. And you keep moving fasterŠ fasterŠno longer aware of your breath, eyes focused on a point somewhere in front of you, landscape rushing past in a blur. The greatest thrill of all: You are accelerating like this, in a car, without getting pulled over by the cops.

Champion drivers will have nothing to fear as they take to our downtown streets this weekend, at times going over 200 miles an hour, for the Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston. The Grand Prix is 18th of 20 races in 20 cities during the CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) FedEx Championship Series. Drivers are competing for Cup points and for winnings that, throughout the series, total around $10 million. Last year's race, the first in Houston, drew over 100,000 spectators. Expect even more than that this weekend -- you know how we love to burn oil.

The drivers hail from all over the world and include some of the hottest names in racing: Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti, Juan Montoya, Jimmy Vasser. These guys are thoroughbreds, finely tuned athletes; racing is hard on more than the car. During a race, the drivers lose 6 percent of their body weight and are pummeled by more than two Gs at least seven times per lap for 100 laps. The drivers feel Gs from four sides while racing, make over 1,000 gear changes and endure cockpit heat of up to 150 degrees. Each of the 20 courses is different, and the drivers have to be able to handle them all, be it a short oval, a superspeedway, a permanent course or a temporary one, like the one in Houston. (What, you thought they'd leave a race track downtown? Dream on.)

When the drivers aren't racing, they're biking, skiing, riding their motorcycles, pumping iron orŠ playing video games. In fact, Dario "Speedwagon" Franchitti, defending champion of last year's race, likes to play Grand Prix Legends in his rare moments of leisure. He also likes to fly helicopters and golf. But not at the same time.

The fearless Franchitti, at the tender age of 26, is once again a contender for this year's win. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he has been racing since he was ten years old; it's what he has always wanted to do. His father, George, was an amateur racer and always supported young Dario's ambitions; he attends every race. But what about Dario's long-suffering mother? "Totally supportive," says Franchitti, smiling.

Franchitti's eyes hold the calm fire of a Zen monk, the fire that comes from syncing body and mind for extended periods, which is exactly what happens when he gets behind the wheel. He speaks passionately of how he must concentrate for two hours at a time, his mind empty of everything but brake points, acceleration pointsŠ "It's like trying to do a marathon," he says, "and lifting weights for two hours while you're doing it."

The Texaco/Havoline Grand Prix of Houston takes place September 24­26 in the streets of downtown Houston. Friday through Sunday, gates open to the public for practices, activities and qualifying races. The Grand Prix starts at 3 p.m. Sunday. Schedule subject to change. For information or to purchase tickets, call (713) 739-RACE or direct your Web browser to www.texacogp.com.

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Liz Belile