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Longtime buddies Sapp and Altenburg stay that way racing on different tracks

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's unlikely enough to find professional race car drivers in Maryland who know and like each other, let alone find two who grew up together and continue as best friends. But Neal Sapp and Jeff Altenburg prove it isn't impossible.

They have been friends since they were students at Catonsville High and discovered the joy a hotrod can bring. Each was the best man in the other's wedding. The last time they held fulltime jobs outside of racing, they worked at the same car dealership. Now, as both approach age 40, their friendship thrives, even as they pursue the same competitive line of work.

But the key to all this camaraderie is that they -- generally -- race on different race tracks.

"We've done basically the same things, took the same paths and tried to run different classes," said Sapp, 39, of Ellicott City. "It was always our goal to race, and we were both pretty talented. It seemed if one of us won, the other didn't. So we just tried to keep out of each other's way."

After they had won several championships in autocross and SCCA club racing on the regional and national levels, they moved on to the Neon Challenge Championships, a four-race-a-year series. Over two years, competing against each other, they won all eight races.

"I won six and Neal won two, but who's counting?" said Altenburg, 38, who with his wife recently moved into a new house a mile from Sapp and his family. "I won the championship both years, and Neal finished second. Prior to that and since then, we've stayed away from each other.

"We're two pretty tense and competitive men. It's easier to lose to a perfect stranger than it is to lose to a good friend."

So Sapp turned to the SCCA's Pro Racing Speedvision World Challenge Touring series last season, won Rookie of the Year and finished second in points. He followed this season by winning the most races (four) and again finishing runner-up to Pierre Kleinubing of Brazil.

Altenburg, meanwhile, went Trans Am racing, and he, too, won Rookie of the Year and finished third in the series points race. This season Altenburg moved around, running races in the American Le Mans Series and Grand Am Series.

And the two men were happy racing different cars, different places.

But last weekend, at the Speedvision World Challenge Touring car season finale at Road Atlanta, Sapp's car owner, Alfred Dupont, needed a driver. Dupont usually races one of his team's five cars, but he broke some ribs in a recent dirt bike accident. Sapp recommended his longtime friend Altenburg as a fill-in.

And off they went to race -- against each other.

Each drove a BMW 325is, and Sapp won two races in which Altenburg finished second -- but who's counting?

"I had my excuses ready," Altenburg said when asked about his friend's two victories. "I actually outqualified him, and for me to finish second out of the blue like that, that could only help my chances as I pursue a full ride for next year [in a different series]. It would have been a perfect weekend, though, if we'd each had a first and second."

Sapp thought it was ideal just the way it was.

"My team and I won four of the last five races in the series," he said. "It showed how dominant we could be, and I think we're going to do another deal for next year. I'd like to bring a championship to Maryland, and I think we're going to do it next season. "

Listening to them, don't you get the feeling they won't be racing against each other again any time soon if they can help it?

CART's good sense

Championship Auto Racing Teams will adopt a new engine formula in 2003 that "possesses the parameters common to open-wheel racing in the United States." So stated a release from the sanctioning body last week.

What that means for open-wheel fans in this country is CART's engines will be compatible with the Indy Racing League's, and that will allow CART teams to compete in their FedEx Championship Series as well as the Indianapolis 500.

That little piece of information came last on CART's list of benefits from the new engine rules. But for open-wheel fans it is No. 1. And, hey, it only took six years for one side or the other in the CART-IRL tug-of-war to do something sensible

CART's 22-member board approved a move to a maximum 3.5-liter, normally aspirated engine formula from its current turbo-charged format.

"CART's leadership position in open-wheel racing dictated for us to make an aggressive step toward the future in the best interest of our sport," said CART chairman and chief executive officer Joe Heitzler. "We will have a normally aspirated formula similar to all major racing series in the world, including Formula One, but will continue to have our own distinctive engine formula in the most competitive and challenging series in the world."

One might say CART had lost its leadership position and was forced to make the change to stay competitive, but who wants to quarrel? Open-wheel fans should simply rejoice in knowing the Indy 500 in 2003 might just include everyone for the first time since CART and the IRL went their separate ways.

Honda, however, announced Friday that it will leave CART after next season because, among other things, it could not divert the resources to develop a new engine for the 2003 season. Since joining CART in 1994, Honda has won five straight driver titles and three manufacturers titles.

Heitzler points out the benefits of the engine change should also include a "significant" reduction in engine costs; rules stability through 2005; reduction of speed on ovals while maintaining ultimate power on road and street courses; and allow teams to maintain a high technical level.

BMW sweeps up

BMW competed a sweep of the 2001 American Le Mans Series GT titles with its one-two finish in the fourth annual 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. Bill Auberlen, Boris Said and Hans Stuck drove to BMW's sixth win of the year, covering 360 laps in 9 hours, 17 minutes, 7 seconds.

Nuts and bolts

The ATI Performance Racing "Black Magic" No. 09, driven by Baltimore's J.C. Beattie Jr. in the American Speed Association AC Delco Series, will be on display Oct. 27 at Hagerstown Speedway during the Octoberfest 350 weekend. A raffle for a chance to win a Stock Car Racing Experience "ride along" with Beattie at Pocono Raceway will be held at 4 p.m. Gates open at 10 a.m. as the track holds qualifying and consolations events leading up to the main events Oct. 28.

Potomac Speedway held its finale, the Southern Maryland Nationals, last weekend. P.J. Hatcher of Mechanicsville took home the $1,500 purse in the 40-lap Coors Light Pure-Street Stock race after apparent race winner Sean Thompson was disqualified for an illegal carburetor. The win was Hatcher's third of the season.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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