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Published: Friday, 5/26/2006

A fast car plus an NBA star

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
From left, driver P.J. Chesson, owner Ron Hemelgarn, KISS member Gene Simmons and driver - of the lane - Carmelo Anthony are looking for a victory in the Indy 500. From left, driver P.J. Chesson, owner Ron Hemelgarn, KISS member Gene Simmons and driver - of the lane - Carmelo Anthony are looking for a victory in the Indy 500.
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INDIANAPOLIS - Politics certainly makes for odd bedfellows, but the politicians have nothing on the racing ranks when it comes to creative and imaginative partnerships.

To get out on the track and into the game it sometimes takes a peculiar arrangement, and that is what brings Indianapolis 500 veteran Ron Hemelgarn back to the fabled speedway.

Hemelgarn, the Toledo-based businessman and IndyCar Series team owner who won this, the biggest race of all, in 1996 with Buddy Lazier at the wheel, missed the Indy 500 in 2004 due to funding issues and has had to scramble a time or two in other years to get the necessary financial backing for the endeavor.

But Hemelgarn came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway early this month with his team and its fiscal situation secure. Carmelo Anthony, a young star in the NBA, is putting up the money in a sponsorship deal that Indy promoter and rock legend Gene Simmons of the band KISS helped engineer.

Slam dunks, pit stops and elaborate face paint don't normally mix this well, but the deal was forged and Indy rookie P.J. Chesson will pilot the Hemelgarn Racing entry in Sunday's race, starting from the 20th position in the middle of the seventh row. Hemelgarn, who won the 2000 IndyCar Series championship with Lazier and whose team has eight career wins on the circuit, sees opportunity in the unconventional arrangement.

"I think this is probably one of the most unique opportunities ever," Hemelgarn said. "To bring together a star of the NBA, not a past star but the real star of the NBA, and a sprint car driver who stands on the gas, and you don't have to tell him to stand on it, you might have to tell him to slow it down.

"So we've got a guy that wants to win, and you've got a guy that is winning. And then add Hemelgarn Racing, and we've been around this sport a long time at the Speedway and in IndyCar racing, and we're just delighted to be involved in this. I really think that as the year goes on, we're going to have some great success and Hemelgarn Racing will be back on top with this combination."

Anthony, the former Syracuse star who helped lead that school to a national championship and whose fame has only been limited by the presence of LeBron James, said he likes the chemistry of the team.

Hemelgarn has become a big basketball fan overnight.

"Carmelo Anthony - this guy's a champion, and at 22 years old, and with what he's accomplished in this life, just to rub next to him," Hemelgarn said. "I already know that success will be with us."

Anthony, who plays for the Denver Nuggets, sees the merger as having the potential to open up significant interest in the sport of open-wheel racing in urban areas where he has a strong fan base, and to introduce racing fans to his line of work.

"It's just an opportunity to reach fans who don't get the chance to see Carmelo in basketball," Anthony said. "And if some NBA fans who might otherwise not be all that interested in this form of racing stop and take a look, that can only be a positive thing for us."

Anthony admits that a fascination with cars and speed was part of the attraction that got him into the deal.

"I think every kid has a dream of owning and driving a race car," Anthony said, "and I've always had a love for cars - especially fast cars. This is a dream come true. But I'll stick to driving the basketball lane and let P.J. handle the fast lane. I'm not getting in the car. I'm not getting into that seat. It's too small, anyway."

Chesson, who was racing in the World of Outlaws in 2003, seems genuinely touched by the union of Hemelgarn and Anthony that will put him in the Indy 500.

"It's pretty cool to hear the guys that are in my corner talking so positive and optimistic about this team. It definitely gives me a boost of confidence and makes me feel real good about what we're about to do here," Chesson said. "They get talking like that, and I get shaky and all weird and hard to like be around."

Hemelgarn smiles like a proud papa as his young driver and young financier take over Indy, and he predicts big things on the horizon.

"We'll watch and see the IndyCar Series ratings will climb, sponsorship dollars will climb and so will the Hemelgarn Racing team," he said. "I'm really excited to have such an opportunity with this unique partnership."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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