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Stolen semi, racing tires found abandoned

Authorities on Wednesday recovered a stolen tractor-trailer loaded with 400 racing tires worth about $500,000 that had been snatched at a Marion County truck stop.

The tires, destined for the Rolex 24-Hour Race at Daytona International Speedway, were found outside a food center on Interstate 75 in Columbia County, about an hour's drive north of where the rig was stolen.

The locks on the back doors were broken, but none of the tires appeared to be missing, Deputy James Pogue of the Marion County Sheriff's Office said.

The thieves may have decided to abandon the truck after the missing tires were widely reported across central Florida, Pogue said.

In 1999, there were 17 cargo thefts at three Marion County truck stops for a total loss of $3-million, according to Sgt. Thomas Bibb of the Marion County Sheriff's Office's Organized Crime Unit.

MORE AUTOS: Mario Andretti will get another chance to earn a victory in one of the few big events he has failed to win. Andretti, who turns 60 on Feb. 28, will drive for Panoz Motor Sports in June in the Le Mans 24-Hour race in Braselton, Ga. The Cadillac Northstar LMP sports car debuts at Daytona International Speedway today, the opening day of practice and qualifying for the Rolex 24. The luxury division of General Motors hasn't fielded a race car for 50 years.

OLYMPICS: Norman Blake Jr., a hotel and insurance executive with a history of resurrecting struggling companies, has emerged as the favorite to take over as chief executive officer of the U.S. Committee. Blake is scheduled to meet with the USOC executive committee in Chicago on Friday and could be presented to the board of directors for approval Saturday.

TENNIS: Top-ranked Martina Hingis ousted Lisa Raymond 6-3, 7-5 to advance to the quarterfinals in the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo. Third-seeded Nathalie Tauziat beat Cara Black 6-3, 6-3. Mary Pierce and Amanda Coetzer received first-round byes and play their opening matches today.

SUMO: A headline-grabbing scandal over a former wrestler's claim that Japan's national sport is rife with fixed contests has renewed suspicions that the sport is not as clean as its image might suggest. Since Keisuke Itai made his allegations last month, saying he wants to revive flagging interest in the sport with a thorough cleansing, officials have issued ardent protests denying problems.

SOCCER: Four Israeli players who had sex with prostitutes or girlfriends before a loss to Denmark last year should be banned from the national team, a committee of inquiry recommended. The Tampa Bay Mutiny of MLS will appear five times on national TV this season. ESPN2 will air games at 4 p.m. May 6 vs. Dallas, 10 p.m. June 17 at Los Angeles, 8 p.m. July 15 at Chicago and 8 p.m. July 22 vs. Los Angeles. ABC will air a game at 4 p.m. Aug. 12 at San Jose.

SWIMMING: World-record holder Ian Thorpe won his third race in two days at a World Cup short-course meet in Sheffield, England, adding the 200-meter freestyle title to wins in the 100 and 400. The victories came amid suggestions by German coach Manfred Thiesmann that rivals were skeptical of his ability to keep breaking records by large margins without drugs. "All I can say is that I am not on drugs," Thorpe said.

TRACK: Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, who faces a suspension over a positive doping test, won the 60 meters in Valencia, Spain, in 7.14 seconds. The IAAF is scheduled to issue a ruling this month. Ukrainian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, returning from a 17-month layoff caused by injuries, won the pole vault at 18 feet, 4{ inches.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Texas Tech wants out of its season-opening game with Auburn, but only if the price is right. The Red Raiders agreed to a single-game deal with Auburn in the summer for a guaranteed $650,000 payday. The contract stipulates Texas Tech must pay Auburn $650,000 to back out of the game unless a compromise can be reached. "We definitely would not pay that penalty," Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers told the Montgomery Advertiser.

SKIING: Mika Myllyla of Finland edged Per Elofsson of Sweden by 2.8 seconds to win a World Cup 10-kilometer cross-country race in Trondheim, Norway. Olympic slalom champion Hilde Gerg of Germany broke her left shin bone in a spill during practice in Munich and will miss the rest of the World Cup season.

HORSES: Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby Future Wager will have a larger potential audience this year, with outlets in 11 more states planning to offer it. The wager allows bettors to place a win bet on Derby contenders weeks before the May 6 race. The wager is available in 26 states, including Florida.

SOFTBALL: The Tampa BayFireStix of the Women's Pro League open the season June 1 at the Akron Racers.

BOXING: Stevie Johnston will defend his WBC lightweight title March 17 in his home town of Denver. His opponent is Julio Alvarez of Mexico City in the main event of a six-bout card.

BOWLING: Jason Hurd averaged 240 through six games to lead the PBA Tour's Chattanooga Open by nine pins over Jeff Lizzi.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Tennessee offensive tackle Chad Clifton may have received improper help on schoolwork from an athletic department tutor, ESPN reported on its Web site...Georgia Tech linebacker Matt Uremovich will not be allowed to play again because of a bruised spinal cord sustained after the sixth game. Auburn running back Clifton Robinson, on probation for contributing to the delinquency of a minor, was arrested on assault charges for his role in a fight outside an Auburn restaurant last week.

COLLEGE BASEBALL: Matt Krot scored the winner on a passed ball in the 10th as host Saint Leo beat Florida Southern 7-6.

WOMEN'S HOCKEY: Karyn Bye's goal snapped a third-period tie to lead the United States to a 4-1 victory over Canada in Buffalo, N.Y.

BOWLING: John May climbed two spots to claim the lead after the second round of qualifying in the PBA Tour's Chattanooga Open.

_ Compiled from Times wires.