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Tampa driver recalls White's drive

Aric Almirola knew Reggie White cared greatly about the racing diversity program and team to which he loaned his name and fame.

Almirola, 20, a Tampa native, drove a season on the short-track Modified circuit in North Carolina last year after being selected as one of Reggie White Motorsports' first two drivers.

"Definitely a good man," Almirola said Wednesday via cell phone as he drove to Charlotte, N.C., to attend a memorial service for White, who died Dec. 26 at age 43. "He meant a lot to me and he gave me my first true shot in racing to make it big. He meant a lot to me."

Though White's involvement was primarily as a vehicle to diversify auto racing, Almirola said he could tell the former NFL defensive end cared about the project.

"I knew him as an owner and I got to know him a little bit as a friend, and he was truly a special person," Almirola said. "He wanted nothing but good to come out of what we were doing and we're going to keep on trying to do it."

Almirola, who finished 11th in Late Model points last season at Ace Speedway in Altamahaw, N.C., said Joe Gibbs Racing, the umbrella organization for White's team, plans to run him at different tracks through the South this year to vary his experience.

"We're not really going to run for points, but get used to adapting to different tracks," he said. "We're going to broaden my horizons and try to teach me how to learn as much as I can."

Doing so would help realize White's goal in racing. He teamed with former NFL running back Adrian Murrell late in 2003 to build a race team with Joe Gibbs, who has returned to the NFL to coach the Washington Redskins after his race team won two titles in NASCAR's top series. Plans call for the diversity program to continue in White's name.

SWITCHING SIDES: Champ Car's tempestuous 2004, which included a dissolution through bankruptcy court and reformation under three team owners, fueled speculation that the open-wheel circuit was doomed with each loss of a driver, venue or sponsor.

Eyebrows cocked even higher when Patrick Carpentier _ who drove for one of the series' co-owners _ left for the Indy Racing League. Carpentier abandoned a monied race team and a series still popular in his native Canada.

He said the decision to leave Gerald Forsythe's Paul Tracy-led team was easy after eight seasons in CART/Champ Car. The desire to race the Indy 500 and more oval courses, the chance to come to a Toyota-powered Eddie Cheever team and a more financially stable series was too much to ignore, he said.

"I think there's a place for both series," said Carpentier, who finished third in Champ Car points last season, "and I don't know if one of them is ever going to die. I had a good time for eight years, and for me, it was just time for a change.

"But right now, there is a bit more difficulty financially over there, and everything weighed into the decision."

BIG VISIT: Two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves met Pope John Paul II while he was in the Vatican for the Seventh Congress of Circus Workers on Dec. 16. The Brazilian, 29, was invited to speak on how parishes can support those who work in the entertainment industry and spend much of their time away from home and church.