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Barrichello set to become IndyCar rookie

Rubens Barrichello, the most experienced driver in Formula One, will become an IndyCar rookie after joining KV Racing Technology Thursday to race in the American open-wheel series.

Barrichello, who spent 19 seasons in F1 and started 322 races - more than any other driver, will make his IndyCar debut on March 25 at the series opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida with the team's other drivers, fellow Brazilian Tony Kanaan and Venezuelan EJ Viso.

"I'm over the moon," said Barrichello on a conference call to announce his move to IndyCar. "I felt I wanted to do this straight away.

"When you love what you do, you want to search for new things. You have an open mind.

"With all my experience I will start as a rookie, but I think I will get better as the year progresses."

The 39-year-old Barrichello began racing in F1 in 1993, the year before his friend and mentor Ayrton Senna was killed in a crash at Imola, and has competed for Jordan, Stewart, Ferrari, Honda, Brawn and Williams recording 11 career wins and 68 podium finishes.

But for all his experience, Barrichello has never tested himself on the IndyCar's infamous ovals, something he promised his wife he would never do.

Racing on ovals requires unique skills and a special bravery as cars stampede around the circuit wheel-to-wheel at speeds of more than 200 mph.

Fans and drivers were reminded of those extreme dangers last November, when Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon was killed in crash at the series finale on Las Vegas Speedway's high-speed oval.

"One day we were watching an oval race and she (Barrichello's wife) looked at me and, said, 'you're never going to do this, are you?'," recalled Barrichello. "I said, 'well I don't plan to because I will be racing Formula One forever and then probably stop'."

"But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to know what is the experience. What goes through the mind of the driver at such a speed."

Barrichello and his children convinced his wife to give IndyCar a chance and the Brazilian will contest all 16 races on the series calendar, including ovals and the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Certainly, Barrichello has lost none of his competitive fire, saying he expects to challenge for wins and spots on the podium right away.

"I can do different things but I know I can drive well and to be able to become an IndyCar driver at almost age 40 and still be so competitive and physically well," said Barrichello. "It is a chance that has been given to me after all the years of competitive racing, I still have a lot of speed in myself.

"I have not reached the peak of my performance yet."

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard's stated goal is to make the series the top destination for the world's best drivers and the addition of the hugely popular Barrichello to the starting grid is sure to give the series a badly needed boost after Wheldon's death and Danica Patrick's defection to NASCAR.

Replaced at Williams by compatriot Bruno Senna for this season, Barrichello is clearly in the twilight of his career but the Brazilian becomes the biggest name to jump to IndyCar since Britain's then F1 champion Nigel Mansell in 1993.

The magic of the Indy 500 has held a fascination and special allure for many drivers.

Former F1 champions Jacques Villeneuve, Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti, Jim Clark and Graham Hill are among those to race at the famed Brickyard and put their cars on Victory Lane.

The mystic of the Brickyard is not lost on Barrichello, who will celebrate his 40th birthday on May 23 just before his first 500.

"I've been there in 1993, I went there to watch the Indy 500 and raced Formula One at Indianapolis but it was not even close to what it is the Indy 500," said Barrichello. "I think it is going to be a great experience.

"I can't wait to get my car to ovals and see what it is."

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Alison Wildey)