GRAHAM RAHAL DOMINATES IN CLEVELAND TO SWEEP CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC DOUBLEHEADER CLEVELAND, Ohio (June 25, 2006) -- Move over LeBron James, there's a new King of Cleveland. He might not be able to dunk a basketball or shoot three-pointers...
GRAHAM RAHAL DOMINATES IN CLEVELAND TO SWEEP CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC DOUBLEHEADER
CLEVELAND, Ohio (June 25, 2006) -- Move over LeBron James, there's a new King of Cleveland.
He might not be able to dunk a basketball or shoot three-pointers but Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) sure proved this weekend that he knows how to drive and win at the city located on the shores of Lake Erie. The 17-year-old Rahal completed a sweep of the Gehl Atlantic Championship of Cleveland on Sunday, grabbing the lead in the first turn and cruising to his third career victory in the Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda.
Rahal, the son of three-time Champ Car champion Bobby Rahal, had to work hard to claim a win on Saturday. The native of New Albany, Ohio came from a fifth-place starting position and roared into the lead late in the race before taking the checkered flag on his "home" course at Burke Lakefront Airport. On Sunday, Rahal had a much easier go of it.
In the second standing start for the Atlantic cars of the weekend -- the series' first since 1998 -- Rahal got a great jump from second position, moving past polesitter Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) and into the lead. From there, Rahal turned consistently quick laps and was never seriously threatened, winning by more than 15 seconds over the next-closest competitor. The weekend couldn't have panned out any better for the young Rahal. With his famous father working the pit board for his son at the same track where he won his first Champ Car race 25 years ago, Graham Rahal won easily and watched as the drivers in front of him in the Atlantic Championship chase struggled. With Sunday's win, Rahal has now closed the gap in the point standings, now just 12 points out of the lead.
For the second consecutive race, the 24-car Atlantic field enjoyed a strong start and a clean trip through the challenging and hazardous Turn 1 at the 2.106-mile airport road circuit.
And while no driver could match the launch that Rahal produced, several drivers showed their strength early. Third-place starter Richard Philippe (#33 INDECK/Layer 7) had a nice start and seized second place early, while Pagenaud suffered from a poor opening lap and dropped back in the field. Philippe, the 16-year-old Forsythe Championship Racing rookie who has suffered bad luck throughout the early part of the 2006 season, finally showed what he could do on the airport runways and taxiways. The '05 Formula BMW USA champion tried valiantly to catch Rahal, but he had his hands full with the competition behind him.
Sierra Sierra Enterprises driver Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) also looked strong in the early portion of the race. Starting sixth, Matos improved to third by the second lap. Fighting to score some valuable point this weekend, Matos made contact with the Turn 8 wall halfway through the 32-lap race and then went off course and suffered further suspension damage just a few turns later. The incidents spelled the end of the day for the pre-season championship hopeful.
American rookie Steve Ott (#22 MSR Houston) battled for position with Matos early and fought his way up to third place after starting fourth in just his fourth series start. Ott fought with Philippe for the second position throughout the latter stages of the event before he settled for a third-place finish -- the first podium result for the former driving instructor at the MSR Houston road circuit.
Series leader Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Wirth Solar) suffered his worst result of the season, but he had to work hard to earn his 18th-place finish. The second-year series racer started fifth for Forsythe Championship Racing but lost his front wing when he went off course early. After a visit to pit lane to make repairs, Wirth returned to the track but he had to drive like a demon to work his way back into the points. In the end, the determined German made his way back into the top 20 as he managed to retain the lead in the title chase.
Rahal's Mi-Jack Conquest Racing teammate Ryan Lewis (#30 Insport) once again proved to be one of the fastest drivers on track until a tour through the grassy areas at Burke Lakefront Airport proved unforgiving. After starting 15th, Lewis put his head down and weaved his way forward. The British rookie, making just his second Atlantic start, made it as far as fourth place while turning some of the fastest laps of the race. He went off course with six laps remaining and dropped back in the field as a result of the excursion.
Robbie Pecorari (#28 Western Union/USA Today/Gelles Racing) of Gelles Racing posted his best finish of his rookie season. The 19-year-old American rallied from a 10th-place starting spot to secure a fourth-place result in his first visit to Cleveland. Despite falling behind early, battling some handling issues and coming on late to work his way back into the top five, Pagenaud claimed fifth place for Team Australia. He remains second in the series standings, now nine points behind Wirth for the championship lead.
After scoring his best series finish of seventh in the first race of the weekend, Leonardo Maia (#7 Layer 7/INDECK) bettered that result by one spot on Sunday to cross the stripe sixth overall. Joe D'Agostino (#34 Newman Wachs Racing) also checked in with his top series result when he came home seventh for Newman Wachs Racing. Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Dynacor) of PR1 Motorsports recorded his fourth top-10 result of the season in eighth place. The bonus point for the most improved positions in the race was claimed by rookie Alan Sciuto (#12 Sealy/PKV Racing/The RoomStore of Phoenix) of the Chardon, Ohio-based Polestar Racing Group team. Sciuto started the race 24th but worked his way up to ninth at the checkered flag. For the second straight day, Mexico's David Martinez (#4 Mexico/US RaceTronics) brought home a 10th-place finish.
ATLANTIC RACE NOTES
* Andreas Wirth established a new one-lap race record in Cleveland on Sunday. He posted time of 1:04.255 (117.990 mph) on his 31st lap to earn a bonus championship point for the fastest lap of the race.
* Pagenaud's #15 Team Australia entry won this weekend's Sherwin-Williams Atlantic Design Award. Representatives of Sherwin-Williams, the Official Automotive Finish of Atlantics, along with select Cleveland race fans, judged Pagenaud's car to have the best finish design this weekend. The team was awarded $4,000 for the honor. At the conclusion of the season, Sherwin-Williams will present the 2006 Atlantic Design Award to the car deemed to have the top season-long livery design. The winning entry will also be awarded a $10,000 bonus.
* Sunday's race represented the halfway point in this season's 12-race series schedule. In six of the last seven years, the driver that is leading the title chase at the halfway point has gone on to claim the crown. Wirth leaves Cleveland with a nine-point lead in the standings.
Quotes from the top three finishers in today's race follow:
Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing: "Yesterday, we had a really tall first gear. My initial launch was pretty good, but after that the car just died on me. Today, we shortened up first gear and that's about all. I don't know how or why it went so well. Maybe it helped that today I didn't try to put so much heat in the tires. My car is a lot quicker than anyone else's on cold tires anyway. I tried to get a clean start with the cooler tires to get a little wheel spin. (On whether there were any uncomfortable moments) Whenever you come up on traffic, you try to be careful. But, with the lead I had, I ran basically 1:04 the whole race, so I knew that even if I slowed a bit for traffic, I would still be going the same speed as everyone else. But instead of getting caught in traffic, I just pulled away. Yesterday, Simon Pagenaud and Andreas Wirth tried to force their way through and it just didn't work. The gap gave me an advantage. (On Wirth and Pagenaud's trouble today) I'm glad to see them struggle, honestly, I was wondering when it was going to happen. Certainly this weekend has gone our way and we're back in the hunt now. A doubleheader race can put you in the championship or take you out of it. I can't ask for much more."
Richard Philippe (#33 INDECK/Layer 7) of Forsythe Championship Racing: "On Friday, we qualified 17th because we only got 10 laps in the dry and I'd never been here before. On Saturday, we qualified third, so it was a good effort. Today, in the start of the race, Simon Pagenaud made a mistake and I got past him. From then on, I just had to keep my speed up. In the beginning, I was trying to keep up with Graham Rahal, but he just went away and I'm happy to be second. (On lapped traffic) To be honest I was more worried about Steve Ott passing me. I couldn't even see Graham Rahal on the straightaway, so I just focused on not letting Steve Ott catch me. There's only one spot left to improve now, so it's a good step forward. I want to thank the team for everything, without them I would be nowhere."
Steve Ott (#22 MSR Houston) of MSR Houston Team Jensen: "I worked with the team and we got the car dialed in to work well with my driving style. Prior to this, I did some road racing. (On getting his ride) I moved down to Houston in March and did some instructing. A couple of weeks before the Houston Grand Prix, some track investors got together and asked me if I wanted to do the Grand Prix. We got the money together and got a good team and went from there. (On his off during yesterday's qualifying that cost him the pole) I feel a lot better knowing that it wasn't just a one-off, that I could do it again."