Cleveland: Rounds five, six doubleheader preview

ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP TOUCHES DOWN IN CLEVELAND AS SERIES PREPARES FOR WILD DOUBLEHEADER AND RETURN OF STANDING STARTS INDIANAPOLIS (June 21, 2006) -- All eyes will be focused on the starts for this weekend's Yokohama Presents the Champ Car...

ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP TOUCHES DOWN IN CLEVELAND AS SERIES PREPARES FOR WILD DOUBLEHEADER AND RETURN OF STANDING STARTS

INDIANAPOLIS (June 21, 2006) -- All eyes will be focused on the starts for this weekend's Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda doubleheader at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport, but it's the finishes that will ultimately tell the story at the Gehl Atlantic Championship of Cleveland (tape-delayed broadcasts to be aired on SPEED beginning at 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 9).

Every event on the 2006 Atlantic Championship calendar carries great importance, but this weekend's racing at the Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank has been circled by many for months. As the series gears up for its only two-race weekend this season, fans and competitors alike are also jazzed by the return of standing starts to the series on the wide-open 2.106-mile temporary road course. For the first time since the 1998 season, the Atlantic field -- featuring 25 of the top up-and-coming stars of racing this weekend -- will take the green flag from a stationary grid position in front of the raucous grandstands in Cleveland. In a return to what was considered a staple of Atlantic racing from the series' inception in 1974 through 1999, when the championship went to rolling starts exclusively, the standing start format returns on Saturday and Sunday as the European-style starts will be in effect for both Rounds 5 and 6.

But while the beginning of both races will be exciting to watch as the series brings back some of its storied past to today's top-level competition, it will be the order at the checkered flags that will truly help determine what talented young racer will get a leg up in the hunt for the series championship and the $2 million Champ Car bonus that goes along with it. The 12-race '06 season will reach its halfway point at the completion of Sunday's race. History has proven that the driver that's leading the Atlantic title chase at the season's midpoint is almost a lock to emerge as series champion. No less than six times over the last seven seasons (including the last four years in a row), the driver that's led the points race after Round 6 has gone on to claim the Atlantic crown.

Those numbers certainly bring a smile to the face of Forsythe Championship Racing's Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Wirth Solar). After scoring a third-place finish at Portland last weekend -- his 10th podium result in just 14 career Atlantic starts -- Wirth retained the championship lead. He's been out front all season long and he now holds a 24-point cushion over his closest competitor. Wirth also has a strong history of racing at Cleveland. He's never finished lower than fourth in four previous races on the airport circuit, including a pair of third-place Atlantic finishes last season.

Riding high after earning his first series win on Sunday in Portland, Wirth's main competition this weekend may come in the form of his own teammate. Canadian Forsythe Racing rookie James Hinchcliffe (#3 Emexis/INDECK) rose to second in the series standings after his maiden Atlantic victory and he also scored a pair of podium finishes in his last visit to Cleveland at the 2004 Formula BMW USA doubleheader weekend at the venue.

While Hinchcliffe wants to hold on to the memory of Portland for as long as he can, two drivers enter this weekend looking to wash away the images of last round as quickly as possible. French rookie Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) drew to within four points of Wirth for the series lead after he topped the opening-round of qualifying last weekend. He was in a great position to seize the reigns of the championship and grab his first win in Portland but he made contact in the very first turn with polesitter Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) and both drivers saw their day come crashing down. Pagenaud, now third in the season standings, will look to get back in the groove in his first experience racing at Cleveland.

Unlike Pagenaud, Rahal hasn't had a lot of experience at standing starts but he wants to make his mark at his "home" race this weekend. A native of New Albany, Ohio, the 17-year-old Rahal also wants to do well at the venue where his father -- Bobby Rahal -- won the very first Grand Prix of Cleveland in Champ Car competition back in 1982.

As the Cleveland event celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend, the series twinbill also holds special meaning for the Polestar Racing Group team. Headquartered in nearby Chardon, Ohio, Polestar pilots Alan Sciuto (#12 Sealy/PKV Racing/The RoomStore of Phoenix) and Alex Barron (#21 The RoomStore of Phoenix) both are looking for strong results in their team's back yard. Barron, the 1997 Atlantic champion, earned a podium finish at Cleveland in his title-winning season while Sciuto is brimming with confidence after a season-best fourth-place finish on Sunday helped elevate him to fourth in the championship standings.

The last time that the Sierra Sierra Enterprises team raced at Cleveland it celebrated a dominant performance by one of its drivers. First-year sensation Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) of Brazil hopes to equal the 2004 winning effort posted by Sierra Sierra's Ryan Dalziel during this weekend's racing. Another Brazilian is hoping his first visit to Cleveland is a good one. Danilo Dirani (#1 Canary Fund/Funcional Card/Sala Design/Perkons) has two top-five results in the first four races of the year and he's looking to harness the winning formula that his Condor Motorsports team used in '05 when then series rookie and current Champ Car driver Charles Zwolsman swept the Cleveland Atlantic doubleheader.

Ryan Lewis (#30 Insport) enjoyed a spectacular weekend at Portland in his series debut. The 22-year-old British driver led a race-high 31 laps on Sunday en route to a second-place finish for Mi-Jack Conquest Racing. If it weren't for gearbox problems late in the race, he'd be entering Cleveland fresh off a win in his first race. As it stands, the former British F3 standout is anxious to stretch his legs on the airport runways and watch while the other competitors adjust to the standing start format he's used to seeing on a weekly basis in Europe. Mexico's David Martinez (#4 Mexico/US RaceTonics) has run three races in Cleveland in his career and he'll be looking to improve on his sixth-place championship standing in the two races. Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Dynacor) claimed a top-five finish at Cleveland in his rookie Atlantic season of 2004 and he's confident of his chances with PR1 Motorsports.

One of the most experienced drivers at Burke Lakefront Airport is Forsythe Racing's Leonardo Maia (#7 INDECK). He's produced a pole and a win at the venue -- in the 2003 Barber Dodge Pro Series race -- and he ran both Atlantic races last year at the Cleveland double dip in his series debut. Maia will be looking to put that experience to good use and he may have some words of wisdom for his young Forsythe teammate Richard Philippe (#33 INDECK). The 16-year-old Frenchman will be making his first Cleveland start this weekend.

The Newman Wachs Racing rookie tandem of American Joe D'Agostino (#34 Newman Wachs Racing) and New Zelander Daniel Gaunt (#35 Newman Wachs Racing) is coming off its best weekend of racing in the Atlantic series. D'Agostino was running second in Portland late in the race when fuel issues forced him out of action, while Gaunt produced his best series finish of eighth. Both drivers hope the momentum carries across the country to Cleveland. The two new drivers at Brooks Associates Racing were also happy to get a race under their belts last weekend. Both Carlos Mastretta (#8 Tecnoidea/Radiante Digital/Signotech) of Mexico and Brazil's Alex Sperafico (#10 Mnyx.com/Sperafico Agroindustrial) ran well in their first races in the series. Mastretta will be racing at Cleveland for the first time while Sperafico has enjoyed one Champ Car start at the venue prior to this season.

Great Britain's Tim Bridgman (#2 Epson) of Epson Team Jensen is coming off his first top-10 Atlantic performance and he's eyeing a further foray up the finishing order in Cleveland while Australia's James Davison (#5 Team Australia/Aussie Vineyards) is also rooting for a pair of strong finishes after struggling in his last two outings. Promising Americans Robbie Pecorari (#28 Western Union/USA Today/Gelles Racing) of Gelles Racing and Steve Ott (#22 MSR Houston) of MSR Houston Team Jensen will see their first Cleveland Atlantic action.

At Portland, Alex Garcia (#16 Dixien OmniSource) moved from the owner's seat back into the cockpit for his Transnet Racing team. He returns to the saddle this weekend at the venue where he earned best Atlantic finish of sixth place in 2003. Aussie Barton Mawer (#17 Australian Motor Sport Foundation/Dixien), fresh off his best finish of the season, will compete alongside Garcia in the Transnet stable. After scoring a top-10 result last season in Cleveland, Justin Sofio (#26 Mathiasen Motorsports/RLM Investments) returns to the runways, while Duncan Ende (#55 Speedway Motors/Days Inn/Spinnakers) prepares to make his first series starts on the shores of Lake Erie for Bite Racing.

The new 2006 Atlantic cars, featuring newly-designed Swift 016.a chassis powered by 300-horsepower Mazda-Cosworth MZR engines capable of speeds in excess of 175 mph, will compete at Cleveland. Each entry will ride on Yokohama ADVAN Racing Slicks. The doubleheader schedule has the Atlantics practicing for the first time on Friday morning from 10:45-11:30 a.m. Eastern Time. Qualifying for Race 1 will take place from 3-3:30 p.m. Friday. Qualifying for Race 2 will run from 9:30-10 a.m. Saturday morning while Round 5 of the Atlantic Championship will get the green flag at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The morning warm-up practice on Sunday will run from 9-9:15 a.m. before Round 6 begins at 12 p.m. Sunday. Both races are scheduled for 32 laps (67.392 miles) or 50 minutes.

SPEED will provide tape-delayed television coverage of the Gehl Atlantic Championship of Cleveland with both races broadcast back-to-back on Sunday, July 9 beginning at 4 p.m. ET. The race will also air to U.S. service men and women in over 130 countries around the world through the American Forces Radio & Television Service. For additional information, visit the official web site of North America's premier open-wheel development series, www.champcaratlantic.com.

FAST FACTS

WHAT: The Gehl Atlantic Championship at the Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by U.S. Bank

WHERE: Burke Lakefront Airport -- Cleveland, Ohio

WHEN: Friday-Sunday, June 23-25

CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE (All times local): FRIDAY, JUNE 23 -- 10:45-11:30 a.m., Practice; 3-3:30 p.m., Qualifying for Race #1. SATURDAY, JUNE 24 -- 9:30-10:00 a.m., Qualifying for Race #2; 3:30-4:30 p.m., Atlantic Race #1. SUNDAY, JUNE 25 -- 9-9:15 a.m., Warm-up, 12-1 p.m.., Atlantic Race #2.

U.S. TELEVISION SCHEDULE: SUNDAY, JULY 9 -- SPEED, The Gehl Atlantic Championship of Cleveland, 4-6 p.m. ET (both races aired on taped-delay).

2005 CLEVELAND CHAMPION: Charles Zwolsman (won both races)

2005 CLEVELAND POLESITTERS: Tonis Kasemets (Race #1) and Charles Zwolsman (Race #2)

TRACK LAYOUT:  2.106-mile temporary road course

RACE LENGTH: 32 laps (67.392 miles) or 50 minutes

TRACK RECORDS: Qualifying (one lap) -- 2003, AJ Allmendinger, 1:04.927 (116.771 mph). Race -- (one lap) 2005, AJ Allmendinger, 1:05.885 (115.073 mph); (32 laps) 2005, Charles Zwolsman (Race #2), 36:46.826 (109.937 mph).

RACE ROUNDS: 5 and 6 of 12 in the 2006 Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda

NEXT EVENT: July 7-9, Molson Grand Prix of Toronto, Exhibition Place -- Toronto, Ontario, Canada

INSTANT REPLAY: Dutch racer Charles Zwolsman seized control of the Atlantic Championship with an impressive doubleheader sweep at Cleveland and it was a grasp that he never let go. Zwolsman started second behind series point leader Tonis Kasemets but in the treacherous first turn at the airport road circuit Zwolsman waited as late as possible to break and was able to sneak by the polesitter. The battle remained tight between Zwolsman and Kasemets, with Zwolsman having to venture off course on Lap 10 in order to get around lapped traffic without surrendering the lead. He made it all the way to the finish line with Kasemets in his rear-view mirror, winning by .748 of a second. Andreas Wirth claimed third to complete the podium.

Turn 1 was crueler to Zwolsman in the second race of the weekend. Starting from the pole, Zwolsman encountered a shifting problem heading for the green flag as Kasemets this time claimed the point in Turn 1. After leading the first three laps, Kasemets went off course and coughed up the lead. He was able to return to the track but was out of contention for the win. Antoine Bessette claimed the lead after Kasemets' miscue but it wouldn't last long. After falling to fifth, Zwolsman found the shifting issue suddenly corrected and began to attack. He passed Bessette on Lap 12 and never looked back, winning by 10.365 seconds. Bessette finished second while Wirth again grabbed third for his fourth consecutive podium result. The dual victories by Zwolsman allowed him to recapture the championship lead and open up a seven-point advantage over Kasemets in the standings -- a lead that he would not surrender for the remainder of his title-winning season.

-atlantic-

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About this article
Series Atlantic
Drivers Ryan Dalziel , Bobby Rahal , Graham Rahal , Alex Barron , Leonardo Maia , Alex Garcia , David Martinez , Alex Sperafico , Jonathan Bomarito , Antoine Bessette , Charles Zwolsman , Tonis Kasemets , Robbie Pecorari , Barton Mawer , Danilo Dirani , Ryan Lewis , Justin Sofio , Andreas Wirth , James Davison , Richard Philippe , Simon Pagenaud , Alan Sciuto , Duncan Ende , James Hinchcliffe , Joe D'Agostino , Daniel Gaunt , Steve Ott
Teams Conquest Racing