Houston: Round three preview

CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP VISITS HOUSTON FOR THIRD STRAIGHT EVENT TO BEGIN SEASON AS RAPHAEL MATOS GOES FOR THREE-IN-A-ROW INDIANAPOLIS (April 18, 2007) -- When the 2007 schedule for the Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic ...

CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP VISITS HOUSTON FOR THIRD STRAIGHT EVENT TO BEGIN SEASON AS RAPHAEL MATOS GOES FOR THREE-IN-A-ROW

INDIANAPOLIS (April 18, 2007) -- When the 2007 schedule for the Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda was released Sierra Sierra Enterprises driver Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) probably wondered how he would feel heading into the third race of three-in-a-row to start the season.

After competing at two of the most high-profile and hectic street circuit events on the series calendar at Las Vegas and Long Beach on consecutive weekends to open the year Matos, like the rest of the Atlantic competitors, couldn't be blamed for feeling just a bit drained heading into this weekend's third race in three weeks.

But as he prepares for the April 20-22 Fast Trac 100 at the Grand Prix of Houston Atlantic race (tape-delayed broadcast on ESPN2 at 5:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, April 26), Matos is on the cusp of series history and he has no intention of letting off the throttle now. On Sunday, the series sophomore led wire-to-wire on the streets of Long Beach for his second straight victory to start the season. The win capped a perfect weekend for Matos. The 25-year-old Brazilian claimed all 34 points that were available to him and the scintillating start to the year has allowed him to build an early double-digit lead in the series standings and the race for the Atlantic title and the $2 million bonus to compete in the Champ Car World Series in 2008.

If Matos can somehow make it three straight wins to start the season, he'll accomplish a feat that hasn't been achieved in 17 years. The last driver to win three-in-a-row to start the season was Mark Dismore, who actually won the first five races on his way to the 1990 Atlantic Pacific Division title. Interestingly, Matos' double dip marks the second year in a row that an Atlantic driver has begun the season 2-for-2. Andreas Wirth won at Long Beach and Houston last year, but didn't visit Victory Circle again for the rest of the season.

In addition to his recent roll, Matos' history at the JAGFlo Speedway at Reliant Park street course in Houston also bodes well for his bid at a triple play. He captured his first series pole on the circuit last season and he led a race-high 19 laps in the race before an incident with Graham Rahal just five laps from the finish saw him tumble from the lead to an 11th-place result. If the man they call "Rafa" can bring the same intensity and speed into this weekend's race that he's produced the first two events of the year -- and he carries the added incentive of a chip on his shoulder from '06 -- then the rest of the talented Atlantic field better watch out.

Just as Matos is invigorated by his quest for three straight, the other Atlantic racers are just as motivated to prevent the skilled Brazilian from gong back-to-back-to-back. A few other drivers also have good experiences at Houston to fall back on as they try to derail the Matos train. Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Konica Minolta/Dynacor) has been almost as hot as Matos to start the year. He's scored podiums in the first two events for PR1 Motorsports and three straight going back to last season. Bomarito also finished third at Houston last year and he owns the track record for the fastest race lap at the event in 2006, so look for the American to be a factor in Round 3.

James Hinchcliffe (#9 NOCO/ProWorks), Matos' Sierra Sierra teammate, also aims to contend this weekend. Hinchcliffe hoped to be better than fifth in the series standings after the first two rounds, but the 20-year-old Canadian has been quietly productive. He also finished fourth last season at Houston and he dominated February's series pre-season test at the MSR Houston road circuit.

After running among the top three for most of the weekend in Long Beach, Alan Sciuto (#20 The RoomStore of Phoenix) saw his day end on the opening lap of the race as a result of contact. He's proven very quick for the newly-formed Alan Sciuto Racing team on street circuits and he finished sixth at Houston one year ago. Looking to bounce back strong this week, Sciuto could be a Houston highlight waiting to happen.

The Red Bull Team Forsythe tandem of Robert Wickens (#3 Red Bull/INDECK) and John Edwards (#7 Red Bull/INDECK) could also prove formidable under the Texas sun. Wickens has been fantastic in his rookie Atlantic season, scoring a pair of podiums to begin his series career. The Toronto teen enters his first race at Houston leading the rookie standings and trailing only Matos (65-54) in the overall championship. Edwards has also been impressive, qualifying in the top 10 in each of his first two events and the 16-year-old phenom finished fourth on Sunday at Long Beach. He's looking for a breakout performance and Houston could be the place.

Condor Motorsports racers Franck Perera (#11 CJ Motorsport) and Junior Strous (#16 Shell/Best Box/HTP/Red, White & Bluezz USA) have also been impressive early on in their Atlantic careers. Perera sits fourth in the standings after posting back-to-back fifth-place results to start '07 while Strous is seventh on the Atlantic leaderboard. Both European-schooled drivers will see their first action on the Houston track this weekend.

Ronnie Bremer (#12 The RoomStore of Phoenix/Sealy/PRG) may be making his first Atlantic Houston start this weekend, but the experienced former Champ Car racer has proven he can be quick on any type of circuit. With top-10 finishes in each of his two starts this season for Polestar Racing Group while sitting sixth in the championship standings, Bremer could be one to watch in Houston.

Both rookie competitors for the Conquest Racing team have shown positive signs through the first two rounds. Italian Giacomo Ricci (#18 Banca Italease/Lotto/Global) is coming off his top finish of sixth at Long Beach while American Matt Lee (#44 Integrated Structures) has finished in the top 11 in both of his starts. Both Ricci and Lee will look for even better results in Round 3.

With top-10 efforts in each of his 2007 starts, Justin Sofio (#26 RLM Investments) of Mathiasen Motorsports hopes to continue his upswing at Houston. Sofio knows the Reliant Park circuit after competing at Houston last year so he'll rely on his experience as he tries to continue finishing on the sharp edge of the grid.

After a very successful test in Houston two months ago, the US RaceTronics team hopes its Lone Star state momentum carries over to the Fast Trac 100. Both Carl Skerlong (#24 King Taco/USRT) and David Garza (#4 Axtel/Tecate/Madisa/USRT) blitzed top-five times at the series test at MSR Houston and even if the results for the team haven't been stellar over the first two rounds, both drivers remain optimistic and ready to show what they can do on the fast and bumpy street circuit.

Though the Walker Racing team has struggled out of the gate in '07 there's no doubt the squad has the talent and depth to make some noise and the wake-up call could come at Houston. Simona De Silvestro (#5 Deans Knight/Wasteco) has shown flashes of her immense potential and Ryan Lewis (#15 NCPI/Deans Knight/Wasteco) is a speedy veteran still just trying to find his rhythm in the new season. Both drivers are anxious to break out in the Texas heat.

American rookie J.R. Hildebrand (#36 Newman Wachs Racing) has also seen his results suffer for various reasons to begin '07. But the defending FF2000 champ remains focused and he'll shoot for a strong result for the Newman Wachs team Sunday. Another all-American lineup, featuring rookies Adrian Carrio (#17 Carrio Cabling Company) -- who finished sixth in the Star Mazda race at Houston last year -- and Richard Heistand (#37 Eola Capital Investments), will get their chance to shine at Houston for Genoa Racing.

The Jensen MotorSport three-man team also has its sights set high this weekend after some improved performances at Vegas and Long Beach. Actor-turned-racer Frankie Muniz (#13 Chandler Development) and fellow American Tom Sutherland (#2 Clickaway Computer) tallied their top results of the year last weekend, while Dominick Muermans (#22 Muermans Group) also continues his development for the Canadian squad.

Last weekend, Brooks Associates Racing had its full driver lineup in place with Chinese driver Tengyi Jiang (#8 Champ Car Grand Prix of China) being joined by second-year Atlantic racer Joe D'Agostino (#10 Discount Tire). The duo will be back in action at Houston looking to score some points for the BAR squad.

Canadians Mike Forest (#32 Miracle Sealants/Konica Minolta/Dynacor/Earthwater) of PR1 Motorsports and Adrien Herberts (#45 Paladin Motorsports) will make their first Atlantic starts at Houston on Sunday along with American Bret MacDonald (#21 Brelia Ent./Bam/BCP/Rock House) of Polestar Racing Group and Luis Mussi (#30 Rede Mercosul/Mix 92.9 FM/Gelles Racing) of Brazil and the Gelles Racing team. Condor Motorsports' Brian Thienes (#19 Thienes Engineering) will also see his first Houston Atlantic action, after competing last year at Reliant Park in the Star Mazda series.

The Grand Prix of Houston weekend schedule gets underway with Atlantic practice from 8:45-9:30 a.m. (local) Central Time Friday morning.. The opening round of qualifying will take place from 12:55-1:30 p.m. Friday. Saturday morning Atlantic practice also runs from 8:45-9:30 a.m. with final qualifying from 12:15-12:50 p.m. Saturday afternoon. The roar of Mazda-Cosworth Atlantic engines begin race day with a 15-minute warm-up practice from 8-8:15 a.m. Sunday morning. Then, the Fast Trac 100 Atlantic race will begin from a standing start at 11:30 a.m. Sunday. The race is scheduled for 50 minutes.

All Atlantic cars are Swift 016.a Atlantic chassis powered by 300-horsepower Mazda-Cosworth MZR engines capable of speeds in excess of 175 mph. Each entry will ride on new Cooper Atlantic racing slicks and rain tires throughout the weekend.

FAST FACTS

FAST TRAC 100 AT THE GRAND PRIX OF HOUSTON

WHAT: Fast Trac 100 at the Grand Prix of Houston

WHERE: JAGFlo Speedway at Reliant Park -- Houston, Texas, April 20-22

CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE (All times local):

FRIDAY, APRIL 20 -- 8:45-9:30 a.m., Practice; 12:55-1:30 p.m., First-Round Qualifying.

SATURDAY, APRIL 21 -- 8:45-9:30 a.m., Practice; 12:15-12:50 p.m., Final-Round Qualifying.

SUNDAY, APRIL 22 -- 8-8:15 a.m., Warm-up; 11:30-12:30 a.m., Atlantic Race.

U.S. TELEVISION SCHEDULE: THURSDAY, APRIL 26 -- ESPN2, Fast Trac 100 at the Grand Prix of Houston at 5:30 p.m. ET.

2006 HOUSTON CHAMPION: Andreas Wirth
2006 HOUSTON POLESITTER: Raphael Matos

TRACK LAYOUT: 1.658-mile temporary street circuit
RACE LENGTH: 50-minute time limit

TRACK RECORDS (based on 1.690-mile layout): Qualifying (one lap) -- 2006, Raphael Matos, 1:05.263 (93.223 mph). Race -- (one lap) 2006, Jonathan Bomarito, 1:05.562 (92.800 mph)

RACE ROUND: 3 of 12 in the 2007 Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda

NEXT RACE: The G.I. Joe's Grand Prix of Portland -- Portland International Raceway in Portland, Oregon, June 8-10

-credit: ccws/atl

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About this article
Series Atlantic
Drivers Mark Dismore , Graham Rahal , Jonathan Bomarito , Ronnie Bremer , Ryan Lewis , Justin Sofio , Adrian Carrio , Andreas Wirth , Robert Wickens , Adrien Herberts , Alan Sciuto , Tengyi Jiang , Tom Sutherland , James Hinchcliffe , Joe D'Agostino , David Garza , Brian Thienes , Dominick Muermans , Carl Skerlong , J.R. Hildebrand , Giacomo Ricci , John Edwards , Richard Heistand , Luis Mussi , Bret MacDonald , Mike Forest , Franck Perera , Frankie Muniz , Matt Lee
Teams Conquest Racing