Houston: Round two preview

PLAYING FIELD LEVELED AS REVITALIZED ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP VISITS NEW GRAND PRIX OF HOUSTON CIRCUIT FOR SECOND-ROUND ACTION INDIANAPOLIS (May 9, 2006) -- With a masterful performance in the opening round of the 2006 Yokohama Presents the...

PLAYING FIELD LEVELED AS REVITALIZED ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP VISITS NEW GRAND PRIX OF HOUSTON CIRCUIT FOR SECOND-ROUND ACTION

INDIANAPOLIS (May 9, 2006) -- With a masterful performance in the opening round of the 2006 Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda, it could be argued that Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Wirth Solar) enjoyed just a bit of an advantage.

After all, the second-year sensation who joined the new Forsythe Championship Racing Atlantic team this season, was one of the few drivers in the chock-full-of-talent Atlantic field of nearly 30 cars that had experience competing on the tight and challenging Long Beach street circuit. And with the powerful four-car Forsythe team at his disposal, it wasn't much of a surprise that the rising 21-year German star claimed a flag-to-flag Round 1 win and the early lead in the race for the Atlantic title and the $2 million champion's Champ Car bonus.

No such advantage will be gained by any competitors in Round 2 at the Grand Prix of Houston's Fast Trac 100 event, to be held May 11-13 at the newly-designed temporary road course around Reliant Park. While the Atlantic series did compete in Houston on the downtown street circuit from 1998-2001, no one has experienced the new 1.615-mile course that will host the Mazda-Cosworth/Swift/Yokohama Atlantic machines this weekend. And with a Thursday-Saturday schedule and unique night-racing format awaiting the series teams and drivers in Houston, this event is sure to offer a setting that is both unfamiliar and challenging to all Atlantic competitors.

The rejuvenated Atlantic Championship will feature 28 entries and will be part of an action-packed lineup of racing at the Grand Prix of Houston. The American Le Mans Series, along with the open-wheel Star Mazda Series cars, will also compete at Houston along with turbocharged machines of the Champ Car World Series. The 40-lap Atlantic race will take place on Saturday evening in the Texas city (tape-delayed telecast on SPEED -- Sunday, May 20 at 1 p.m. ET).

If Wirth, who posted the fastest time among all series testers earlier this week at the nearby MSR Houston road course, plans on leaving Texas the way he found it -- with an advantage in the series championship standings -- he'll have to fight off a host of hungry racers eager to conquer the new Houston venue. Sierra Sierra Enterprises pilot Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) certainly didn't look like he was at a disadvantage in Long Beach. The Brazilian rookie quickly established himself as one of the quickest drivers in the field consisting of mainly first-year Atlantic racers. He scored a second-place finish and took the checkered flag less than a second behind Wirth while establishing a new course record for the fastest-ever Atlantic lap. Matos, currently second in the series while leading the early Rookie-of-the-Year rundown, hopes for similar success in Houston. Only this time he wants to be the one in Victory Circle.

All of Wirth's three Forsythe Racing teammates proved at Long Beach that they were also capable of fighting for victories. Canadian rookie James Hinchcliffe (#3 Emexis/INDECK) emerged from his first Atlantic race with of podium finish of third in Round 1. He hopes to improve on his third-place championship standing this weekend, along with second-year American racer Leonardo Maia (#7 INDECK). After a ninth-place result with a conservative approach in Round 1, Maia will look to go on the attack in Houston. Richard Philippe (#33 INDECK), the teenage racing prodigy in the Forsythe stable, was running among the top 10 when an accident forced him out of the first round of series action. Philippe will look to bounce back strong in Round 2.

After leading the first round of qualifying in 2006, Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) of Team Australia opened a lot of eyes in the Atlantic paddock. The first-year Frenchman continued to impress on race day bringing home a fourth-place finish and he looked strong at this week's test, leading the first day of on-track action. Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) also produced a solid result in Round 1. Despite an early brush with the wall that left his car slightly damaged, the 17-year-old son of racing legend Bobby Rahal claimed fifth in Long Beach and enters Houston ranked fifth overall in the series. Both Pagenaud and Rahal are excited to return to action and prove they have even more in their respective tanks for Houston.

With high expectations entering '06, the Polestar Racing Group all-American tandem of Alex Barron (#21 The Room Store) and Alan Sciuto (#12 Sealy/PKV Racing) was hoping for a better bottom line to start out the year. Barron, the 1997 series champion who raced in the 1998 and 2000 Champ Car events on the old Houston street circuit, finished eighth in his return to series action in Round 1. Sciuto, the 18-year-old hot shoe, scored a 10th-place finish in Long Beach. Both drivers are anxious to find even better results on the Reliant Park circuit.

Brazilian Danilo Dirani (#1 Canary Fund/Funcional Card/M TEL/Perkons) showed good speed and promise in his Atlantic debut, posting a sixth-place finish on the streets of Long Beach. With the defending series champion Condor Motorsports team behind him, expect the production to continue for Dirani. Gelles Racing rookie Robbie Pecorari (#28 Western Union/USA Today/Gelles Racing) also had a solid series coming out party finishing seventh to start '06. He's got his eyes on an even higher finish in his first time racing in Houston.

Several of the top expected series contenders struggled with either on-track incidents or mechanical issues at Long Beach and will be looking to make up some ground in the standings this weekend. American Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants) was having an awesome opening weekend when mechanical problems beyond his control ended his race early. Bomarito qualified fourth for PR1 Motorsports and moved up to second looking to battle Wirth for the lead when an engine problem forced him off track. He certainly enters Houston with something to prove. Gelles Racing's Stephen Simpson (#14 Western Union/Diamon-Fusion/Gelles Racing), Tim Bridgman (#2 Epson) of Epson Team Jensen and Charles Hall (#16 Accent Card/OmniSource/Dixien) of Transnet Racing all saw their season openers cut short due to on-track incidents that left their cars damaged. All will be anxious to see the first green flag fly in Houston as they try to put the bad memories behind them.

American rookie Joe D'Agostino (#34 Newman/Wachs Racing) of the first-year Newman/Wachs Racing team just missed the top 10 in Round 1 with an 11th-place result and he'll be looking to break into the elusive top 10 in Saturday's race while Mexico's David Martinez (#4 Mexico/US RaceTronics) is hoping to improve on a 12th-place run in Long Beach for the US RaceTronics team. Young Australian James Davison (#5 Team Australia/Aussie Vineyards) steadily improved throughout his first series race for Team Australia, emerging with a 13th-place finish in the opening round, but he'll try to improve on that result in his first visit to Houston.

An accident in the later stages of Round 1 hampered the Atlantic debuts of Brooks Associates Racing drivers Norbert Siedler (#10 Palfinger/Sonax/Remus) and Luis Schiavo (#8 Asfaltadora Maracay/Energy Freight/UP Racing). Both drivers were battling for top-10 finishes when they became involved in a multi-car pileup in Turn 1 at long Beach. While they both finished the race, they lost valuable championship points that they hope to reclaim this weekend.

Al Unser III (#30 200+ MMP), Ryan Spencer-Smith (#25 NCDLINC), Justin Sofio (#26 Mathiasen Motorsports/RLM Investments) and Dan Selznick (#49 The Room Store) are all American racers that will be looking for stronger finishes at the Fast Trac 100 after struggling to score points in the opener. New Zealand rookie Daniel Gaunt (#35 Newman Wachs Racing) also hopes to add to his total after claiming the last available point with a 20th-place finish in Long Beach. Three drivers will be seeing their first action of '06 this weekend. Aussie racer Barton Mawer (#17 Australian Motorsport Foundation/Dixien) will make his series debut as he joins Transnet Racing for the remainder of the year, while Bite Racing's Chris Souliotis (#56 Speedway Motors/Spinnakers/Days Inn) of Canada returns for his third Atlantic season. Experienced SCCA racer Steve Ott (#22 MSR Houston) of the USA will make his first Atlantic start Saturday, driving for Jensen MotorSport and backed by local sponsorship from the MSR Houston track, where he works as a mechanic and driving instructor.

The new 2006 Atlantic machines competing at Houston all feature newly-designed Swift 016.a chassis powered by 300-horsepower Mazda-Cosworth MZR engines capable of speeds in excess of 175 mph. Each entry will compete on Yokohama ADVAN Racing Slicks. The evening-racing weekend schedule calls for the Atlantics to practice for the first time on the Houston circuit Thursday afternoon from 2:30-3:25 p.m. Central Time. The opening-round of qualifying will be held from 7:30-8 p.m. Thursday. The Atlantics will practice from 3-3:45 p.m. Friday and the final round of qualifying will take place from 6:30-7 p.m. Friday night. The race-day warm-up session will run from 1:45-2 p.m. Saturday before the green flag flies on the second round of the 2006 Champ Car Atlantic Championship -- the Fast Trac 100 Atlantic race -- beginning at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday. The race is scheduled for 40 laps (64.60 miles) or 50 minutes.

SPEED will provide tape-delayed television coverage of the Atlantic event at the Grand Prix of Houston on Sunday, May 20 at 1 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 Fast Trac 100 Atlantic Race

WHERE: Reliant Park -- Houston, Texas

WHEN: Thursday-Saturday, May 11-13

CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE (All times local): THURSDAY, MAY 11 -- 2:30-3:25 p.m., Practice; 7:30-8 p.m., First-Round Qualifying. FRIDAY, MAY 12 -- 3-3:45 p.m., Practice; 6:30-7 p.m. Final Qualifying. SATURDAY, MAY 13 -- 1:45-2 p.m., Warm-up; 5:15-6:15 p.m., Round 2 of 2006 Atlantic Championship.

U.S. TELEVISION SCHEDULE ON SPEED: SATURDAY, MAY 20 -- Fast Trac 100 Atlantic Race at the Grand Prix of Houston - 1 p.m. ET (Tape-Delay). WEDNESDAY, MAY 24 -- Race re-broadcast -- 3 p.m. ET.

2005 HOUSTON CHAMPION: New event on 2006 Atlantic schedule

2005 HOUSTON POLESITTER: New event on 2006 Atlantic schedule

TRACK LAYOUT: 1.615-mile temporary street circuit

RACE LENGTH: 40 laps (64.60 miles) or 50 minutes

TRACK RECORDS: No track records exist at this venue as this represents a new track on the Atlantic schedule

RACE ROUND: 2 of 12 in the 2006 Yokohama Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda

INSTANT REPLAY: While this weekend's Fast Trac 100 marks the first Atlantic race run on the 1.615-mile temporary road circuit around Reliant Park, it is not the first time that the series has raced in Houston. The Atlantics competed at another popular downtown race, constructed around the George R. Brown Convention Center, along with the Champ Car World Series for four consecutive years from 1998-2001.

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Series Atlantic
Drivers Bobby Rahal , Graham Rahal , Alex Barron , Leonardo Maia , Charles Hall , Dan Selznick , Luis Schiavo , Robbie Pecorari , Norbert Siedler , Barton Mawer , Danilo Dirani , Stephen Simpson , Andreas Wirth , Richard Philippe , Simon Pagenaud , Chris Souliotis , Alan Sciuto , Ryan Spencer-Smith , James Hinchcliffe , Joe D'Agostino , Daniel Gaunt , Al Unser III , Steve Ott