Pro Series 2000 review, part I

With the top three from the 1999 Barber Dodge Pro Series Championship advancing to the CART Dayton Indy Lights Series, the 2000 Pro Series looked to be an open ended affair before the season began. Two-time champion Jeff Simmons earned a spot on...

With the top three from the 1999 Barber Dodge Pro Series Championship advancing to the CART Dayton Indy Lights Series, the 2000 Pro Series looked to be an open ended affair before the season began. Two-time champion Jeff Simmons earned a spot on the Team KOOL Green squad while two-time runner up and nemesis Todd Snyder found himself a slot at Brian Stewart Racing. Third place to Messers Simmons and Snyder, Townsend Bell proved to be the revelation of the Lights field, narrowly missing out on the title in 2000 and grasping the Rookie of the Year with both hands. That left Nilton Rossoni and Jon Fogarty as the only returning race winners for the 2000 season.

Brazilian Rossoni felt that a title eluded him in '99 caused largely by a mid-season drop in form. That withstanding two victories coupled with several highlight reel drives told him he had the ability to deliver in 2000. Portola Valley, California's Fogarty finished '99 fourth overall, yet without a race win. For 2000, he took it on a race by race basis, and from early on it became clear, that this might be the year of his acendancy.

Not to be discounted at the season start were a pair series veterans, a few sophomores and a couple of rookies.

Sepp Koster of the Netherlands returned in 2000 for his third season. He had finished the previous year with a pole and a career best second place finish, and 2000 was to be the year the amiable Dutchman would ascend to the top step on the podium. Iowa's Jamie Menninga also in his third year with the series looked to join older brother Chris on the list of race winners. Consistent finishes in '99 landed him firmly in the overall Top-10, would consistent wins be on tap for the new Millennium? Returning for the second year would be '99 Co-Rookies of the Year Roger Yasukawa of Santa Monica, Calif. and Michael Valiante of Vancouver, B.C. Both showed up at spring training with their game faces on. Matt Plumb from Unionville, Penn. knew as well that his second season would pay dividends and he was fully prepared to step up to the plate.

Two unknowns heading into the 2000 series were rookies Ryan Hunter-Reay of Boca Raton, Fla. and Swede Thed Bjork. Hunter-Reay came with an impressive resume including multiple karting and Formula Dodge titles as well as the confidence of entering the season as the Barber Dodge Pro Series Big Scholarship winner. Bjork too had numerous Swedish karting championships to his credit as well as Swedish Formula 3 experience. Both had turned in impressive pre-season testing times, but the real season had yet to begin.

The opening round took place in support of the once round the clock classic, the Exxon Superflo 12 Hours of Sebring. Valiante came out with his guns firing as he took the pole in exciting fashion with a last gasp flier. Come race day, Valiante and fellow front row starter Rossoni would have it all their own way. The two stretched their lead with Rossoni clinging to Valiante's gearbox. As the race progressed, the Canadian seemed to have increasing trouble coming to terms with his racecar while Rossoni kept getting faster. With two laps remaining the pair would flash across the finish line registering the gap at 0.000 sec. Rossoni would soon after find his way past Valiante on the penultimate lap and record the opening victory of the year eight-tenths ahead of Valiante. Fogarty would have a solid albeit lonely drive to third.

Buoyed by his Sebring victory, Rossoni arrived at the Homestead-Miami Speedway exuding confidence. Miami is the Brazilian's adopted hometown and he had been victorious there before. Another Brazilian, Andre Nicastro stole the pole. The rookie surprised everyone perhaps bar himself. For the Saturday afternoon race, Nicastro's lead would be short lived as Fogarty vaulted from the second row to take the point on lap three. Once again it was Rossoni however who would set the track ablaze. Despite starting alongside Fogarty on the second row, an early race tangle would drop him to as low as ninth and see him lose his Dodge Reynard's nose cover in the process. With near surgical precision, he worked his back up through the field to hunt Fogarty down. On lap 43 of 49, he found himself in the soon to be familiar position of race leader and eventual winner. Fogarty settled for second. The other revelation of the weekend was newcomer Andy Lally. The USF2000 veteran stepped up to a Barber Dodge car for the first time that weekend and served notice with his speed finishing third.

Following the Pro Series first of eight stops with the CART FedEx Series at Homestead came the next at Nazareth Speedway a fortnight later. The balmy subtropical climes of Florida would be but a distant memory as truly unpredictable weather prevailed in northeastern Pennsylvania. Qualifying had to be aborted as a strong thunderstorm put an end to what had otherwise been a glorious morning. It was only an omen of what was to come. Raceday dawned with sub-freezing temperatures and near blizzard conditions. The ChampCar teams went home to race another day while the Barber Dodge assembly stayed on to race Monday morning.

Koster would start the race from the first spot on the grid based on times taken from the practice session. No pole was awarded due to the official session being aborted. Koster would lead the event from start to finish for his first career victory. The former Dutch and Benelux Formula Ford champion controlled the race masterfully withstanding considerable pressure from the upstart rookie Hunter-Reay. At one point the pair streaked down the backstraight of the mile-long Nazareth tri-oval side by side; however, Hunter-Reay would not make it a fait accompli. Koster was jubilant, and Hunter-Reay satisfied with a job well done in only his third start. Lally made it two for two in podiums to starts, finishing third. He pulled off the move of the race, reading the traffic perfectly, he leapfrogged two spots to third when he chose to go round the outside of turn-2 whilst everyone else went low to get around a lapped car.

Rossoni and Fogarty would end the race nose to tail with the Californian ahead. Both would leave Nazareth tied on points at 40 with Koster on 38. Valiante, Hunter-Reay, Plumb, Lally and the rest were not far behind.

-George Tamayo

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Series Barber Pro
Drivers Jon Fogarty , Michael Valiante , Townsend Bell , Andy Lally , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Roger Yasukawa , Nilton Rossoni , Thed Björk , Sepp Koster , Jeff Simmons , Todd Snyder , Matt Plumb