Laguna Seca: Round five preview

Da Matta, Rolex Series Competitors Return to Racing Saturday in RumBum.com 250 at Laguna Seca Brazilian Cristiano da Matta will race for first time since testing accident in 2006 DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 13, 2008) -- It's been nearly ...

Da Matta, Rolex Series Competitors Return to Racing Saturday in RumBum.com 250 at Laguna Seca

Brazilian Cristiano da Matta will race for first time since testing accident in 2006

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 13, 2008) -- It's been nearly two years since he's raced competitively, but popular open-wheel champion Cristiano da Matta is set to make his return to racing Saturday in the RumBum.com 250, Round 5 of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16, highlighting this weekend's Monterey Festival of Speed at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca (SPEED, 1 p.m. ET Sunday).

Da Matta will join Californian Jimmy Vasser -- a fellow Champ Car titlist -- in the No. 98 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Pontiac Riley in the 112-lap, 250-mile race or two-hour, 45-minute time limit. The pair will be part of a two-car GAINSCO effort, joining Californians Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty. The defending Daytona Prototype champions won seven races in 2007 in the No. 99 GAINSCO Pontiac Riley, but are still seeking their first victory this season.

Da Matta suffered severe injuries when he hit a deer in a Champ Car World Series testing accident in August 2006 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. After months of rehabilitation, da Matta was cleared to drive earlier this year, and tested with Bob Stallings' team in Dallas in March. This will be da Matta's first race since the accident at Road America, and second career in the Rolex Series. Da Matta and Vasser have also won at Laguna in former Champ Car competition.

"I've had enough vacation, man," da Matta said. "It's very nice to get back to work. I've actually been pumped for a long time, since I got back and first drove this race car.

"I like the track very much. It's actually one of my favorites. If I could choose a track to get back into the car, I'm sure Laguna would be in the top three. It's a special place for me. I know the track quite well. I've tested there; I've raced there in Champ Cars and Indy Lights and everything. I have no worries about the track."

Meanwhile, his teammates Fogarty and Gurney look to get back to their winning ways at Laguna Seca. The pair finished second in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, and are also looking for their first pole position of the season. Last year, Fogarty earned his first career Rolex Series pole -- the first of nine consecutive for the No.99 GAINSCO team -- and with Gurney landed sixth in the race.

The GAINSCO team leads a host of contenders looking to knock off the Rolex Series Daytona Prototypes' two hottest teams in the event. TELMEX/Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is currently dominating the Daytona Prototype class, with Scott Pruett of Auburn, Calif. and Memo Rojas winning three of four races in the No. 01 TELMEX Lexus Riley. The duo opened the year with the team's third consecutive triumph in the Rolex 24-- joined by Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti -- and followed up with victories at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Virginia International Raceway. Their only defeat came at the hands of the No. 91 Bob Stallings/Riley-Matthews Motorsports Pontiac Riley of Jim Matthews and Marc Goossens. The Mexico City winners are riding a streak of three straight top-four finishes.

Defending race team winner No. 23 Ruby Tuesday Championship Racing Team Porsche Crawford is being driven by Bill Auberlen and Joey Hand, both in their first season with the team. As both drivers also call California home -- Auberlen in Redondo Beach and Hand in Sacramento -- the pair hope to take the No. 23 back to victory lane.

Another former race winner, Max Angelelli, just hope the luck his and that of co-driver Michael Valiante's turns better. Contact in three straight races have kept the pair from finishing in the top 10 after they opened the 2008 campaign fifth in the No. 10 SunTrust Racing Pontiac Dallara at Daytona.

Other teams that have been running strong include the No. 2 SAMAX BMW Riley of Henri Zogaib and Ryan Dalziel, second-place finishers at VIR; the No. 7 Rum Bum Racing BMW Riley of Matt Plumb and Gene Sigal, who finished fifth in two of the last three races; and the No. 61 AIM Autosport Ford Riley of Brian Frisselle and Mark Wilkins, second-fastest qualifiers in the past two races. Other teams to watch include the two-car efforts from Michael Shank Racing, Krohn Racing, Brumos Porsche and Doran Racing.

Stevenson Looking For Third Straight Win

Shut out of the podium since its Rolex Series debut in 2003, Stevenson Motorsports has become the car to beat in GT competition. The team is enjoying a two-race winning streak, with Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis winning in Mexico City and VIR in the No. 57 Stevenson Automotive Pontiac GXP.R.

"There was no magic formula really," Liddell said. "I know it is cliche to say, but it really was a team effort. We had been quite competitive in the first couple of races, but you still need some luck to break through and the key factors in the last two races have been good strategy and pit work. That gives us the confidence to run to the strengths, which that strategy has brought us.

Banner Racing won the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in the No. 07 Pontiac GXP.R of Paul Edwards and Kelly Collins, and the duo leads the driver point standings by six (119-113) over TRG's Spencer Pumpelly and Tim George Jr. The No. 70 SpeedSource Mazda RX-8 opened the season by winning the Rolex 24 At Daytona; Sylvain Tremblay and Nick Ham are the team's regular drivers.

Porsche comes to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca looking for its first victory of 2008. Ten Porsche GT3s are entered in the event. TRG has a four-car entry, including the No. 67 TRG Porsche GT3 of Tim George Jr. and Spencer Pumpelly, runners-up at VIR. Defending GT champ Dirk Werner joins Dominik Farnbacher in the No. 87 Porsche to lead a three-car Farnbacher Loles Racing entry. The GT field also includes the No. 40 Hyper Sport Mazda RX-8 for racer/actor Patrick Dempsey and Joe Foster, and the No. 55 Level 5 Motorsports Crawford Ferrari V8 of Scott Tucker and Ed Zabinski.

Practice for the RumBum.com 250 begins at 10 a.m. Friday PT, with qualifying set for 4:25 p.m. The race takes the green flag at 1:50 p.m. PT Saturday.

RACE SPECS

- This is Round 5 for the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal Cask No. 16. The combined Daytona Prototype/GT race is 250 miles (112 laps)/400 kilometers or two hours and 45 minutes, whichever comes first.

- The green flag for the race is scheduled to fly at 1 p.m. PT. The race will air on SPEED (Noon ET on Sunday, May 3; Leigh Diffey -- Play-by-Play; Dorsey Schroeder -- Analyst; Brian Till, Chris Neville -- Pit Reporters).

- All cars must make a mandatory pit stop prior to the 45-minute mark in the race, and each driver must complete 30 minutes of the race in order to earn points for their respective standings.

- 2007 Laguna Seca race winners are Jorg Bergmeister and Patrick Long (Daytona Prototypes), and Andy Lally and RJ Valentine (GT).

ROLEX SERIES WEEKEND SCHEDULE (ALL TIMES PACIFIC)

- Friday: Rolex Series GT Practice (10-10:30 a.m.); Rolex Series Combined Practice (10:30-11:30 a.m.); Rolex Series Daytona Prototype Practice (11:30 a.m.-noon); Rolex Series Combined Practice (3-3:25 p.m.); Rolex Series Trueman/Akin Practice (3:25-3:45 p.m.); GT Qualifying (4:25-4:40 p.m.); Daytona Prototype Qualifying (4:50-5:05 p.m.)

- Saturday: Rolex Series Combined Practice (10-11 a.m.); Bosch Engineering 250 at VIR (1:45 p.m.; 112 laps/250 miles/400 kilometers or two hours and 45 minutes)

2008 IN REVIEW

Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas hold a 21-point advantage in the Daytona Prototype point standings after three wins and a second-place finish in their first three starts in 2008. They won the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the GAINSCO Grand Prix of Miami and the Bosch Engineering 250 at VIR in the No. 01 TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Lexus Riley, and finished second in the Mexico City 250, won by Marc Goossens and Jim Matthews in the No. 91 Bob Stallings/Riley-Matthews Motorsports Pontiac Riley.

Consistency and four top 10s -- including a class win in the GAINSCO Grand Prix of Miami -- have Kelly Collins and Paul Edwards atop the GT point standings. The pair finished fourth in the last event at VIR last month and hold a 10-point advantage in the standings over former point leaders Spencer Pumpelly and Tim George Jr. Stevenson Motorsports drivers Robin Liddell and Andrew Davis have won two straight races, and SpeedSource's Sylvain Tremblay and Nick Ham won the Rolex 24 At Daytona with Raphael Matos and David Haskell.

NEWS & NOTES

- Native Sons: Several Rolex Series drivers call California home, and more specifically around the Monterey and San Francisco Bay Areas and Northern California. Scott Pruett (Auburn), Joey Hand (Sacramento), Memo Gidley (Novato) all reside in the area, while Jon Fogarty (Palo Alto) now calls Oregon home. Nearby Laguna Seca are Thomas Merrill (Salinas) and Ryan Phinny (Carmel Valley). Other Californians are Hand's teammate Bill Auberlen (Redondo Beach), Fogarty's co-driver Alex Gurney (Irvine), Gene Sigal (Los Angeles), GT point leaders Kelly Collins (Newport Beach) and Paul Edwards (Nipomo), Craig Stanton (Long Beach), Ted Ballou (Corona del Mar), Patrick Dempsey (Beverly Hills), Kevin O'Connell (Newport Beach) and Kevin Roush (Upland). Jimmy Vasser (Canoga Park) now lives in Las Vegas, while Bill Lester (Berkeley) resides now in Atlanta.

- Home Race for Several Teams Too: TRG formerly called Monterey its home base before moving to Petaluma. PR1 Motorsports is based in Fresno, while O'Connell Racing is headquartered in Southern California. Rum Bum Racing, whose sponsor is the event sponsor for this weekend's Rolex Series race, is based in Los Angeles.

- Rojas on Two-Race Probation Starting at Laguna: For his involvement in an incident in the Bosch Engineering 250 at VIR, Mexican driver Memo Rojas has been placed on a two-race probation period beginning at Laguna Seca. Rojas made contact with Michael Valiante while battling for position, yet went onto extend his and Scott Pruett's point lead to 21 after winning. Heading into the race, Rojas was already on probation for contact with Jon Fogarty at Mexico City.

- Cheever Racing Running Kimber-Smith; Farnbacher Tags Johnson: In the Farnbacher Loles Racing camp, Steve Johnson of Bristol, Va. will replace Greg Wilkins, who has taken a leave of absence. Johnson, a former NFL player, and Canadian co-driver Dave Lacey won't have many problems adjusting their seats, as both over six feet.

- Starting up Front Has its Privileges in GT: Starting up front is the right place to start, at least for drivers in the Rolex Series GT class. Sylvain Tremblay, Kelly Collins and Andrew Davis have all started in the front two rows in their co-victories in 2008. Meanwhile, the Daytona Prototypes have been on the opposite end. The best start any driver has won from was third (Pruett and Rojas) at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Other starts have been sixth (Pruett, Rojas, Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti), 15th (Goossens and Matthews) and 17th (Pruett and Rojas after failing post-qualifying tech inspection).

BILL LESTER (No. 3 Southard Motorsports Lexus Riley): "Without a doubt, my favorite part about racing at Laguna Seca is the infamous Corkscrew. There's no other series of turns like it and getting through there quickly and intact is key. I'm also looking forward to going there because this will be my first professional race back in the Bay Area since I ran an IMSA GTO event in 1989. Needless to say, I'll be excited to have lots of family and friends in attendance."

GENE SIGAL (No. 7 Rum Bum Racing BMW Riley): "I am very excited that we are racing at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. This is our home race and our sponsor Rum Bum is the title sponsor of the event. I think we are going to do well there. This is a big deal for us. We have hundreds of guests coming from Los Angeles and Luis Bacardi is also bringing dozens of guests from Miami. The Rum Bum Racing crew has worked hard to prepare a competitive car and I have a feeling we are going to be fast. Our priority remains to stay in the top ten in the 2008 Grand-Am Rolex Series point standings."

RYAN PHINNY (No. 21 Matt Connolly Motorsports Pontiac GTO.R):"I would like to thank Matt Connolly for giving me this fantastic opportunity to race a GT car with such a great team. I look forward to being partnered with Diego Alessi, as I know he is super quick and I expect to learn a lot from him. My goal is to learn the car as quickly as possible, stay clean and consistent and to be fast!!"

JOAO BARBOSA (No. 59 Brumos Racing Porsche Riley): "Laguna Seca is a track that I am familiar with, as I have raced there before a few times, both in Formula Atlantic and in Grand-Am (KONI Challenge Series). I really do like the track and think that Brumos can have some good results there. I hope I might be able to provide a turn-around point for our team, as it seems bad luck has been chasing us in our last few races! I feel that Laguna could easily prove to be the place where Brumos sees the result they deserve for all the hard work they have put into our team this season. I am looking forward to continuing to race in such a competitive series as the Grand-Am Rolex Daytona Prototypes have proven to be -- the results are impossible to predict, and that makes for some good racing."

OSWALDO NEGRI (No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ford Riley): "Laguna is a fantastic track and we've had a podium and a pole position there, so of course the next best thing will be to go for a win. Michael Shank has always had good cars there. And we've been better everywhere we've gone so far this season with the Ford-Riley, so I am really looking forward to this weekend. It's exciting to be third in the championship going into the weekend and those team championship points are a big focus for everyone on this team."

BRIAN FRISSELLE (No. 61 AIM Autosport Exchange Traded Gold Lexus Riley): "For me Laguna Seca feels a lot like a home race. When I was young my family and I would drive up from Santa Barbara to watch the (Champ Car) races. Then when I first started racing cars I was living in Hawaii and competed in the Skip Barber Western Regional Championship. Laguna Seca was the primary track we used and one that I won at multiple times in both Skip Barber Regional and National competitions. Although I did not race there last year, I am extremely confident I will feel right at home on the track. As a team we need to continue what we have been doing all year. If everyone can do their job one percent better I believe AIM Autosport will have their breakthrough result we have been trying for."

BRYCE MILLER (No. 66 TRG Marquis Jet/Resorts International Porsche GT3): "TRG won at Laguna Seca last season. The famed corkscrew segment and 300 feet in elevation change characterize this track as exhilarating and quite unique. Some banked corners make for high speed cornering and increased latitudinal G-Force. I always look forward to returning here as I enjoy driving the circuit as much as I enjoy the beautiful scenery around it. We'll be pushing hard for a strong result in our Marquis Jet/Resorts International Porsche."

MEMO GIDLEY (No. 77 Doran Racing Kodak Ford Dallara): "Laguna Seca is a very special track to me because that's where I went to my first race, and it's the track where I started chasing the dream of being a racing driver. I worked as a mechanic at the Jim Russell Racing School there and I used to walk the track before work started in the morning and dream of what it would be like to be racing there. Seven years later, I finished second in the Champ Car race at Laguna driving for Chip Ganassi and I remember standing on the podium and looking down at that building where it all started... a very special moment. I've done a lot of laps around this track in a lot of different race cars, and with the success that the Doran team has had so far this season, I'm looking forward to standing on that podium again."

ERIC LUX (No. 86 Farnbacher Loles Racing Porsche GT3): "Laguna Seca is one of my top-three favorite road-racing circuits in the U.S. The types of corners really suit my driving style. I enjoy high-speed corners like turns five and six and after the Corkscrew. I am able to find my rhythm quickly and put down the lap times instantly because of the flow of the circuit. I also like similar circuits, like Watkins Glen and Virginia International Raceway. Last season, we had a great chance to win the Laguna Seca race after qualifying off pole [second] and taking the lead early on. However, a mechanical issue led to our retirement from the race. Leh Keen also enjoys this circuit very much and I believe the two of us will be able to apply the pressure to the top GT cars."

ALEX GURNEY (No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing GAINSCO Auto Insurance Pontiac Riley): "Laguna Seca is one of the best road courses in the world and I always feel so lucky that I get to race there. For me, it's the only race on the schedule that I get to drive to instead of fly to. I usually get a speeding ticket about halfway through my five hour drive up from Irvine but it is all part of the Laguna process for me."

"I made my return to racing in 2005 after two years away when GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing made its debut in the series at Laguna Seca, so it is a special place for all of us. We will always remember being quickest on our first day and we want that tradition to continue this weekend. We can't wait to get back to racing to try to get our championship back on track. We've had some terrible luck lately, but the speed of the car is there and the team is performing well, so we believe that wins are coming. I will have a big contingent of family and friends attending, so I think it is the perfect weekend to get back into victory lane."

-credit: garra

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