DETROIT (Feb. 23, 2000) - For the first time in the 15-year-history of the Dayton Indy Lights Championship, the three most recent champions of CART's top-rung development series will be racing full-time in the FedEx Championship Series this...
DETROIT (Feb. 23, 2000) - For the first time in the 15-year-history of the Dayton Indy Lights Championship, the three most recent champions of CART's top-rung development series will be racing full-time in the FedEx Championship Series this season. Former Indy Lights titleists Tony Kanaan (1997), Cristiano da Matta (1998) and rookie Oriol Servia (1999) are set for full seasons of CART Champ Car competition in 2000.
The trio is part of a strong lineup of eight graduates from the Dayton Indy Lights Championship who will be racing in CART's big show. Kanaan, da Matta and Servia join Paul Tracy, Adrian Fernandez, Bryan Herta, and Helio Castro-Neves in the FedEx Championship Series this year. Tracy (1990) and Herta (1993) are also former Indy Lights champs while Fernandez, Castro-Neves and Salles were top Indy Lights race winners in the 1990s. It marks the fifth straight year that at least eight Indy Lights grads have competed in a CART Champ Car season.
The full-time efforts by the three most recent champs, however, mark another milestone for the Dayton Indy Lights Championship. Successive Indy Lights titleists have raced in CART Champ Car competition before, but none completed a full season until Tracy went the distance with Marlboro Team Penske in 1993. The following year he joined 1989 champion Mike Groff (Rahal Hogan Racing) as the first back-to-back Indy Lights champs to put together full Champ Car seasons. Kanaan and da Matta duplicated the feat for only the second time last season and anchor this year's record-setting trio with Servia.
"The Dayton Indy Lights Championship has established a solid record of moving drivers up to the FedEx Championship Series," said Indy Lights President Roger Bailey, "but the fact that more of our drivers are stepping directly into full-time and first-class Champ Car efforts has been one of the most encouraging developments of the last few years. We not only want to move drivers up to Champ Car but we want to make sure they have what it takes to stay there, and it looks like that is indeed the case."
Kanaan, the 1998 CART Champ Car Rookie of the Year, will run his third FedEx season with the new Mo Nunn Racing team. He will drive No. 55 Hollywood Mercedes-Benz Reynard for the team that debuted at CART Spring Training earlier this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Da Matta and Servia are teammates at Cal Wells' PPI Motorsports that has prepared a Toyota Reynard for each driver. Da Matta, who is in his second Champ Car season, drives the No. 97 Pioneer Electronics/MCI WorldCom entry while Servia will carry No. 96 on his Telefonica-sponsored race car. The reigning Indy Lights champ, who also made his debut at Spring Training, has raced on the Homestead oval the last two years in Indy Lights but found his first Champ Car experience on the 1.502-mile track entirely different. His best lap of 196.418 mph (27.529 seconds) placed him 23rd on the final results sheet at the end of the two-day session.
"I am in a new series," Servia said. "Last year, I was always in the top three or five, and now I'm in the last five. That's the biggest challenge. But it's more of a mental challenge. I understand why, though, and that's a good thing. That will help me improve more quickly. I had to learn how to go in and out of the pits [for pit stops]. We didn't do that in Indy Lights, so obviously I have to practice that a lot."
Dorricott Racing team owner Bob Dorricott Sr. has officially confirmed that talented Australian Jason Bright will complete the team's three-driver defense of its Dayton Indy Lights Championship title this season. Bright, 26, will join fellow rookie Townsend Bell and veteran Casey Mears on the Dorricott team that is shooting for nothing less than a repeat performance of its top-three sweep of the championship in 1999.
"Jason's decision to run a full Indy Lights campaign with us bodes well for Dorricott Racing as we approach the beginning of a new Indy Lights season," Dorricott said. "He's an 'impact player' who excels in a highly competitive environment."
Bright tested with PacWest late last year but landed at the Dorricott team that captured the 1999 crown with Servia. His first season in Indy Lights also marks his return to full-time open-wheel competition for the first time since 1997. That year he won the Formula Holden Championship, a Formula 3000-based series that is the top open-wheel category in Australia and New Zealand and also counts Scott Dixon as one of its champions. Bright also raced in the U.S. in 1996, in the U.S. Formula Ford 2000 series, where he won Rookie of the Year honors with victories at St. Petersburg and Mosport. He has spent the last two-and-a-half seasons racing Touring Cars in the Shell Championship Series in Australia.
"I think my racing career to date has helped position me in the right place at the right time to take the next step forward," Bright said. "The Dayton Indy Lights Championship and Dorricott Racing are world-class. My goal is to represent my country in the CART FedEx Championship Series. The Indy Lights series is the best stepping stone."
The Dorricott team has reserved Nos. 1, 2 and 3 for the 2000 season and will announce driver number assignments at a later date.
Eric Bachelart and Conquest Racing could also field three drivers in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship this year. Iowa native Chris Menninga has rejoined for a second season of competition and his third-straight year with Conquest after testing with the team in 1998. Mexican rookie Rolando Quintanilla, who showed well in a one-off debut with Conquest in the 1999 finale at California Speedway, will join Menninga.
The team is also close to finalizing a third season with veteran Felipe Giaffone who maintains his relationship with longtime CART sponsor Hollywood, the Brazilian tobacco company. Giaffone was recently named as a Champ Car test driver to back up Tony Kanaan at Mo Nunn Racing which would leave him free to run the 12-race Dayton Indy Lights season with Bachelart. The Giaffone relationship is not done, but Bachelart is hopeful the trio will be in place in the near future.
"This is the same group we ran at Fontana at the end of the season and we all worked very well together," Bachelart said. "We have our personnel from last year back and have signed several new team members."
New personnel include manager Martin Bates from the Super Nova Formula 3000 team and engineer Steven James, who joined Conquest after working with Ben Collins at Johansson Motorsports for a year. The team will begin a testing schedule next week that will include stops at Buttonwillow, Sebring and Firebird Raceway prior to the season-opening race in Long Beach, April 16.
PacWest Lights has yet to confirm second-year driver Scott Dixon for the team's second Indy Lights ride, but the 19-year-old has been in close company with the Bruce McCaw-owned team in recent weeks. Dixon and the team's signed driver, Tony Renna, completed a two-day Indy Lights test session at Sebring yesterday and will return to the Florida track on March 25-26. Additionally, both drivers are scheduled to get behind the wheel of one of the team's Mercedes-Benz-powered Champ Cars at Homestead-Miami Speedway, March 10.
Dixon, who won at Chicago last year with Johansson Motorsports, also accompanied PacWest to CART Spring Training earlier this month. He and Renna tested together for the first time at Sebring where Dixon's debut was interrupted by a minor accident when none other than defending FedEx Championship Series champion Juan Montoya spun in front of him in Turn Six. The front end on Dixon's race car went light and suffered a damaged front left corner and front wing after ending up in the tire barrier. Dixon was uninjured but remained on the sidelines until parts could be swapped out from Renna's machine later in the day.
"We are not sure what the situation was with Scott's car, but there is a chance something may have broken," said Team Manager Paul "Ziggy" Harcus. "We will have a look at everything when we get back to the shop, but thankfully there was no major damage and Scott is fine. The incident cost Scott and the team track time, but we did manage to recover something late in the day after Tony had finished his run and a couple of parts could be pulled from his car. Overall the test was very pleasing and provides us with a shot of confidence."
Renna overcame mechanical problems to have one of the best tests of his career.
"We got through the entire program we had scheduled," Renna said. "We got around as fast as anyone has gone before and that is always a good feeling. It was really the first time the entire team had tested together and I must say that everything worked extremely well. Scott and I want similar things from the car and he was very good to work with. There was a good feeling between everyone on the team and that is a good place to start when we come back here to test again next month." SNYDER'S STEWART SIGNING
After a rare winless season in 1999, Brian Stewart Racing (BSR) hopes to get back on track this year with veteran open-wheel talent Todd Snyder. The Alaska native has been a top contender in the Barber Dodge Pro Series the last couple of seasons and his arrival at BSR gives the team its best chance yet at scoring its first victory since Luiz Garcia Jr. won at Cleveland in 1998.
"Todd tested extremely well with us late last year," said BSR driver coach and 1996 Indy Lights champion David Empringham. "When you've been in this business as long as I have, you recognize talent as soon as you see it. He has the necessary experience and is hungry to win. I think we're going to win a bunch of races and challenge for the championship."
Snyder finished a close second to Jeff Simmons in each of the last two Barber Dodge Pro Series championships. The rivalry will continue in Indy Lights where both drivers - Simmons now a member of Team KOOL Green - are expected to be the thick of the Rookie of the Year battle. Snyder's Barber Dodge sponsor Outpost.com is joining him in the move up to Indy Lights.
The Stewart team will also run veteran Rodolfo Lavin Jr. and is close to finalizing a third entry for a top European Formula 3000 driver.
CORY KING FOR A DAY
Daytona Indy Lights Championship driver Cory Witherill was recently honored by the Navajo Nation in a celebration held at the Window Rock Sports Center in Arizona. Witherill, who is 100% Navajo, is the only full-blooded Native American in professional motorsports. He has been racing in stadium off-road competition for 13 years, but his popularity in the Native American community has grown since he added Indy Lights to his racing program halfway through the 1998 season.
"Navajo Nation Cory Witherill Day" on Monday, Jan. 24, brought together hundreds of Native Americans including several dignitaries, political representatives and sports and entertainment personalities including Brigham Young University football player Setema Gali, Miss Navajo Nation 1999-2000 Victoria Yazzie and actor and recording artist Tom Land. The day concluded with a motivational address by Witherill.
"I am proud to receive such praise from my Native American community," Witherill said. "I was totally overwhelmed by it all."
Witherill's WSA Healthcare Lola and members of Genoa Racing were also in attendance, including team manager Ed Nelson. Although the team and driver have made no official announcements, Witherill is expected to return with Genoa for a third season in 2000.
The CART community was rocked by another loss this past weekend when former Indy Lights driver and car owner Ray Richter passed away Saturday during a business trip in the Cayman Islands. Richter, 52, reportedly visited a physician on Grand Cayman after he didn't feel well and later collapsed and died in the doctor's office. The cause of death has not been determined, but Island officials and U.S. authorities reportedly are working together in commencing an autopsy this week.
Richter drove his own RaysCar Lola in a total of seven races over the course of the 1993 and 1994 seasons. He earned a career-best finish of 12th in his debut at Long Beach in 1993 and leased the race car later that season to Andreas Leberle and Project Indy for team drivers Hubert Haupt and Robbie Groff. Richter didn't race in Indy Lights after the 1994 season but was always a familiar face in the Indy Lights paddock.
"Losing Ray is so difficult because he was such a popular part of the Indy Lights community," said Indy Lights President Roger Bailey. "You might see him without a smile on his face but it wasn't very often. He was truly one of the good guys in our sport."
In addition to driving race cars, Richter was also an accomplished pilot, boat racer and avid snow and water skier. Professionally, he was highly successful in the industrial transportation industry and was in the Caymans meeting with associates regarding a new railroad car project.
"I got to know Ray as a competitor but we soon developed a strong friendship due to our common interest in aviation," said Steve Horne, former owner of Tasman Motorsports Group and a close friend of Richter's. "He frequently attended races as our guest the last few years and we would go out to dinner and keep the friendship going. I really enjoyed his company and we will miss him a great deal."
Richter, who was single, is survived by two children, one each from two previous marriages. Information regarding services will be distributed as it become available.