DETROIT (April 13, 2000) - The 15th season of competition for the Dayton Indy Lights Championship begins Sunday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach with a 75-mile sprint that will set the stage for the featured FedEx Championship Series race...
DETROIT (April 13, 2000) - The 15th season of competition for the Dayton Indy Lights Championship begins Sunday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach with a 75-mile sprint that will set the stage for the featured FedEx Championship Series race later that afternoon.
The Dayton Indy Lights opener (ESPN2 10 p.m. PT), which is scheduled to start at 10:20 a.m., marks the 12th-straight appearance of CART's top-rung development series at Long Beach and the first time since 1991 that the Indy Lights season has started at the California street circuit. The exact lap length of the race on the newly reconfigured Long Beach circuit will be determined early in the weekend.
Nineteen drivers from seven different countries will battle for the Dayton Indy Lights Championship this year with a record entry of nine drivers from the United States topping all nations. The stars-and-stripes contingent includes three promising rookies and six veterans led by Casey Mears (Dorricott Racing/Sooner Trailer Lola), Tony Renna (Motorola Lola) and Geoff Boss (Cross Pens Lacoste/ITIS Lola).
Mears, of Bakersfield, Calif., returns for a second consecutive season with Dorricott Racing and his fifth year of running at least one Indy Lights race after debuting at Cleveland in 1996. He finished second to teammate Oriol Servia - a 2000 FedEx Championship Series rookie - in last year's championship and set series records for consistency and miles-completed in a season by finishing each of the scheduled 685 race laps. Although Mears, 22, has yet to win a race or pole in 36 career starts, his strong 1999 season was the result of top-five finishes in eight of 12 races which included two second place showings and a pair of third-place finishes. He finished fifth at Long Beach last year.
Renna, a native of Deland, Florida, will run his first full season with PacWest Lights after joining the team for five races last year. He and Boss are the only Americans in action this season who have won Dayton Indy Lights races. Renna, 23, won from the pole in his superspeedway debut at Michigan in 1998 with Mattco Raceworks and went on to score a second pole at the season-ending race at California Speedway. Although he was left rideless early last year when Mattco closed its doors, PacWest picked him up after an impressive test in Milwaukee last May. In just 17 careers Indy Lights race starts, Renna has one victory, two third place finishes, two poles and has led 112 laps.
Boss, 30, begins his fourth season of competition and teams with his younger brother Andy Boss (Cross Pens Lacoste/ITIS Lola) for the second straight year at Lucas Motorsports Ltd. Geoff Boss won from the pole at Toronto last year and has been on the podium at Long Beach each of the last two years with a second-place finish in 1998 and a third-place showing last year.
Other American veterans include second-year driver Chris Menninga (Mi-Jack Lola) and Cory Witherill (WSA Healthcare/WebShipper.com Lola). Menninga, a 25-year-old from Pella, Iowa, returns for a second season of competition with Conquest Racing while Witherill, a 100% Navajo who is CART's first Native American driver, is in his second full season with Genoa Racing. Witherill, 28, lives in Santa Monica.
The American rookies are expected to battle for both first-year honors and the overall championship. Jeff Simmons (KOOL Lola), Todd Snyder (Outpost.com Lola) and Townsend Bell (DirecPC Lola) combined for 14 victories in the Barber Dodge Pro Series the last two years and swept the top-three spots in the championship in 1999, respectively.
Last year's Barber Dodge title was a record second straight for Simmons, 23, and Snyder finished a close second both years. Their rivalry continues in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship where Simmons will drive a second entry from Team KOOL Green while Snyder, 32, has joined Brian Stewart Racing. Bell is one of two rookie teammates of Mears at Dorricott and will carry the team's championship No. 1 earned with Servia last year. Bell, 24, is from Costa Mesa, Calif.
Simmons will team with 1999 Rookie of the Year Jonny Kane (KOOL Lola) who was the hottest driver in the series at the end of last season. Kane, a 26-year-old from Northern Ireland, finished no lower than third in three of the year's final four races and capped his first season with a strong win from the pole at California to steal the rookie title from Scott Dixon by a single point. Kane was taken out in a Turn 1 accident at Long Beach last year, but he is a paddock-favorite for the Long Beach win and the 2000 Dayton Indy Lights Championship title.
Dixon, 19, has joined Renna at PacWest this year after a strong rookie campaign last year with Johansson Motorsports, which has not returned to the series. The young New Zealander won from the pole at Chicago in addition to a strong charge to finish second at Long Beach.
Felipe Giaffone (Hollywood Lola) nearly won at Long Beach last year but ran out of fuel while leading with less than three laps from the finish. The 25-year-old veteran returns for a third-straight season with Conquest Racing and is the sole Brazilian in the series.
Two accomplished international drivers will battle with Simmons, Snyder, Bell and three drivers from Mexico for 2000 Rookie of the Year honors. Frenchman Soheil Ayari (Brian Stewart Racing Lola) is contesting the full European Formula 3000 championship and the majority of Dayton Indy Lights Championship races this year. The 30-year-old open-wheel talent has a pair of Formula 3000 wins, a victory in the 1997 Macau Grand Prix Formula 3 race and the 1996 French Formula 3 championship to his credit. He will miss three Indy Lights races (Milwaukee, Chicago & Mid-Ohio), but has the experience to run up front as soon as this weekend.
The final rookie is top Australian talent Jason Bright (Dorricott Racing Lola) who joins Mears and Bell at Dorricott. Bright's recent focus has been on Touring Car competition in his home country, but the 27-year-old was a successful U.S. Formula Ford 2000 driver as recently as 1996.
Five drivers from Mexico complete the 2000 Dayton Indy Lights Championship lineup. The group is led by Mario Dominguez (Herdez "Viva Mexico" Lola) who won last year's season-opening race in Homestead, Fla. Dominguez, 25, will run his second full-time season with Team Mexico Quaker Herdez where he will be joined by rookie Luis Diaz (Quaker State Lola). Diaz, 22, debuted with Team Mexico last year at Laguna Seca. Rodolfo Lavin (Corona/Modelo Lola) also returns for a second year with Brian Stewart Racing. The 22-year-old has more career starts (46) than any driver in the series.
Other rookies from Mexico include Rolando Quintanilla (Telmex/Prodigy Internet Lola) and Rudy Junco Jr. (Team Mexpro Lola). Quintanilla, 19, ran as high as third in his only previous appearance in the series at California Speedway last year and is back with Conquest Racing for the full season. Junco drives for the debuting Team Mexpro outfit that will race with the same Lolas and equipment formerly used by Forsythe Championship Racing.
Every race on the 2000 Dayton Indy Lights Championship schedule will be telecast in a one-hour show on ESPN2. Most races will be telecast in same day coverage including Long Beach which airs at 10 p.m. PT Sunday evening. In Eastern Time zones, that air time is early Monday morning, April 17 at 1 a.m.