HOMESTEAD Fla. (March 21, 1999) - Dorricott Racing and drivers Philipp Peter, Casey Mears, and Oriol Servia overcame a variety of obstacles leading into round one of the 12-race 1999 PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship, and that determination paid dividends when the checkered flag concluded the inaugural Daytona Tire Challenge at Homestead Motorsports Complex (Fla.), Sunday, March 21.
Race week began shakily for Peter when he crashed on the first day of a two-day, series administered test session early in the week. Peter's Red Bull/Remus/ Estebe/Chicco d' Oro Lola was essentially "totaled," which prompted the crew to prep another car in time for Friday's official practice sessions. However, ill fortune beset Peter again when he crashed during the second of three official practice sessions. Peter suffered severe bruises to his left foot and knee while his car was damaged beyond repair.
After sitting out Saturday's practice and qualifying sessions, the team decided it could prepare another car for Peter in time for the race. A virtual "team all-nighter" created a car suitable to start the race albeit from the rear of the 17-car field. Sore knee, foot, and muscles notwithstanding, Peter, of Monte Carlo, Monaco, participated in the morning warm-up and ran an error-free race to finish 13th after officially starting 16th.
"I was pleased to be able to get into the race," said Peter. "However, all thanks and success goes to my teammates. They were the ones that put my car together and prepared it overnight for the race. They were the most supportive of all in encouraging me to race if I felt physically capable. Sometimes my knee and foot really hurt especially on the light bumps. Once the field spread out, I was more focused on the task at hand so I didn't feel as much pain. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining because the team did a great job at providing me the opportunity to even be in the race. It was more tough on them than I."
Mears struggled in finding the best set-up. The solution was determined in time for qualifying but after running a warm-up lap that was nearly as fast as the three fastest cars, Mears' exhaust system malfunctioned and literally blew a hole through the right side of his Sooner Trailer/American Racing Wheels Lola chassis. Unable to regain his lost speed, Mears was forced to settle for 12th on the starting grid.
A strong start and driver savvy propelled Mears to 10th on the first actual racing lap (laps one and two were "yellow" flagged due to field misalignment). He continued his charge through the pack where he moved to eighth place on lap 26 of the 67-lap Indy Lights sprint, and jumped to sixth place by lap 29. The Bakersfield, Calif., native passed his teammate, Servia, for fifth place on lap 34 and held that position to the checkered flag.
"We had a little trouble getting through traffic but the race was otherwise smooth," said Mears. "I picked up spots early when some went low on the race start and packed it in. That opened a lane around them on the high side. The car also ran better in the race than it felt during warm-up. The rubber laid down from the CART cars warm-up improved the track quality. I figured how to get past the slower cars without jeopardizing my position. Once I understood the best time to make my moves and knew which groove to run, the race seemed to flow.
"I remember passing Oriol (Servia) midway through the race when he got stuck behind lapped traffic. He caught them at the wrong time when I was in a better position to pass. I was able to slip up and around him. He stayed with me the rest of the way which suggests he would have been just as competitive if we would have had a re-start. It's a good way to start the season especially with my new team."
Servia, of Pals, Catalonia, Spain, qualified ninth and was off to a strong start when he moved into eighth place at the race. Servia improved another position two laps later, then passed Ben Collins for sixth place on lap 23. Servia passed yet another car on lap 29 to move into fifth place. He dropped back to sixth place on lap 34 when he was slowed by "backmarkers," permitting Mears to pass.
"My car kept changing and that combined with the traffic and wind made for a tough race," said Servia. "I had a lot of problems with the lapped cars. I hope series officials consider paying a little closer attention next time to what happens when we try to pass slower cars. I was cut off a couple of times by lapped cars and it was getting dangerous. It was as if those drivers thought they could get away with anything. Sometimes you're in a race where it isn't wise to take many risks. This was one of them. At least I earned some points which is always better than nothing to show for the effort.
Mears earned 10 points and moved into fifth place in the PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship. Servia is sixth with eight points.
Round two of the 12-race PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship will be at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Sunday, April 18.