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Friday Oct 23, 1998 PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Season Comes To A Close At California Speedway, October 31 The PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship season finale at the Fontana, California track is scheduled for 50 laps/100 miles and...

Friday Oct 23, 1998 PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Season Comes To A Close At California Speedway, October 31 The PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship season finale at the Fontana, California track is scheduled for 50 laps/100 miles and serves as the Saturday showcase event for the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota race weekend. This is the second year the new California Speedway facility has hosted CART-sanctioned racing on the high-bank track.

Da Matta, 25, sealed the 1998 PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship with a series-leading fourth victory in Vancouver on September 6. In addition to winning in Vancouver for the second straight year, the young Brazilian also ripped off a repeat victory at Nazareth earlier this season in addition to first-time victories at Long Beach and Trois-Rivieres.

In just under two seasons of Indy Lights competition, da Matta has posted "Zanardi-style" numbers in CART's "Official Development Series." He has won seven Indy Lights races in 26 race starts since debuting at Homestead in 1997. That equates to a 27% winning percentage for the young Brazilian who is regarded in the CART paddock as one of the hottest young prospects for a Champ Car ride next season. In his brief career in Indy Lights da Matta has a total 13 podium (top-three) finishes, 1997 Rookie of the Year honors and the 1998 championship in addition to the seven wins.

Da Matta's title is also a record fourth Indy Lights crown for the Tasman Motorsports Group, which has won the Indy Lights championship four times in five attempts. Tasman's championships were earned in 1993 (Bryan Herta), 1994 (Steve Robertson), 1997 (Tony Kanaan) and this season with da Matta. The team sat out the 1995 season while launching its CART Champ Car team - Kanaan is the current driver and finished second to champion David Empringham with Kanaan in 1996.

After running the 1997 season with the Toronto-based Brian Stewart Racing team, both da Matta and 20-year-old Airton Dare (Banestado/LCI Lola) joined Tasman for 1998. Combined, the Brazilian duo has won five of the year's first 13 races and four Sea-Doo/Ski-Doo poles. Dare won his first major auto race at Detroit in June and heads to Fontana sixth in the championship with 78 points. Dare shared the podium with da Matta at Vancouver where he finished third.

Despite Tasman's near dominance, 1998's close competition has still produced the record eight winners, eclipsing the seven different drivers who won in the 1988, 1996 and 1997 seasons. Other winners include leading rookie Guy Smith (Portland, Toronto), Orange County-resident Shigeaki Hattori (Miami, St. Louis), rookie Derek Higgins (Milwaukee), Luiz Garcia, Jr. (Cleveland) American Tony Renna (Michigan) and Frenchman Didier Andre (Laguna Seca).

Smith (NTS Computers/Swift Caravans Lola) has scored points in every race since Detroit and will likely clinch Rookie of the Year honors. He heads to Fontana 19 points ahead of Higgins (Quaker State/Team Go Lola) who drives for the Mexican-based Quaker State/Team Go.

California-based Hattori (Epson/Ibaraki Toyopet/Johsoh Lola) won his first Indy Lights race in the season-opening event at Miami in March and followed up with his second win in four attempts at Gateway on Memorial Day weekend. Remarkably, however, the third-year driver didn't score another point until the Laguna Seca race last month.

The California race is the second superspeedway event of the year. In the Detroit News 100 at Michigan Speedway in July, 21-year-old rookie Renna (Alco Capital Group/The Nassi Group Lola) who won from the pole. Renna withstood strong challenges from several competitors including Dare, a resurgent Mike Borkowski (Textron Automotive Lola) and his Mattco Raceworks teammate Chris Simmons (Alco Capital Group/Nassi Group Lola). Renna missed Vancouver with a broken collarbone but returned at Laguna Seca. Series veteran Mark Hotchkis, who drove for Renna and Vancouver and also filled in for Simmons earlier this season, joins the Mattco team at California in a third team entry.

Mattco has emerged this season as the on-track leaders of the Stars and Stripes contingent. Renna's Michigan weekend gave the first-year team its first pole and win while the weekend before Simmons recorded the team's first podium (top-three) finish with a third place at Toronto. Hotchkis finished a season's best fourth at Detroit.

Simmons and Hotchkis were teammates last year at Team KOOL Green along with Naoki Hattori (KOOL/JACCS Lola) who remains Green's only full-time driver in 1998. Hattori's solo efforts have produced a three podium finishes at Long Beach (third), Toronto (second) and Trois-Rivieres (third). He steps up to Champ Car competition in 1999 with Walker Racing.

Other Americans entered at Laguna Seca include Brian Cunningham (LCI/Exide Electronics Lola), rookie Cory Witherill (WSA Healthcare/Mendocino Brewing Company Lola), young sprint car veteran Bud Kaeding (Dorricott Racing/He ritage Bank Lola) and brothers Andy Boss (Cross Pens/Boarder Patrol/MI-JACK Lola) and Geoff Boss (LCI/Exide Electronics Lola). Of this group, Geoff Boss has produced the best 1998 showing with a second-place at Long Beach, his best career result and the top showing to date by the second-year Lucas Place Motorsports team.

Clint Mears (Penske Auto Center/Mobil 1/ARE Lola) and Casey Mears (MCI/Penske Auto Center/Mobil 1/ARE Lola) also return to Fontana where Clint won from the pole in the series first appearance here last year. Clint's win was one of two in 1997, but the Mears team has had a tougher time in its second season. The team skipped four of the year's first 13 races (Portland, Toronto, Trois-Rivieres, Vancouver), for financial reasons, but that did not prevent Casey Mears from posting a season's best third-place finish at Nazareth in April.

While the U.S. has the most drivers racing in series, Brazilians make up the most successful group in Indy Lights competition this season. The South American country clinched the inaugural Elf Nation's Cup at Vancouver over the U.S. and three of the five Brazilians in Indy Lights have won races da Matta, Dare and Garcia. Felipe Giaffone (Hollywood/Cafe do Ponto/Banco Sofisa Lola), who is tied with Higgins for fourth in the championship with 88 points, has contributed with second-place finishes at Milwaukee and Portland while Sergio Paese (Coimex/STP Lola) won a pair of poles at Miami and Milwaukee.

In addition to Smith, five other Europeans are showing well in Indy Lights this season after racing on the other side of the Atlantic. The group includes Higgins who charged to the lead from seventh on the grid to win at the Milwaukee Mile in May. The "rookie" was making only his fifth Indy Lights start, but Higgins has extensive experience racing in Mexico, Japan and Europe. His teammate on the first-year Team Go operation is Mexican rookie Jorge Goeters (Quaker State/Team Go Lola).

Andre (Motorola/Mack Trucks Lola) has also been impressive this season and heads to Fontana second in the championship with 113 points after his victory one race ago at Laguna Seca. His new teammate for the Fontana race is American Paul Jasper (Hollywood Video Lola) who turns to Indy Lights after running four Champ Car races in 1997.

Belgian Wim Eyckmans (EGP/STP Lola) is another European veteran turning to Indy Lights. He is preparing for his first oval race after debuting at Vancouver with Brian Stewart Racing.

Dorricott Racing teammates Philipp Peter (Sebring/Red Bull/ESTEBE Lola) and Oriol Servia (Catalonia/ELF/Heritage Bank Lola) complete the European threat. Peter, an Austrian living in Monte Carlo, led and finished second on the oval at Gateway. Servia, from the Catalonia region of Spain, in turn finished second at Trois-Rivieres and Laguna Seca and has qualified second three times. Like Smith, Andre and Higgins, the Dorricott drivers bring skills honed in European Formula 3 competition.

A spec (short for "specification") series, the PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship emphasizes driver skill and team preparation through the use of identical Lola T97/20 race cars. This year marks the debut of Dayton Daytona's as the official tire and co-title sponsor of the series.

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Series INDYLIGHTS