Giaffone on Fontana pole

FONTANA, Calif. (Oct. 28 2000) - Felipe Giaffone (Hollywood Lola) went two-for-two in superspeedway qualifying this season when he won the pole Saturday for the season-ending Dayton Indy Lights Championship race at California Speedway. ...

FONTANA, Calif. (Oct. 28 2000) - Felipe Giaffone (Hollywood Lola) went two-for-two in superspeedway qualifying this season when he won the pole Saturday for the season-ending Dayton Indy Lights Championship race at California Speedway. Giaffone lapped the 2.029-mile oval at an average speed of 185.025 mph (39.478 seconds) for his second superspeedway pole of 2000 and his third overall this year. Giaffone also won the pole in July at Michigan Speedway, California Speedway's sister facility, where he went on to win his first race.

Giaffone will lead an 18-car field to the flag at 9:30 a.m. local time for the season-ending Dayton Indy Lights Championship race at California Speedway. Giaffone will be looking to become the first driver in Indy Lights to win one more than one superspeedway while Scott Dixon (Invensys/Powerware/PacWest Lights Lola), Townsend Bell (DirecPC Lola) and Casey Mears (Dorricott Racing/Sooner Trailer Lola) will wage a record three-driver battle for the Dayton Indy Lights Championship.

The California Dayton Indy Lights Championship race will air in same day coverage in a one-hour show on ESPN2, Sunday, Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. ET (3 p.m. PT). An encore telecast will air on ESPN2 early on Tuesday, Oct. 31 at 4 a.m. ET (1 a.m. PT).

A double milestone for the Dayton Indy Lights Championship, the points race is the closest in the 15-year history of the series and the first time three drivers have taken the battle down to the season-ending event. The previous closest title race was the 1989 championship that saw eventual series titleist Mike Groff and Tommy Byrne enter the last race of the year at Laguna Seca Raceway separated by eight points. The Indy Lights championship will also be decided at California Speedway for the second consecutive year and third time since CART began conducting its season-ending event weekend at Fontana in 1997. Current Champ Car rookie Oriol Servia edged Mears for the title in 1999 while Tony Kanaan beat Helio Castroneves - now both race winners on the FedEx Championship Series trail - for the crown in the inaugural CART open-wheel race at California Speedway in 1997.

With a maximum 22 points available to a driver and the unpredictable nature of Indy Lights racing on superspeedways such as the California circuit, the championship will be wide open at Fontana. Dayton Indy Lights uses a "spec" (short for specification) rules format that requires all drivers to race identical Indy Lights Lola T97/20s powered by sealed GM V6 engines. This equal race car format is at its best in superspeedway races where drivers employ nose-to-tail drafting techniques while running three and even four abreast at flat-out speeds in the 190 mph range. Multiple position and lead changes every lap are common, and the outcome of the race and the championship will likely not be decided until the 50th and final lap.

Dixon, 20, leads the standings with 134 points, four clear of Bell and five ahead of Mears. Each driver has won at least one race this season, but Dixon tops all drivers and has the edge in all tiebreaker scenarios with five victories. He scored his most recent win in Round Nine at Laguna Seca Raceway last month where he left on the brink of clinching the championship with a season-high 42 point lead. He needed only to gain two points on the field to clinch one race later in St. Louis, but instead failed to finish for the first time this season when he hit the wall between Turns 3 and 4 while running second to Bell in the early going. Dixon was uninjured, but lost more than half of his points lead to Bell who led every lap from the pole for a 22-point sweep and his second win of the season.

Mears finished second to Bell at St. Louis and then rallied for his own 22-point take at Houston one race ago where he led every lap from the pole. While Bell finished second for Dorricott Racing's third one-two finish of the year, Dixon failed to finish for a second straight race when he was uninjured in a multi-car accident after defending California winner Jonny Kane (KOOL Lola) blew a gearbox and coated the track with oil. Like St. Louis, Dixon needed only to gain two points on the competition at Houston to clinch the title. Instead, he didn't score a point for the second consecutive race while Bell and Mears each racked up 38 points in the last two races to solidly enter the championship picture.

Dixon's recent collapse is far from indicative of the rest of his performance this year. Driving this year for PacWest Lights in his second Indy Lights season, Dixon won the year's opening races at Long Beach and Milwaukee and picked up a victory at Chicago for the second year in a row in July. He then scored back-to-back wins at Vancouver and Laguna Seca before the recent points drought. The young New Zealander led at Fontana last year but dropped from contention after pitting for a cut tire. His qualifying effort of second on Saturday is his best in four career superspeedway starts.

"My car is definitely good, and this is the best qualifying position we've had on a superspeedway," Dixon said. "The track was pretty slow on the backstretch with the wind in our face, but it wasn't a major factor. We were fortunate enough to stay in front of the guys we need to stay in front of for the championship, and hopefully we can maintain position tomorrow and bring a championship home to PacWest and Invensys/Powerware."

Prior to his St. Louis sweep, Bell, 25, kept second-place finisher Dixon behind him to win his first race at Mid-Ohio in August. The California native - he was born in San Francisco and now lives in Costa Mesa - also wrapped up Rookie of the Year honors with his runner-up showing at Houston. He finished fourth in the year's first superspeedway race at Michigan Speedway in July and is also leading the $10,000 Bosch Platinum+4 Speedway Challenge. This winner take all award will be paid to the driver earning the most points in the year's five oval track races and Bell leads with 58 points heading into the Fontana finale. Mears is second with 45 points and Dixon is third with 43. He qualified a distant 16th Saturday but will likely be able to move to the front if he stays with the lead pack from the start.

"This was obviously a very disappointing qualification for me," Bell said. "The race looks even more like a 'foot to the peddle and hope you don't have to slow for a moment' type of affair. The other factor is the unknown of the race. Superspeedway races can frequently hold surprises that are completely unforeseen."

Mears, 22, is known as an oval track specialist but has achieved his top results in his best Indy Lights season to date on road courses. He set the fastest race lap on his way to a fifth-place finish at Mid-Ohio and earned his first career pole on the Laguna Seca road course where he led the opening race laps before Dixon took the lead and the win. Houston marked his first win in 47 career starts, his second career pole and his first 22-point sweep. He also set the fastest race lap in the Texas race.

Of the three title contenders, Mears has the most success and experience on superspeedway circuits. He finished second at Michigan both this year and last and has unofficially led partial laps or run up front in each of his six superspeedway starts. Mears also set the fastest race lap in Indy Lights history at California Speedway in 1999 when he lapped at 193.643 mph. He fell short in his bid to challenge Servia for the title in that race after a late contact incident dropped him from contention.

Mears will also make history this weekend when he suits up for his first FedEx Championship Series start immediately following the Dayton Indy Lights finale. Mears will debut in a one-off drive with Team Rahal in a WorldCom-sponsored Ford Reynard and qualified a solid 15th for the Champ Car race Saturday. Mears is the first driver to run CART Champ Car and Indy Lights races in the same day.

"It was a busier day than I thought it would be," Mears said of his first full-day of double duty. "I didn't have much down time since I was either on the track or preparing to go back on the track. It was busier than expected but a lot of fun and the good type of busy.

"One of the nice things about racing in Indy Lights is all of the things I learned apply to the Champ cars. I'm obviously running faster in the Champ car than my Lights car so I'm more on the 'edge.' Everything we learn in racing Lights cars like how to handle losing air going into corners and losing your front end is used with the Champ cars. The difference is everything is magnified. The draft pulls you more. It's easier to lose your front end when you hit dirty air. The Champ car has been a little easier because it's such an easy 'flat' in an Indy Lights car. You don't end up jumping out of one car and having to find a new edge in the other. This has given me more time to focus on learning the Champ car and its handling capabilities.

"Oriol Servia and I have spoken quite a bit with each other. He's been a big help. He just came from Lights so we relate on a lot of things. He knows how I'm going to feel in the Champ car. It's amusing that we'll be starting side-by-side on the Champ car grid. We've talked a little about possibly trying to do some of the things we did when we were teammates in Indy Lights. The main thing for me is to try to win the Indy Lights championship, get 500 miles completed in the Champ car, and stay on the lead lap."

A championship spoiler at Fontana could be Giaffone who is fourth in the standings with 112 points. Despite a third-place finish at Houston, Giaffone was eliminated from championship contention by a single point, but he could rise to as high as second in the final standings if circumstances go his way in Fontana. Giaffone earned his first career win at Michigan in his 40th race start in July and has always performed well on superspeedways. He finished second at California in 1998 and third at Michigan last year. In addition to the superspeedway poles, Giaffone also posted the fastest qualifying effort at Vancouver.

The teammates of the title contenders could also join Giaffone as major players in the eventual outcome of the Fontana race and championship. Portland winner Jason Bright (Dorricott Racing Lola) partners Bell and Mears at Dorricott Racing and could be a critical drafting partner for both drivers. Dixon in turn has an experienced ally in teammate Tony Renna (Motorola/PacWest Lights Lola) who won at Michigan in 1998 and finished third at Fontana that same year. Renna also won the pole at both superspeedway races in 1998 and was challenging Mears and Giaffone for the lead at Michigan this season only to have the race end under caution. Bright and Renna are tied for fifth place in the championship with 91 points, but neither driver can finish any higher than fourth in the year-end standings.

Renna stars fourth Sunday while Bright grids in the 11th spot.

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Series INDYLIGHTS