DETROIT (Feb. 7, 2001) - Series veteran Derek Higgins (Mexpro Lola) and Danish rookie driver Kristian Kolby (Conquest Racing Lola) are the latest signees for the 2001 Dayton Indy Lights Championship season that begins at the Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix, presented by Herdez, in Monterrey, Mexico, March 11. The season-opening race can be seen in same day coverage on ESPN2 at 11 p.m. ET (8 p.m. PT).
Higgins, a four-time Dayton Indy Lights race winner, is set for his second year with Mexpro but first full season campaign since 1999. The experienced Irishman raced on a limited basis with the debuting Mexpro team last season alongside rookie Rudy Junco (Mexpro Racing Lola) who also returns in 2001. Higgins, 33, posted Mexpro's best results in its rookie season with consecutive seventh-place finishes at Mid-Ohio and Vancouver and a personal career-best qualifying effort of third at Houston. Mid-Ohio marked Higgins' driving debut with Mexpro, the first of five race starts in the second half of the season, but he was with the team the full year in his role as Junco's driving coach.
Higgins co-led the series in race wins in 1999 with victories at Milwaukee, Cleveland and Detroit while driving for Team Mexico Quaker Herdez. He also won at Milwaukee in 1998 with the Quaker Herdez group, the highlight of an impressive rookie campaign for both the team and driver that ended with a fifth-place finish in the championship, the highest result for a first-year effort. He was also selected as the 1998 Spirit of Mario Andretti Award Winner as the series driver best typifying the traits of the legendary auto racing champion.
Kolby, 22, will contest his first season of competition in North America with 1991 Indy Lights champion Eric Bachelart and Conquest Racing. The native of Denmark won the 1996 British Formula Ford championship with six victories and, after a year of Formula Renault in 1997 and the following two seasons in British Formula 3, contested the FIA Formula 3000 championship last year. Driving for the French DAMS team, Kolby earned a season's best finish of fifth at Hockenheim. He was also part of the DAMS Cadillac sports car team at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, partnering with former Conquest Indy Lights driver Christophe Tinseau who was at the wheel when the entry suffered an unfortunate engine failure just 15 minutes into the race.
Kolby took one of his first turns in a Conquest Lola T97/20 last week at Buttonwillow Raceway in California and, on old tires, quickly got to within 1/10th of the best time former Conquest pilot Felipe Giaffone ever recorded at the same track.
PacWest Lights driver Dan Wheldon (PacWest Lights Lola) will be among the drivers signing autographs at the CART/RACER magazine display at the 2001 Chicago Auto Show that starts this weekend at McCormick Place South at Lake Shore Drive and 23rd Street in downtown Chicago. Wheldon will sign from 7 - 9 p.m. this Friday evening in addition to a few hours on Saturday before returning to his new home in Indianapolis. He and PacWest head for Sebring, Florida on Sunday for a test session early next week.
Dayton Indy Lights Championship President and CEO Roger Bailey is now back at work at series headquarters in Detroit after successful surgery to remove a non-cancerous lung tumor late last year.
"I want to thank everyone in the motorsports community who sent me so many cards, flowers notes and general good wishes during my pit stop," Bailey said. "I was touched by the flood of kindness but neither I nor the crew at the hospital could hardly keep up with who sent what and when, it was so impressive. So, a sincere note of thanks to all of you who took a few minutes to brighten my days when I needed it the most. It helped for a speedy recovery and I am back in full form."
A new team with a familiar name - Roquin Motorsports - is set to return in 2001 with second-year driver Rolando Quintanilla and Mexican motorsports veteran Jimmy Morales who will run his rookie season of open-wheel competition in the United States.
This year marks the third time that the Roquin name - a derivative of the first and last names of owner and former driver Roberto Quintanilla - will race in Indy Lights after a pair of stints in the early and mid 1990s. Roberto Quintanilla drove for the team in those days but has now made way for his 20-year-old son Rolando who will run his second full season in 2001. After a one-off debut with the team at California Speedway in 1999, the junior Quintanilla raced last year with Conquest and posted season and career best finishes of eighth at Michigan and Houston. His sixth-place qualifying effort in the 2000 finale at California was also a career-high mark.
Experienced engineer Peter Jacobs has joined the Roquin effort after spending the last two seasons with Conquest. The group has moved into the Indianapolis-based race shop that formerly housed Johansson Motorsports with veteran team manager David "Emmett" Briedenbach, who has worked with Newman/Haas Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Mo Nunn Racing, tasked with the day-to-day operations. Sponsorship for the effort comes from Mexican telecommunications firm Telmex that includes the Dayton Indy Lights team in its own corporate ladder system of driver development.
Although he will officially be a rookie, Morales, 34, has been racing nearly as long as his young teammate has been alive. A well-known competitor in Mexico, Morales has raced and won in virtually every category in his home country. Recent achievements include the 1997 Mexican Formula 3000 championship and dual title in 1995 in Mexico's Formula 2 championship and Sports Prototype Series. He also contested the Indy Lights Panamericana Formula des Las Americas in 1998 in addition to Mexico's Ford Mustang championship. After making a run at NASCAR Busch Grand National competition in 1999 with Team SABCO, Morales returned to Mexico and the Mustang series last season and won two races in the McCormick Cup.
The first of several competitor-organized test sessions scheduled for the 2001 season begins today at Laguna Seca Raceway where Mexpro, Conquest, Roquin and Dorricott Racing will run the first of a two-day session. Drivers slated to run in the non-sanctioned test include Higgins, Kolby, Junco, Quintanilla, Morales, Conquest rookie Nilton Rossoni (Conquest Racing Lola), Dorricott's Townsend Bell (DirecPC Lola) and Dorricott rookies Jon Fogarty (Dorricott Racing Lola) and Damien Faulkner (Dorricott Racing Lola).
Former Indy Lights race winners Franck Freon and Johnny O'Connell were part of the winning GM GoodWrench Corvette entry at this past weekend's Rolex 24 at Daytona. Freon and O'Connell joined Chris Kneifel and Ron Fellows in taking not only the GTS class win but also the overall victory.
The victory was by far the biggest career triumph for both Freon and O'Connell who won a combined total of five races and six poles in their Indy Lights careers. After winning the Rookie title in 1991, Freon won Indy Lights races at Long Beach, Portland and Cleveland in 1992 and finished second in the championship. He came back to repeat at Portland in 1993 and again took runner-up honors in the championship. After eight Champ Car starts in 1994 and 1995 that produced a best finish of 12th at Long Beach in his second season, Freon shifted to sports car competition. He won the LMP2 class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1996 and is a veteran of close to a dozen 24 hour endurance races at Daytona and Le Mans.
O'Connell, who won the Indy Lights race at Laguna Seca in 1989, also has extensive sports car racing and IRL experience. He most recently drove for the Panoz sports car team, but he joined the Corvette squad just prior to this past weekend's race.
A special memorial service for former Conquest Racing team member Jose "Carlos" Bravo will be held for members of the CART and Dayton Indy Lights community at the season-opening race in Monterrey, Mexico next month. Bravo, 35, passed away in December after battling pancreatic cancer during the second half of the season. The native of Distrito Federal, Mexico, who had lived in the United States for the past decade, was a popular member of the Dayton Indy Lights community and key member of the close-knit Conquest team.
The service, which will be conducted by CART Ministries, is open to all and will be conducted at Dayton Indy Lights headquarters in the paddock at the Telmex Tecate Grand Prix at 5:30 p.m. local time in Monterrey.