SIMMONS, SNYDER GOING DOWN TO WIRE AGAIN HOMESTEAD, Fla. (Sept. 21) -
If Jeff Simmons and Todd Snyder don't seem all that excited about their ongoing battle for the Barber Dodge Pro Series championship, the reason is simple. It's like deja vu to both drivers.
In 1998, Simmons and Snyder battled down to the last lap of the season at Laguna Seca, with Simmons' second-place finish securing a microscopic 158-155 win in his rookie campaign.
Entering the penultimate round of the 1999 schedule at the Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend with the FIA GT Championship, Simmons tops the leaderboard with a 129-114 lead over Snyder in his attempt to become the first driver in Pro Series history to win back-to-back championships. Simmons can clinch the title by finishing seven points in front of Snyder in Sunday's race. The respect between the combatants, though grudging at times, is mutual.
"It's been a positive to have Todd there every week for the past two years. It makes us work harder to get everything right and make sure the car's perfect, because if it isn't you know he's going to do well," Simmons said. "It's an added incentive to perform. I've learned a lot about how to approach things because that pressure is always there."
Both drivers have been focused on the $300,000 Career Enhancement Award given to the series champion since lap one of spring testing in February. The 23-year-old Simmons has placed in the Top-5 a whopping seven times, including wins at Portland, Road America and a dominant performance at Laguna Seca in Round 10. He also has three poles and second-place finishes on the one-mile oval at Nazareth and the twisting road course at Mid-Ohio. Last season, his three pole bonus points provided the margin of victory for the championship, with every point looking equally important this year.
Snyder's season started slowly, with a pair of poor finishes at Sebring (contact) and Nazareth (engine problems). It hit rock bottom, literally, in the first turn of Round 4 at Portland, when he was deposited in the gravel trap. Since then, there has been nothing but Top-5 finishes, including consecutive wins at Detroit, Mid-Ohio and Grand Rapids. The 30-year-old Sheffield, Mass. resident has also been a Top-5 qualifier in each race since the opener.
"It's basically down to luck. I need some really good luck and some wins in the next two and I need for him to have some bad luck," Snyder said. "He's obviously a very talented driver, but he's not the only one to worry about. (Nilton) Rossoni's quick, (Sepp) Koster's quick, and Townsend (Bell) is up there every weekend. There's a bunch of good guys and we need to beat them all. But we need to beat Simmons more than anyone else because of the points situation."
Both drivers enter the race with the confidence of strong showings at the track last year. Simmons finished second to Rossoni, with Snyder close behind to claim the final podium spot. The 18-year-old Brazilian has been stuck in a wrong-place-at-the wrong-time scenario for the past four races, and relishes the role of spoiler. Rossoni spent the summer living in the Miami area, and will have a large cheering section at his adopted home track.
"Everybody will be there, all my friends, my family and I did very well there last year," Rossoni said. "I think it's an important race for the championship. I definitely want to win the pole there and beat Jeff (Simmons) again."
The championship battle is not the only storyline for Homestead. The race for the $175,000 Rookie of the Year prize is a dead heat. Michael Valiante of Vancouver, B.C. and Roger Yasukawa of Santa Monica, Calif. are tied with 62 points apiece, with Valiante holding the first tiebreaker (highest finish). The drivers are close friends, dating back to their time in the Rio Big Scholarship Shootout last fall, and often share setup information.
"I think the important thing is that I have to finish, and finish ahead of Roger," Valiante said. "I'd like to have a victory, but I can't do anything stupid and not finish a race."
Yasukawa was philosophical about a surge of strong results that started in Detroit.
"I sat down and started driving consistently. I didn't take any risks, and I did learn to drive the car better and faster," Yasukawa laughed. "I'm not sure Michael shares all his information with me anymore so I'll just have to give him my false setups."
The entire field will have to rethink their car setup at the race. A new Michelin Pilot SX slick with a radically different design will debut on all Barber Dodge cars at Homestead. The new state-of-the-art rubber is expected to provide both higher cornering g-loading and straight-line speed, as evidenced by extensive testing. The result is expected be a revision to the Homestead-record qualifying lap of 1:24.528 at 94.123 mph set by Alex Gurney last year.
The questions may be settled in a 40-minute race Sunday morning preceding the FIA Championship tilt, the operative word being "may". Although they have shared champagne, podium appearances and tire-bumping in turns for two years, Simmons is eager to finish the relationship on the 2.21-mile road course.
"I want to end it this weekend," Simmons said. "There's no reason to extend this through Watkins Glen."