ON TOP OF THE HILL

SEBRING, Fla. - Whatever hill could be found near flat, featureless but oh-so-historic Sebring, Derek Hill was on top of it. The son of 1961 World Champion and three-time Sebring 12-Hour winner Phil Hill scored a flag-to-flag win in the 30-minute Barber Dodge Pro Series race, the preliminary to the 45th annual 12 Hours of Sebring sportscar endurance classic. Hill, 22, started second but took the lead as the 29-car field jostled into the first turn and then was never headed. Polesitter Tony Renna was second and St. Petersburg winner Rino Mastronardi of Italy third. It was the second career Barber Dodge win for Hill, winner of the 1996 season finale.

"All I wanted to do, and I did, was get to the front and go as hard as I could, and hopefully get a lead and then save the Goodyears. And it worked out just like that," Hill said.

Renna, starting on pole for the second consecutive Sebring Barber Dodge race, got a really good start--which, as it turns out, was to his detriment: "It looks like it doesn't pay to start on pole here," Renna said. "It's what Fredrik [Larsson] did to me last year. The front straight is so long that everybody can duck in behind you, get a super draft and pop on you before Turn One." Which is exactly what second-starting Hill did, taking Renna on the inside. The two were side-by-side, inches apart, Hill even nearly brushing the inside wall, but those two and evverybody else made it through.

That left Renna and round one winner Rino Mastronardi in a heated duel for second. The two swapped positions four times times within the first 10 minutes as Hill got away. Wouldn't it have been better to work together to try to catch Hill?

"I don't think it would have helped them," Hill said, with Renna nodding in agreement. "It just doesn''t seem to do any good trying to hook up. Any advantage you gain on the straights is offset in the corners, where you need grip." "Big Scholarshiip" driver Nick Rondet closed on the Renna/Mastronardi duo but never could make a serious threat to move past. By halfway the order of Hill, Renna, Mastronardi and Rondet was set aand would end that way, Hill 2.4 seconds to the good on Renna.

Behind them, however, was a different story altogether. Fifth through 15th was a wildly entertaining tussle between all involved--too numerous to name, but take a look at the box score--, so muuch so thhat there was never two laps in a row with everyone in the same position. Rocky Moran, Jr., the 17-year-old really beginning to make his mark, was the star of the group. He had started 12th thanks to a blown motor (a rare occurrance by the way) in qualifying, but got himself to fifth by the end. G.J. Mennen, Jr., second at Sst. Pete, struggled in qualifying but found some grip in the race, starting a dismal 23rd but finishing a points-earning 13th, taking home Progressive Custom Wheels "Most Progressive Driver" award.

There were only two retirements, highly unusual for a track that's not only produced some terrifically competitive Barber Dodge races, but remains a rough old lady that eats up suspensions and drivelines. Victor Gonzalez, who had done so well at St. Petersburg (fourth) tracked out too far in Turn 13 and hooked to the inside wall, while Jarle Gasland was making a good impression by running in fifth early on, but he spun in Turn Three then toasted his clutch as he tried to re-enter.

Hill and Renna were co-winners of the Skip Barber Racing "Barber Dodge Rookie of the Year" last year, and both are out to show that they were the best picks. Had Hill and Renna not had their little coming together in Turn One at St. Petersburg, the points story would be a whole lot different. As it is, Mastronardi now leads with 35 to Boss' 21. But Hill said an interesting thing after the race att Sebring: "In the long run, that crash may end up being a good thing. I think it gave both myself and Tony something to think about, you know? Because you can''t win chhampionships if you don't finish races."

By the way, Hill was a vey busy guy at Sebring this weekend, doing triple duty; he finished second in the Sports Class in the 5-hour IMSA Street Stock Endurance event on Friday, and drove a class GTS-3 BMW in the 12-Hour. -Rick Roso

Results from Saturday's 30-minute SCCA Pro Racing Barber Dodge Pro Series race at the 12 Hours of Sebring, with finishing position, starting position, driver, hometown or country, winner's average speed, laps completed (reason out, if any), and prize money. All cars identical Mondiale Barber Dodge V6 open-wheel, single-seat race cars.

1.        (2)        Derek Hill, Santa Monica, Calif., 100.690 mph, 14 laps, $10,000 
2.        (1)        Tony Renna, Deland, Fla., 14, $6,000
3.        (3)        Rino Mastronardi, Italy, 14, $4,000 
4.        (6)        Nick Rondet, San Diego, Calif., 14, $2,500 
5.        (12)        Rocky Moran, Jr., Coto de Caza, Calif., 14, $1,800 
6.        (7)        Steven Rikert, Rhinebeck, N.Y., 14, $1,500 
7.        (9)        Chris Menninga, Pella, Iowa, 14, $1,300 
8.        (4)        Martin Stenshorne, Norway, 14, $1,200 
9.        (11)        Andy Boss, Narragansett, R.I., 14, $1,000 
10.        (13)        Mattias Andersson, Sweden, 14, $1,000 
11.        (14)        Scott Brunk, Frederick, Md., 14, $800 
12.        (8)        Will Langhorne, Washington, D.C., 14, $700 
13.        (23)        G.J. Mennen, Jr., Austin, Texas, 14, $1,100 
14.        (15)        Nick OSullivan, Boulder, Colo., 14, $500 
15.        (17)        Jarrett Boon, Phoenix, Ariz., 14, $500 
16.        (19)        Eric Tresslar, Denver, Colo., 14, $500 
17.        (20)        Gian-Maria Regazzoni, Monaco, 14, $500 
18.        (24)        Denis Lay, Miami, Fla., 14, $500 
19.   (25)        Samer Hindi, Los Angeles, Calif., 14, $500 
20.        (18)        Andre Hansen, Norway, 14, $500 
21.        (26)        John McCaig, Canada, 14, $500 
22.        (21)        Bill Tichenor, Dallas, Texas, 14, $500 
23.        (22)        Charles Willis, Germantown, Tenn., 14, $500 
24.        (10)        Gustavo Pasetto, Brazil, 14, $500 
25.        (27)        Matt Fowler, Ventura, Calif., 14, $500 
26.        (29)        Craig Sletten, McFarland, Wis., $500 
27.        (28)        Patsy DiFilippo, Apollo, Pa., 14, $500 
28.        (5)        Jarle Gasland, Norway, 5 (driveline), $500 
29.        (16)        Victor Gonzalez, Hotoray, Puerto Rico, 4 (accident), $500 

Time of race: 30 minutes, 01.960 seconds Winning speed: 100.690 mph Distance: 14 laps, 50.40 miles Margin of Victory: 2.460 seconds Fastest Race Lap: Tony Renna, lap 13, 2:08.378 (100.951mph) Most Progressive Driver ($500): G.J. Mennen, Jr., 23rd to 13th Lap leaders: Hill, 1 - 14

Points following round 2: 1. Rino Mastronardi 35 2. Andy Boss 21 3. Derek Hill 20 4. Rocky Moran, Jr. 20 5. G.J. Mennen,, Jr. 19 6. Chris Menninga 19 7. Tony Renna 17 8. Victor Gonzalez 12 9. Samer Hindi 11 10. Scott Brunk 11

Next race: Savannah (Ga.) Harbor Grand Prize Circuit, May 18