By Mike Stucker - motorsport.com
The Houston Trans-Am race was the final race of the season and would decide the championship. Paul Gentilozzi came into the race leading his Jaguar teammate Johnny Miller by 27 points and needed only to finish 20th or better to clinch the title. They would start side by side on the front row of the grid that had been set by season point totals because of inclement weather during the scheduled qualifying session.
At the drop of the green flag, Gentilozzi took the lead followed closely by Brian Simo and Miller. On lap seven, Gentilozzi felt a vibration from his Jaguar. By lap ten it had become quite bad and he began backing off in an effort to conserve the differential.
Simo took the lead as Gentilozzi began to drop back. On lap 14 Gentilozzi accidentally bumped Tommy Archer's Viper, spinning Archer. Neither car was seriously damaged and both continue.
On lap 30 Gentilozzi passed Miller to climb back into second place. Rookie Justin Bell and veteran Lou Giglotti, both in a Corvettes, were fourth and fifth.
In the comic relief section of the race, a corner worker waving a blue passing flag had it removed from his hand by the Panoz Esperante of Mike Davis. He somehow passed it off to the Mustang of Paul Fix, who transferred it to the wing of Andre Toennis' Camaro when they got a little too close to each other. Toennis, from Houston, was forced to pit to have the flag removed. The local driver would have his race end several laps later with a broken differential.
By this time, both Miller and Bell had passed Gentilozzi, but then Miller began to drift back down the field with some type of problem. This set the stage for the final few laps.
Simo's Mangusta became visibly loose as his tires started losing grip. "Maybe I ran harder than I should have early", Simo commented after the race. Finally, with two laps to go, Bell, who had done a good job of conserving his brakes and tires throughout the race, got by Simo's sliding car. Simo tried to fight back but could not catch Bell before the checkered flag.
On the next to last lap, Gentilozzi let Giglotti, Mike Lewis, and Archer past. "I owed Archer", Gentilozzi said, referring to their earlier incident.
Lou Giglotti looked like he was headed for third when Lewis punted him aside exiting Turn 10 on the final lap. Archer followed the Mustang by Giglotti to take fourth behind Lewis. Giglotti recovered to finish fifth.
After the race, Lewis said that the hit was unintentional, but Giglotti went hunting Lewis on the cool down lap. Lewis managed to avoid any retaliation, however. After stopping in the pits, Gigliotti had to be restrained by his crew from going after Lewis to "discuss" the on-track altercation.
The win was the second of the year for 2001 Trans-Am Rookie of the Year Justin Bell. His first came at the previous race, at Laguna Seca.
After the race, Bell, an Englishmen and son of Le Mans legend Derek Bell, was very pleased with the win and said that he truly enjoyed racing in the Trans-Am Series in the United States. Referring to his class win at Le Mans in a Viper, he stated that it was great, "but I had to share it with two other guys. I enjoy not having to share the car with some five-foot-three-inch Frenchman. Or Italian, or Spaniard..."
While his teammate Johnny Miller faded to tenth, Paul Gentilozzi nursed his Jaguar home to a sixth place finish to clinch his third Trans-Am title in four years. Gentilozzi becomes the first person to win three Trans-Am titles in 3 different makes of car -- Corvette (1998), Mustang (1999), and now Jaguar. This was also the first Trans-Am title for Jaguar since 1978.
Miller finishes the season tied in points with Brian Simo, but Simo will be awarded second in the standings because he has one win this year to none for Miller.
The race standings are not yet official, however, as several protests have been filed. While Gentilozzi won't lose the title, the second and third place finishers in the championship could change.
About the championship, Gentilozzi said, "It's hard to believe. It's almost like you don't know you won it -- I mean you don't get any taller or grow any hair because of it. You know you've won because all the people around you are happy."
"The toughest thing to do winning a championship is losing it. You win a race, then two, then a championship and you become fearful and paranoid about losing it. Once you're on top, everything else is losing. For months after I lost it to Brian (Simo), I was a mess. I feel for my friend Brian right now."
"Winning the third one is like, well, my job. I'm supposed to do that. Without Jaguar, this one wouldn't mean so much. This one means more because for Jaguar to win a championship in America makes it really special."