THE 1998 NTB TRANS-AM SERIES—A SEASON OF BREAKTHROUGH ACHIEVEMENTS
ENGLEWOOD, Colo.—The Trans-Am Series' 33rd season produced a remarkable year of achievements, including Paul Gentilozzi's first Trans-Am Drivers' Championship and Chevrolet's first Manufacturers' title since 1995.
The 1998 season will also be remembered for its record number of drivers who contested the entire 13-race championship, as well as modern-era marks in narrowest margin of victory and single-event entries among the 20 new on-track performance records.
The year was also a breakthrough season for the series itself, as the Trans-Am picked up major backing from title sponsor NTB National Tire & Battery, and BFGoodrich Tires became the series' spec tire supplier, fitting all-new g-Force T/A Radials to each car, marking the first time the entire Trans-Am field was shod with radial rubber.
From the drop of the green flag at the Long Beach season-opener, Gentilozzi, of Lansing, Mich., proved himself to be the driver to beat, scoring the first of seven 1998 wins with a 6.536-second margin over Stu Hayner. Gentilozzi also opened the season with the introduction of his latest weapon in the battle for the championship, a fifth-generation Chevrolet Corvette.
"We got started late building the Corvette and we had to put in hundreds of hours in the last few weeks (before the start of the season) to get ready, but we worked hard," said Gentilozzi. "I had absolute faith in our car design—any time we've introduced a new car we've always been up front, whether it was the pole at Daytona in 1993 or the podium sweep at Sears Point in 1991."
Behind the wheel of the No. 3 AutoLink entry, the 1998 Championship was one that Gentilozzi was determined to dominate, with the ultimate goal of earning his first professional drivers' title his prime motivational force.
"We absolutely came into the season looking to earn the championship," said Gentilozzi. "The Rocketsports team logged hundreds of testing hours and had the consistency, maturity and motivation to be the team to beat in 1998."
While Gentilozzi held command over the opener with a flag-to-flag performance, runner-up Hayner foreshadowed the competition to come, both with his hard-fought finish and in proving the ability of the new g-Force T/A Radial to go the distance.
"I've raced on just about every brand of tire made, but I've never raced on a tire that was so consistent throughout a race," said Hayner. "The track deteriorated much more than our tires did."
Gentilozzi scored wins in five of the first six races, but he claimed just two through the remainder of the season, as the series produced four "breakthrough" wins (Lou Gigliotti, Round Three, Lime Rock Park; Bill Saunders, Rounds Seven and Eight, Cleveland and West Michigan; Hayner, Round 11, Road America; and Brian Simo, Rounds 12 and 13, Pikes Peak International Raceway and Houston) and the hotly contested championship saw 11 different drivers score podium finishes–the highest number of different podium finishers since 1992's mark of 12.
The four first-time winners tied the modern-era (1983-present) mark for "breakthrough" victories in a single season, first set in 1983 (Gene Felton, David Hobbs, John Paul Jr., and Willy T. Ribbs) and equaled in 1986 (Pete Halsmer, Chris Kneifel, Klaus Ludwig, and Scott Pruett) and 1989 (Ron Fellows, Irv Hoerr, Max Jones, and Dorsey Schroeder).
Among the front-runners, there were 28 lead changes (2.2 per-race average), up 64.7 percent over the 1997 season total of 17 lead changes (1.3 average), helping to produce seven record narrowest margins of victory, including a modern-era 0.065-second margin at Mid-Ohio (second only to Dan Gurney's 1967 win over Parnelli Jones at Green Valley, recorded as three feet). There were also five sub-one second margins of victory, one short of the all-time season record of six (1993) —three other seasons have had five races with sub-one second margins (1990, 1994 and 1995).
For the Manufacturers' Championship, four teams contributed to Chevrolet's success, led by Rocketsports' 88 points (nine victories and one runner-up finish among two drivers); White Lightning Racing's nine points (one win, a Manufacturers' title-clinching effort at Road America); Derhaag Motorsports' four points (fourth at Pikes Peak); and Miller Racing's two points (sixth at Lime Rock Park).
While the battle for podium finishes was intense, the depth of the field reached an all-time high as 17 drivers contested all 13 events, an all-time record number of drivers to race the entire season, two higher than the all-time mark set in 1995 (15), and eight more than the 1997 total (nine). Additionally, the series averaged 32 starters per race, up 23 percent over last season's 26-starter average, and up 33.3 percent over the 1996 average of 24 starters. Fueling the surge in average starters-per-race were huge single event starting fields, including the second-largest field in Trans-Am history of 43 cars at Watkins Glen (topped only by the 1983 Road America event with 54 starters). In total, 76 drivers competed in the 1998 NTB Trans-Am, with 61 drivers scoring points.
THE QUEST FOR SECOND-BEST . . . VETERANS AND ROOKIES GO TOE-TO-TOE
Behind Gentilozzi's championship charge–a battle that was finally settled with a conservative, clinch-the-title seventh-place finish at Pikes Peak–a season-long struggle for second-best took place as five drivers alternately held the runner-up position, swapping the position four times.
Begging the question, "What if he'd run the entire season?", Hayner wouldn't follow up his Long Beach second-place finish until Mid-Ohio, and on the season he would contest just six events, taking him out of contention for a top-10 position in the final standings. With six starts, Hayner, in the No. 58 Westward Ho Casino Camaro, still managed to scored one win, a second and a third to finish the year 14th overall.
John Miller IV, however, was ready to assert his abilities full-time in the No. 64 PLC Direct Camaro, and with back-to-back career-high thirds at Long Beach and Homestead, he advanced to second behind Gentilozzi, a position he would hold through the next five events. At Cleveland (Round Seven), Miller IV's six-race string of top-10 finishes came to an end, and although he was still second overall his margin was a slim five points over Simo.
While one finish out of the top-10 hurt Miller IV's standings, mechanical problems at the inaugural West Michigan Grand Prix (Round Eight) resulted in an 18th-place finish, and Saunders, in the No. 8 AutoLink Corvette, took over the runner-up position on the strength of his second-consecutive (and second career) victory.
Saunders' four-race hold (from Grand Rapids through Trois-Rivieres, Watkins Glen and Road America) on the runner-up position was never more than a six-point gap, and with two events remaining (Pikes Peak and Houston) the chase for second had become a four-way fight waged between Saunders, Neville (No. 40 ARCO Camaro), Miller IV and Simo (No. 2 Valvoline Ford Mustang Cobra).
At Pikes Peak, Saunders was poised to deliver Rocketsports a 1-2 year-end finish as he held the second position with a five-point edge over Neville, 243 to 238, while Miller IV and Simo were 16 and 17 points behind Saunders, respectively. Following the precedent set with Mike Borkowski's 1997 win over Tom Kendall, the 1998 Pikes Peak race produced another "breakthrough" result–a dominant, flag-to-flag victory for Simo, his first career win in his 60th start. Simo's victory scrambled the standings, moving him to third in the standings, and Neville was propelled to second (on the strength of a fourth-place finish that also clinched his Rookie-of-the-Year title) while Saunders and Miller IV dropped to fourth and fifth, respectively.
Although Neville's hold on the second-place position would prove to be brief, he became the first rookie to hold the runner-up position since 1995 Rookie-of-the-Year Price Cobb scored a debut win (to lead the standings) at the Phoenix-opener, and held on to second after 1995's Round Two at Mosport Park.
The Drivers' Championship and rookie title decided, Houston's season-finale promised a wild ride—and delivered. In a head-to-head battle, Simo scored his second-straight win, giving the Carlsbad, Calif., driver his second consecutive runner-up position in the final standings. Saunders also benefitted from a podium position, finishing the season third thanks to a runner-up Houston finish. Neville, having had to fight with an ill-handling car, fell from second to fourth in the championship after finishing the race eighth. Miller IV improved five positions in the race from his 11th-place start to maintain his hold on fifth.
THE ROOKIE BATTLE AND OTHER 1998 HIGHLIGHTS
o The chase for Rookie-of-the-Year honors was a spirited contest in 1998, with Neville, Ross Thompson (No. 92 i-Dream Software Mustang Cobra) and Bruce Qvale (No. 44 Huffaker/Qvale Motorsports Mustang Cobra) combining to post eight podium finishes, including Thompson's second-place effort at Pikes Peak and Qvale's back-to-back runner-up finishes at West Michigan and Trois-Rivieres.
Other drivers who contested their rookie seasons in 1998 included Simon Gregg (No. 59 LG Motorsports Mustang Cobra), son of legendary Trans-Am driver Peter Gregg; Brian DeVries (No. 5 Jade Pig Ventures/Economy Abrasives Camaro); C. David Seuss (No. 13 FAST Oldsmobile Cutlass); Rick Lee (No. 00 EZ-Up Mustang Cobra); Greg Harrison (No. 14 B&B Motorsports Mustang Cobra); Dick Greer (No. 82 Wendy's Oldsmobile Cutlass); John Halbing (No. 86 Grotto Pizza Oldsmobile Cutlass); Claude Poirier (No. 05 Wilhelmy Camaro); Alessandro Zampedri (No. 46 Techo-Ionxmacel/Bossini-Mario Camaro); Ned Yeaton (No. 16 CLR Racing Camaro); and Paul Alderman (No. 68 Alderman Automotive Machine Mustang Cobra).
o Chevrolet's Manufacturers' Championship was the auto maker's 15th title in series history —nearly twice the honors scored by Porsche (eight), while Ford has earned seven titles.
o Although no driver completed all 674 race laps in 1998, Neville lead all drivers with 670 laps completed to earn the TotalTel Long Distance Leader award. Miller IV was second in the TotalTel Long Distance standings with 667 laps completed, followed by Thompson, with 664 laps completed.
o Nine different drivers were selected as DynoMax Turn On the Power award winners–an honor selected by members of the media for each race's "best drive." Hayner and Simo led all drivers with three DynoMax awards each (Long Beach, Watkins Glen and Road America for Hayner; Minneapolis, Pikes Peak and Houston for Simo), while Gentilozzi (Homestead), Gigliotti (Lime Rock Park), Leighton Reese (Detroit), Bob Ruman (Mid-Ohio), Saunders (Cleveland), Neville (West Michigan) and Miller IV (Trois-Rivieres) were each selected once.
o The Craftsman Crew Chief of the Race award began at Round Four, and was created to recognize the crew chief at each race who exhibited technical ingenuity, sportsmanship, overcame tremendous odds, imparted brilliant strategy or was integral to consistent team results. Each Craftsman Crew Chief of the Race honoree received a $250 Craftsman product award and a Craftsman jacket. Winning crew chiefs were: Rolf Samulewicz, Huffaker-Qvale Racing (Detroit); Mark Wilsdon, Ruman Racing (Mid-Ohio); Scott McLaren, Miller Racing (Minneapolis); David Steele, heading the team of Mike Lewis and Ross Thompson (Cleveland); Pat Briody, Briody Racing (West Michigan Grand Prix); Scott Veeder, Reese Racing (Player's Grand Prix de Trois Rivieres); Scott Schanke, RaceWerX (Watkins Glen); Mike Semour, White Lightning Racing (Road America); Jim Derhaag, Derhaag Motorsports, (Pikes Peak); and Jerry Lagod, HyperMax Engineering Racing (Houston).
o On the year, Gentilozzi earned $216,900 and was first in laps led (438/674) and miles led (834/1,249.634), fastest race laps (nine), Fast Five Qualifying appearances (11, tie), Fast Five Qualifying money ($15,000) and poles (nine). With 137 career starts, Gentilozzi is third in the all-time standings, and tops all competitors with 71 Fast Five Qualifying starts. Gentilozzi also ranks high in several other statistical categories, including top-three finishes (32, 10th), top-five finishes (61, third), top-10 finishes (86, third) and fastest race laps (16, fifth, tie).
o Simo also racked up some impressive numbers in his second-straight runner-up season, including 169 laps led (second), 308.663 miles led (second), one fastest race lap (third), 11 Fast Five Qualifying appearances (tie for first), $11,050 in Fast Five Qualifying money (second) and two poles (second).
o Saunders completed his career-best Trans-Am season in 1998, finishing the season third on the strength of his two wins, three second-place finishes and 10 top-10 efforts. Saunders was third in laps led (31) and miles led (54.508), and scored six Fast Five Qualifying appearances.
o Rookie-of-the Year Neville started the season at Long Beach with a stunning fourth-place finish and proved he was a driver to be reckoned with, finishing in the top-10 in 11 of the remaining 12 races. Neville's season and career-high effort was third, a feat he managed three times (West Michigan, Trois-Rivieres and Road America), and he also made six Fast Five Qualifying appearances.
o Fifth-place Miller IV made significant strides in his program after finishing eighth in 1997. Miller IV posted a career-high second at Minneapolis en route to scoring 10 top-10 marks on the year, leading seven laps for 10.71 miles and finishing third in Fast Five Qualifying appearances with eight.
o Rookie runner-up Thompson made his presence felt at every race, posting an impressive 10 top-10 finishes, including second at Pikes Peak and third at Lime Rock Park, to finish the year sixth. Thompson also made four Fast Five appearances to finish tied for sixth in the qualifying standings.
o Seventh-place Reese, in the No. 66 Banner Engineering/Phillips 66 Pontiac Grand Prix, continued to improve in 1998, scoring eight top-10 finishes highlighted by his runner-up effort at Detroit and fifth-place result at West Michigan. Reese also posted one Fast Five Qualifying mark at Minneapolis, his "home" circuit.
o Rookie Qvale concluded his inaugural season eighth in points on the strength of eight top-10 finishes. Twice Qvale finished second (West Michigan and Trois-Rivieres), and he added a third at Detroit and fifth at Mid-Ohio. Qvale also made two Fast Five Qualifying appearances.
o Michael Lewis, in the No. 12 Red Line Oil Mustang Cobra, advanced one position from his 1997 standings to finish the season ninth. Lewis had seven top-10 finishes, including second at Lime Rock, third at Minneapolis and Cleveland and fifth at Trois-Rivieres. Lewis also scored one pole (Cleveland), made three additional Fast Five Qualifying starts and led one lap for 2.106 miles.
o Randy Ruhlman, in the No. 49 Preformed Line Products Mustang Cobra, capped his return to the Trans-Am with a 10th-place finish in the standings, highlighted by seven top-10 finishes and three Fast Five Qualifying starts.
o Lime Rock Park race-winner Gigliotti made an unusual late-season equipment switch, trading his Ford Mustang Cobra for a Chevrolet Corvette for the last four races of the year. Gigliotti finished the year 12th, posting three-other top-10 finishes (in addition to his win) and leading 23 laps for 35.190 miles.
o A number of drivers finished out of the top-10 but made their presence felt throughout the season, including Peter Shea (No. 70 Entrepreneur Magazine Mustang Cobra), Bob Ruman (No. 23 Cenweld Camaro), Max Lagod (No. 83 Hypermax Camaro), Don Sak (No. 10 Sak Racing Oldsmobile Cutlass), Frank Cioppettini (No. 47 Clover Enterprises Camaro) and Craig Shafer (No. 39 Shafer Racing Camaro). Together these drivers combined for 14 top-10 finishes, including career best efforts by Shea (seventh at West Michigan), Ruman (sixth at Minneapolis), Sak (fourth at Lime Rock Park) and Cioppettini (10th at Minneapolis).