1999 SEASON REVIEW -- GENTILOZZI CAPTURES HIS SECOND CROWN TO CLOSE THE BOOK ON TRANS-AM® SERIES RACING IN THE 1990s
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- Paul Gentilozzi was a man on a mission coming into the 1999 BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series season, wanting to prove that his first Championship was earned by teamwork and driving skill, not by racing a then all-new Corvette. Gentilozzi switched from his Chevrolet to a Ford Mustang Cobra for the '99 season, and promptly scored a win at the Long Beach season-opener, his first of six victories during the year (also including Mid-Ohio, Road America, Trois-Rivieres, Houston and Sebring). "I said all season long it's a lot harder to defend a Championship than it is to win it," said Gentilozzi. "The second Championship is more special, more important than the first one because it's validation of your abilities and success. Plus remember, this year we had a brand new car and engine package, making the transition from Chevy to Ford. That was a major challenge for the team." As the season progressed, however, it was clear that Gentilozzi, in the No. 1 Johnson Controls/HomeLink Mustang Cobra, would have to overcome challenges he'd not seen in his first title run, as Brian Simo (No. 2 Valvoline Mustang Cobra), Chris Neville (No. 88 Tommy Bahama Mustang Cobra), Michael Lewis (No. 12 AmeriSuites Mustang Cobra) and Johnny Miller (No. 64 Automationdirect.com Corvette) were all in contention throughout the season. By the Sebring finale the title battle came down to Gentilozzi and Simo, with the defending Champion holding a seven-point lead to be the man to beat. Gentilozzi successfully completed his season-long mission with his third flag-to-flag performance of the year at Sebring, earning his second Drivers' Championship title by a 13-point margin after scoring 339 points on the year. "Racing against Brian (Simo) was great this year -- he's a champion in my heart and mind any day," added Gentilozzi. "He's a smart, tough, talented driver who is a great competitor and good friend. This Championship was all about teamwork. There are 15 souls that share in this Championship. We were determined to win this title again. Frankly, we'd lost our way there for a while. But we did more testing and continued to learn and make improvements that paid off. My guys were willing to do whatever it took to end this year with the Championship. A lot of people -- my team and my family -- make a lot of sacrifices for me to go racing. The least I could do was drive the car well, win races, and the Championship for them. The only return they get is when we win." With his title, Gentilozzi earned the first position on the inaugural BFGoodrich Tires Cup, a new perpetual trophy that will be engraved with the names of all future BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series Drivers' Champions. Gentilozzi also reached the 150-race milestone (at the Sebring finale), and with $177,300 in season earnings, he became the second driver in series history to post more than one million in career earnings (after Tom Kendall) with $1,020,813. Between his season-opening win at Long Beach and the title-clinching victory at the finale, Gentilozzi's toughest competition came from Simo, who had high hopes coming into the '99 season after his RaceWerX team came together as a cohesive group, helping Simo to score his first two career wins to close out the '98 season. The Long Beach opener was a difficult event for Simo, finishing 23rd after qualifying second. He recovered from his tough start to take a strong win at Mosport International Raceway for Round Two, the first of six wins (Lime Rock Park, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Vancouver and Pikes Peak International Raceway) he would score in '99, helping Ford win its eighth Manufacturers' Championship title by earning 54 Manufacturers' Championship points (tied with Gentilozzi's 54 points earned for Ford). For the season, five of Simo's victories were wire-to-wire wins and he scored nine total podium finishes, qualified on the pole eight times, set four fastest race laps and was the only driver to qualify in the Fast Five at every venue. Neville, the 1998 Rookie of the Year, showed his mettle in '99 to finish third in the Championship on the strength of four podium finishes, including his first win (Road Atlanta). "I really want to thank Bruce Qvale (Huffaker/Qvale President), and Joe Huffaker (Huffaker/Qvale Vice President and Technical Director) for sticking with me this year," said Neville. "We had some bumpy times, and didn't know if we could finish the season. But we got a win at Road Atlanta, managed to bring Tommy Bahama aboard, and finished up the season at Sebring doing what we needed to do. I just can't express the feelings I'm having now." Other series regulars who produced podium finishes were Lewis (one second and three third-place showings to finish the year fourth), Miller (three runner-up efforts and two thirds to finish fifth overall), Leighton Reese, who drove his No. 66 Banner Engineering Pontiac Grand Prix to one runner-up and one third-place finish (ending the year seventh), Bob Ruman, one third-place showing in his No. 23 Cenweld Camaro (eighth overall) and G.J. Mennen, two third-place finishes at the wheel of the No. 4 Smith Eye Wear Mustang Cobra. "This has been a great year," said Miller. "I can't wait to come back next year and go for the Championship. We may have hurt our performance a bit this year by switching to the Corvette (from a Camaro), but that just puts us that much further ahead for next year. We know so much more about the Corvette now than we would have if we'd waited, and we can spend the winter refining that now, not just getting to know the car. This car is definitely fast -- it can win races." The presence of Randy Ruhlman (No. 49 Preformed Line Products Mustang Cobra), Lou Gigliotti (No. 28 LG Motorsport/G2 Performance Corvette) and Max Lagod (No. 83 HyperMax Camaro) were felt at nearly every race. Ruhlman finished the year sixth overall and scored 10 top-10 finishes and completed 604 out of 615 racing laps, topping all drivers. Gigliotti posted three top-10 finishes and at the Sebring finale scored his first career Fast Five start. Lagod competed in all but one race, scoring three top-10 finishes with three Fast Five starts. While the action at the front was hot, so too was the competition in "the pack," with Simon Gregg, Tomy Drissi, Steve Pelke, Tom Coleman, Jim Briody, Don Sak (who made his 100th start at Sebring), David Seuss and Frank Cioppettini slugging it out for position. There were also some notable one, two or three-offs in '99, including appearances by Dorsey Schroeder, Tony Ave, Stu Hayner, Boris Said and Butch Leitzinger, while Kerry Alexander, Craig Shafer, Peter Shea, Claudio Burtin, Jerry Simmons, Dick Greer and Glenn Andrew participated in select races, combining for eight top-10 and 26 top-20 finishes. The Red Line Oil Rookie of the Year battle was hotly contested in 1999, with Drissi, Mennen and Pelke emerging as the top contenders by mid-season. Mennen clearly had the most speed, qualifying in the Fast Five four times (in addition to his podium finishes), but he also suffered from four finishes out of the top-20. Drissi, however, was the model of consistency, posting just one finish out of the top-20, and scoring four top-10 efforts, including fifth at Vancouver. In the end it was Drissi topping the Red Line Oil Rookie of the Year standings by eight points, 163 to 155 over Mennen, with the top-four rookies (Drissi, Mennen, Pelke and Coleman) finishing the year 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th overall, respectively. In post-season accolades, the prestigious BBS Most Improved Driver of the Year award, presented to the driver who made the most dramatic improvement from '98 to '99, as voted by the Trans-Am Series drivers, went to Gregg, who improved 12 places overall in finishing the year ninth. The annual Crew of the Year award was presented to the crew of Reese -- Chief Joe Kantarik along with Brian Bernlauhr, Lee Brandt, Mike Hon, Jim Kidd, Terry Lewis, Gary Lubben, Dano Pazzuti, Mike Rappa and Dave Sittler. "This crew's dedication is awesome," said Reese. "After Grand Rapids the rear of the car was just destroyed. Three days later, with no sleep, we were in Vancouver, ready to race again -- that was an amazing feat of endurance." Also receiving recognition was the West Michigan Grand Prix, with Gordon Ensing, Director of Operations, presented a special BFGoodrich Tires Trans-Am Series Event of the Year award.