St. Pete: Season opener preview

Trans-Am Series returns to the streets at St. Petersburg. ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. ^Ë The thundering roar of V-8 racing engines will reverberate off Tampa Bay for the first time in five years as the Trans-Am Series for the BFGoodrich Tires Cup ...

Trans-Am Series returns to the streets at St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. ^Ë The thundering roar of V-8 racing engines will reverberate off Tampa Bay for the first time in five years as the Trans-Am Series for the BFGoodrich Tires Cup returns during the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend Feb. 21-23.

While the scenic 1.78-mile, 14-turn downtown street course may be new, the Trans-Am Series has been a regular visitor to the Tampa Bay area. In fact, the Series raced in St. Petersburg eight times between 1985 and 1997.

No driver has more of a love affair with St. Petersburg than two-time Trans-Am Series champion Scott Pruett.

This year, Pruett, who won the last Trans-Am Series race at St. Petersburg in 1997, returns to his Trans-Am roots, driving a Jaguar XKR for Rocketsports Racing. Pruett's last full season of Trans-Am Series competition was in 1994. His most recent road racing appearances include class victories at the 2002 Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 2001 24 Hours of Le Mans. Pruett also competed full time in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2000.

"It's kind of cliche, saying it's going to be a lot of fun because there's always so much work to do, but at the end of the day, even though it's intense, the Trans-Am Series is just so much fun," said Pruett. "I want to continue where I left off here^Ëwith a victory.

"I love the area," added Pruett. "When you talk about street races, they're always a success. They're always good races and St. Pete has always been one of my favorites."

Rocketports Racing team owner and three-time champion Paul Gentilozzi has some unfinished business here, himself. Gentilozzi finished 22nd in his first race here in 1987. In 1997, Gentilozzi finished third after leading 27 laps before Tommy Kendall took the point and eventual victory after Gentilozzi's late-race spin.

However, Pruett and Gentilozzi will have some fierce competition, as ever-present road racer and 2002 Trans-Am Series champion Boris Said returns to defend his title. Said dominated the Series last year, winning a record eight of 12 races en route to the championship, his first in professional road racing. "This will be a great race weekend," said Said. "The course layout is beautiful and there's no better way to start the season. I walked the course and the people at Dover Motorsports have done a great job of paving the course. It looks really smooth."

Other notable drivers will also be in contention, including Johnny Miller, Tomy Drissi, Stu Hayner, Randy Ruhlman and Michael Lewis. Second-generation driver Bobby Sak, as well as Paul Menard, Jorge Diaz, Jr., and 2000 Valvoline Runoffs and President's Cup winner John Baucom are also drivers to watch.

Yet, the circuit isn't just new to the competitors, but also to spec tire supplier and presenting Series sponsor BFGoodrich Tires.

BFGoodrich Tire Designer Gary Blalock is charged with ensuring the g-Force racing radials arrive at the track on time and advising competitors on which of the two compounds to use on the new street circuit.

"I'll walk the track personally," said Blalock. "I essentially grade the track in terms of severity. I'll look at the micro and macro texture of the tarmac. We'll get to know the corners, in terms of deceleration into and acceleration out of the corners. No race track is uniform in its texture. Normally there are a myriad of different surfaces.

"We have two compounds^Ëa medium and a hard^Ëplus a full wet," added Blalock. "I bring six different part numbers to the track. Front and rear mediums are a 200 compound. Front and rear hard have a 75 compound. Front and rear wet are treaded tires with a different compound."

Blalock also revealed the company would bring 640 tires for the weekend.

The race is scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 23 at approximately 4 p.m. and will be aired on a same-day, tape-delayed basis at 5:30 p.m. on SPEED Channel.

The Trans-Am Series for the BFGoodrich Tires Cup features closed-fendered, production-based, V-8-powered sports cars. The Trans-Am Series is America's oldest continuously running sports car racing series and celebrates its 38th anniversary in 2003.

St. Pete Snapshots: n Eight different winners. The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg has never had a repeat winner. Previous winners are: Tommy Kendall (1997), Ron Fellows (1996), Chris Kneifel (1990), Irv Hoerr (1989), Walter Roehrl (1988), Scott Pruett (1987), Pete Halsmer (1986) and Willy T. Ribbs (1985). Pruett is the only one entered in Sunday's race.

n Tommy Kendall leads Paul Gentilozzi by one race in career street-course victories with 14. Interestingly, Kendall's 1997 victory in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg came after Gentilozzi's late-race spin after leading 27 laps.

n Gentilozzi leads active drivers in victories with 24, and is first in top-three, top-five and top-10 finishes. He also ranks first in "Fast-Five" starts, laps led, fastest race laps, lead-lap finishes and total winnings. n The late Mark Donohue has the most victories (29) in the history of the Trans-Am Series, ahead of Kendall, with 26. Gentilozzi is third in all-time victories. Bob Tullius, with 21, and the late Peter Gregg, with 20, complete the top five.

n BFGoodrich Tires, presenting sponsor of the Trans-Am Series, is bringing 640 g-Force Radial racing tires to St. Petersburg in two dry compounds -- medium and hard -- and one full-wet compound.

The Trans-Am Series rules stipulate drivers must race on the same tires they use for qualifying.

2002 BBS Most Improved Driver Randy Ruhlman and his wife, Cristi, celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary Thursday. Cristi also handles public relations and marketing responsibilities for Ruhlman.

When is a new race an old race? Although this weekend's race marks a inaugural for the Champ Car World Series, the Trans-Am Series has raced in St. Petersburg eight times between 1986 and 1997. However, this year's 1.78-mile street course around Bayfront Center is brand new. The Series previously raced on a course around Tropicana Field.

Trans-Am Series drivers Johnny Miller, Stu Hayner, Randy Ruhlman, Scott Pruett, Bobby Sak and Tomy Drissi plan to visit All Children's Hospital on the invitation of Ye Mystic Krewe, a service organization whose members dress up like 17th century mariners.

Bill Bentley of Longwood, Fla., who drives the No. 46 Chevrolet Camaro, hopes to fulfill his dream of running full time in the Trans-Am Series. Bentley, who owns an architecture and engineering firm, competed in several GT-1 races last season, and finished fourth in an SCCA national event at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International.

-scca pro racing/transam-

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Series Trans-Am
Drivers Chris Kneifel , Boris Said , Ron Fellows , Scott Pruett , Pete Halsmer , Tomy Drissi , Paul Gentilozzi , Johnny Miller , Randy Ruhlman , Michael Lewis , Bobby Sak , Willy T. Ribbs , John Baucom , Paul Menard , Bill Bentley , Stu Hayner , Bob Tullius , Peter Gregg , Mark Donohue , Tommy Kendall , Jorge Diaz