ATLANTIC: Nazareth Preview




NAZARETH, Pa. (April 23) - - With two races completed in this year's KOOL/TOYOTA Atlantic Championship, the one common denominator that's dominating the championship hunt can be described in one word - "parity." Keeping this in mind, when round three of the 12-race KOOL/TOYOTA Atlantic Championship unfolds at Nazareth Speedway (Pa.) on Saturday, April 26, any one of six drivers could ride to the top of the leader board while many more could throw themselves back into the "title wave." The 60-lap/60-mile sprint around Nazareths one-mile (1.61-km) tri-oval is scheduled to take the green flag at 4:15 p.m. ET and will set the stage for the featured PPG CART World Series Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix the following afternoon. Atop the KOOL/TOYOTA Atlantic driver standings with 36 points is Anthony Lazzaro, of Acworth, Ga. Lazzaro won the season opener at Homestead Motorsports Complex on March 1, and reinforced his lead at Long Beach with a second-place showing. Being the series leader entering Nazareth doesnt come as a surprise to series followers, but his path to becoming a bonafide Atlantic championship contender has been anything but typical. Lazzaro burst onto the Atlantic scene last year following impressive back-to-back championship runs in the Hooter's FF2000 series (1994-95). The affable former go-kart champion finished 6th overall in the Atlantic championship on a budget that was best described as "austere." However, his season shocking win in round four at Milwaukee, and consistent post-Milwaukee top-10 finishes propelled him into the higher echelon of Atlantic competitors, despite only being able to finance 10 races of the 12-race season. Lazzaro's success attracted team owners and sponsors, but he finally decided to join forces with Phillips Motorsports for 1997 with sponsorship from long-time supporter BG Products, of Wichita, Kan., and new sponsor Platinum Sound of Phoenix, Ariz. After finishing eighth place at Homestead, surprise Long Beach race winner Alexander Tagliani, of Lachenaie, Que., has quietly leaped onto Lazzaro's tail. The victory, which was worth 20 points, affirmed what many insiders have thought for awhile. If Tagliani could attached himself to a quality team, then he would likely become an Atlantic tiger. He found the right chemistry in the Players Forsythe Racing Team and, in turn, the team has obviously attached itself to a rising star. Tagliani's strength has been his tact at negotiating through race traffic and challenging for the victory. With 29 points, Tagliani is looking for Nazareth to be the elixir he's been seeking. Rookie driver Memo Gidley, of San Rafael, Calif., hasn't surprised anyone with his ability to race with the front-runners. Gidley, 27, stepped into the shoes of 1996 Atlantic champion Patrick Carpentier and immediately paid a handsome dividend with a second-place finish at Homestead in his first career Atlantic race. His racing past is loaded with podium moxie which includes bicycles, motorcycles and karts, as well as the USAC Russell Championship Series, Shelby Pro Series, Formula Ford 2000 and Barber Dodge Pro Series. Gidley is alone in third place with 25 points. First-year Atlantic driver Joao Barbosa, of Valongo, Portugal, is somewhat of a surprise after the first two races primarily because he is in fourth place with 24 points, and because he arrived in North America without European fanfare. Barbosa is coming to Nazareth riding the momentum of consecutive fourth-place finishes and the knowledge that a checkered flag cant be too far away. A review of his background, however, supports the thought that an Atlantic podium in the near future is more likely than not. Barbosa comes from an extensive karting background where he won his first race in 1987 in the Portuguese National Kart Championship Youth Category. The two-time Portuguese National Kart Championship Junior Category (1989-90) winner and 1989 Portugal Kart Cup Junior champion began open-wheel formula car racing in 1993, where he finished third place in the Portuguese Formula Ford Championship. He proceeded to win the 1994 Portuguese National Formula Ford Championship and the 1995 Italian Formula Europa Boxer National Championship. Long Beach polesitter and Homestead third-place finisher Case Montgomery, of Salinas, Calif., is sixth in the points chase with 21. Montgomery, who finished sixth place at Nazareth last year, led the most race laps at Homestead (31 of 50) and is looking to rebound off a disappointing 10th-place finish at Long Beach. Montgomery finished fourth in last year's Atlantic championship with 129 points, and is the highest finishing returning Atlantic veteran in 1997. The former Jim Russell Racing School instructor scored 10 top-10 finishes in 1996 including his victory at Long Beach and runner-up honors at Milwaukee, Toronto, and Laguna Seca. Montgomery is driving under the Sandy Dells Racing banner in the Microsoft/Wall Data Ralt RT-41. His Sandy Dells Racing teammate of last year, David Cutler, of Medina, Wash., will also be in contention this weekend. 1996 U.S. Formula Ford 2000 National Champion Steve Knapp, of Salem, Wis., is coming off a fifth-place finish at Long Beach where he moved into seventh place with 21 points. Knapp is driving under the guidance of veteran Atlantic team owner Bill Fickling and P-1 Racing. Knapp was a four-time race winner in the 1996 U.S. Formula Ford National Championship with victories at Richmond (Va.), Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio, and Las Vegas. A trio of second-year Atlantic drivers are poised to move back into championship form. Tony Ave, of Indianapolis, Ind., is off to a slow start but far from being out of contention. The 1996 Homestead race winner is looking to win at Nazareth in the No. 25 Olsson Engineering prepared-Ralt RT-41. Jeret Schroeder, of Vineland, N.J., has joined the newly formed Precision Preparation Inc.'s (PPI) MCI Atlantic Team, of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Schroeder finished fifth place in last years Atlantic championship with 77 points. His best finishes in 1996 were second-place showings at Montreal and Mid-Ohio, and third place at Laguna Seca. Schroeder is teamed with Redondo Beach's Leo Parente. Chuck West, of Sonoma, Calif., only ran a six-race schedule in 1996 but five top-10 finishes including three podium stops were enough to convince him to take it full time in 1997. West has never raced at Nazareth but his track prowess was enough to win the pole at Homestead this year, and finish sixth place at Long Beach. He has also expanded his World Speed Motorsports program to include a second car for rookie driver Mark Tague, of Laguna Hills, Calif. Other drivers expect to make a difference at Nazareth among the 31-car entry list include current eight-place holder with 14 points Eric Lang, of New York City; Bertrand Godin, of St. Hyacinthe, Que.; Alex Barron, of Vista, Calif.; Michael David, of Corona, Calif.; Sergei Szortyka (pronounced SURJ zor TEE kuh), of Sinking Spring, Pa.; and last years Nazareth polesitter Stuart Crow, of Dallas, Texas. ESPN2 will broadcast round three of the 12-race KOOL/TOYOTA Atlantic Championship on Saturday, May 3, from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. ET (1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. PT).

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Series Atlantic
Drivers Memo Gidley , Jeret Schroeder , Patrick Carpentier , Tony Ave , Alex Barron , Steve Knapp , Joao Barbosa , David Cutler , Bertrand Godin , Sergei Szortyka , Eric Lang