Race Preview: The CART Toyota Atlantic Championship returns to Cleveland for the fifth time in its history this weekend. The 2.106-mile temporary street circuit at the Burke Lakefront Airport has quickly become the venue for some of the most ...
Race Preview: The CART Toyota Atlantic Championship returns to Cleveland for the fifth time in its history this weekend. The 2.106-mile temporary street circuit at the Burke Lakefront Airport has quickly become the venue for some of the most exciting Atlantic racing action.
Good proof of this lies in the fact that no pole winner has ever continued on to win the race at Cleveland. The unique track layout that twists around the taxi ways and runways of the Burke Lakefront Airport presents plenty of room for drivers to race, yet passing is still difficult. Successful Atlantic drivers such as Alex Tagliani, Memo Gidley, Martin Basso, and Alex Gurney (Dorricott Racing/Behr Castrol Swift 014.a) have won poles at Cleveland, but could not cash them in on the race.
If that is not enough, then you only need to look at the final lap duel last year between 2001 CART Toyota Atlantic Champion, Hoover Orsi and 2001 Rookie of the Year, Joey Hand. As the track was drying out from a passing summer storm, the duo had everyone in attendance in thunderous applause as they passed each other twice on the final lap fighting for the checkered flag. Orsi would prevail in the end earning the Brazilian driver his second of five wins during the 2001 season.
As the 2002 season started, Hand and the local DSTP team had pin-pointed the Cleveland race on the schedule to finish off the win it lost to Orsi before. That plan was sidetracked this past May when Hand was injured in a testing accident at the Milwaukee Mile. Although Hand will be back to race this season, he won't be able to race this weekend in Cleveland. Enter 2000 CART Toyota Atlantic Champion and 2000 Cleveland race winner, Buddy Rice (DSTP Motorsports/BG Products Swift 014.a). Rice returned to the Chesterland, Ohio-based team to fill-in for Hand beginning at Portland in June. Although the results have not been what Rice or the team are accustomed to, they have been improving and are coming this weekend to a track that they have had success on before.
Cleveland is one of the few tracks that many of the drivers this weekend will be familiar with. Whether it be from the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship, the Barber Dodge Pro Series, or the CART Dayton Indy Lights Championship, many of the drivers have raced on the circuit before. In fact, of the top ten drivers in the Championship, Luis Diaz (Dorricott Racing/Telmex Swift 014.a) and Ryan Dalziel (Michael Shank Racing Swift 014.a) are the only ones new to the Cleveland circuit. Having won here in 2000, Rice knows what it takes to get around the Burke Lakefront Airport quickly.
"Cleveland is one of my favorite tracks because it is much more technical than most people think," commented Rice. "It's very high-speed and it's very bumpy. It's like running on a street course, but it's really fast. Most people think that because it's so wide, that there are a lot of lines and a lot of passing zones, but that's not true with an Atlantic car. For us it's difficult because we don't have the horsepower that the Champ Cars do. There's one fast line and there are really only two passing zones. It's also tricky because there are no reference points. It's very wide and you really have to focus on your line to keep your speed up, more so than anywhere. But, I love it. It's a great place to race."
Michael Valiante (Lynx Racing Swift 014.a) and Jon Fogarty (Dorricott Racing/Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards Swift 014.a) have swapped the Championship points lead twice this season. Valiante regained the lead for the second time this season after a wild Saturday afternoon race last weekend in Toronto; but the lead was reduced by five points by Atlantic Stewards following the race. Despite the deduction, Valiante enters Cleveland with the largest point lead of the season, but 14 points is not a comfortable margin for the Canadian driver. Fogarty stands in second place now with 75 points and behind him are seven drivers all within 17 points of his position.
Valiante has been the Championship's most steady driver claiming wins at Long Beach and Toronto and completed every lap this season while finishing each race in the top ten. On the other hand, Fogarty and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Hylton Motorsports/Medlock Ames Winery/Autobytel/U.S. Print Swift 014.a) have been quicker for the most part; but on track misfortune has sidetracked their efforts to lead the Championship. Fogarty won the season opening event in Monterrey, Mexico, along with winning poles at Chicago and Toronto. But a mechanical problem while running second at Laguna Seca and last week's spectacular collision with teammate, Luis Diaz, have dropped the California driver to second in the Championship. Fogarty has posted top-five showings in every race that he has been able to dodge the nails of lady luck. Hunter-Reay is third in the Championship and only two points behind Fogarty in second and like Fogarty, has been on both ends of the spectrum this season. Hunter-Reay won two races and two poles this season along with setting fastest race laps in three of this season's seven events to date; but incidents in Mexico and Long Beach along with a mechanical problem in Milwaukee while running off with the race have kept Boca Raton, Florida driver out of the points lead. He has recovered nicely though. After the season's first three events, Hunter-Reay was mired back in 20th with only three points. Four races later, Hunter-Reay finds himself only 16 points away from the Championship lead.
Hunter-Reay's teammate, Roger Yasukawa (Hylton Motorsports/Autobacs/U.S. Print Swift 014.a) and Fogarty's teammate, Alex Gurney (Dorricott Racing/Behr Castrol Swift 014.a) both hold 67 points in the Championship chase. Yasukawa, who did not compete in the season opening race in Mexico, is coming off his first DNF of the season last week in Toronto. But Yasukawa, who won at Milwaukee, raced in Cleveland last year in the Barber Dodge Pro Series, so he should be seeking his fourth podium finish of the season. Gurney won the 2000 pole in Cleveland while driving for All American Racers, but dropped out of the race early with a mechanical problem.
Jonathan Macri (P-1 Racing/NTN Bearings/Miller Genuine Draft/Battlefield Equipment Rentals Swift 014.a) is coming into Cleveland following last week's runner-up finish to Valiante at Toronto. The podium was Macri's third of the season and has put him up to sixth in the Championship with 63 points. The Gormley, Ontario, Canada native is the highest driver in points that competed in the Cleveland race last year in an Atlantic car and hopes to improve on his ninth place 2001 finish. Portland race winner, Luis Diaz from Mexico, is only three points behind Macri and is looking to recover from last week's contact incident in Toronto.
Perhaps the driver with the most to overcome this weekend in Cleveland will be Rocky Moran Jr. (Sigma Autosport Swift 014.a). Moments after the checkered flag flew in Toronto, the popular Coto de Caza, California driver stood third in the Championship within striking distance of Valiante for the points lead. A failed post race inspection of the Sigma Autosports car stripped Moran Jr. of all 14 points he earned in the race in addition to the $10,000 in purse winnings. Now Moran Jr. sits in eighth in the Championship with 59 points and along with his team, must regain their composure because they are still in the middle of the title fight.
Mexico's Rodolfo Lavin (Michael Shank Racing/Corona/Modelo Swift 014.a) is the final participant in the tight points for battle the Championship. Lavin sits ninth in the Championship with 58 points via steady runs. Along with Valiante, Lavin is the only driver to have completed every lap turned this season. The main difference between the two drivers is Lavin's only top-five finish came with his runner-up run at the Milwaukee Mile. However, the team is entering a part of the schedule that has some tracks they have had success on in the past. Martin Basso won the pole here last year for Michael Shank Racing along with another pole in 2000 at Road America and a podium last year at Trois-Rivieres. Also hoping to cash in is Ryan Dalziel (Michael Shank Racing Swift 014.a). Dalziel had a strong run last weekend in Toronto before succumbing to mechanical problems late in the race. Dalziel enters his first race in Cleveland 10th in the Championship with 44 points. Shank's third driver, Sepp Koster (Michael Shank Racing/Uitert/Respons Swift 014.a) is still trying to get his season on track. Things looked to be in the right direction last week in Toronto when Koster qualified third, his best of the season, but an early race contact incident with Waldemar Coronas (Scuadra Fortia/ Aviacsa/ Royse /Maizoro/Millenio Swift 014.a) eliminated the Netherlands driver along with Coronas.
Other drivers entering Cleveland coming off their best finishes of the season are: Nicolas Rondet (Condor Motorsports/Barber Dodge Career Enhancement Award Swift 008.a), David Wieringa (Sigma Autosport Swift 014.a), Carl Russo (Performance Development Racing Swift 014.a), and Kyle Krisiloff (21st Century Technology/U.S. Grand Prix/Patrick Racing Swift 014.a) who made his Atlantic debut last week in Toronto.
Jon Fogarty leads Ryan Hunter-Reay in the Rookie of the Year standings 75-71.
Michael Valiante and Rodolfo Lavin have completed all 301 laps run this season. Moran Jr has run 300.
Ryan Hunter-Reay has led the most laps. (128) 98 of those on the two oval tracks at Milwaukee and Chicago.
Luis Diaz has led the most laps on road courses. (40) Alex Gurney is the only driver to lead a lap that has not won a race this season.
Seven Atlantic races have produced five different winners. All of them were career first wins.
Fogarty, Hunter-Reay, and Diaz have won 2 poles each. Joey Hand won the other.