Laguna Seca Report

BENTHAM CLINCHES TITLE WITH ONE RACE LEFT, LAZZARO RECORDS SECOND VICTORY OF SEASON AT LAGUNA SECA MONTEREY Calif., Sept. 12, 1998 - Anthony Lazzaro, of Acworth, Ga., drove a nearly flawless race Saturday at Laguna Seca,...


MONTEREY Calif., Sept. 12, 1998 - Anthony Lazzaro, of Acworth, Ga., drove a nearly flawless race Saturday at Laguna Seca, passing race leader Lee Bentham at the top of the famed 'corkscrew' turn at Laguna Seca to position himself for the victory, but it was Bentham's second-place finish that stole the show. Bentham, the affable Player's-Forsythe driver from Richmond Hill, Ont., clinched the 1998 KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Drivers' Championship at Round 12 of the 13-race Silver Anniversary season.

After Lynx Racing's Memo Gidley, Bentham's closest competitor in the standings heading into the contest, pulled out of the race at about the halfway point of the 28-lap race, Bentham needed a 22-point cushion over Andrew Bordin by race's end to secure his first Atlantic drivers' title. Bordin's seventh-place finish brought him to within 22 points, but a tie-breaker earned Bentham the championship with a race left.

"This is fantastic! With this championship, I can assure you that I'm going for bigger and better things," said Bentham, who finished second in the championship to Patrick Carpentier in 1996. "I knew Anthony was quick in the corkscrew. You want to be smart when you're in this position. I would've looked pretty dumb not finishing this race. Race craft is almost always the key to a championship. Being champion hasn't really sunk in yet, but I'm proud and happy for the team and especially for my sponsor, Player's."

Bentham, who became the seventh Canadian driver to win the coveted Atlantic Championship, earned an additional $25,000 by clinching the title: $10,000 for the "KOOL Series Cup Award" and a $15,000 bonus for being the "KOOL Racing Challenge Winner." Last week, Bentham won the Player's Challenge championship at Vancouver, which included a $10,000 bonus. His race winnings, not including the bonuses, already total $111,000 heading into the finale. With these bonuses, Bentham's earnings total over $145,000.

Lazzaro, who started fourth but appeared to be the fastest car in the last half of the race, said he knew Bentham's tenuous position in the championship could benefit Lazzaro and his MCI/PPI team. Lazzaro's pass for first merited him with the $1,000 "KOOL Move of the Race" and the $1,000 "Yokohama Now You've Got Control Award."

"I knew that when Memo went out, Lee didn't necessarily have to win the race. I knew his championship was more important than my win," said Lazzaro, who earlier won at Road America this year. "So, I was surprised when I tried to make a pass and Lee held me off the first time. But at the corkscrew, I got by him and there was nothing he could do at that point. It's good to come from fourth and win and to pass everybody to get to that point. I just can't thank MCI enough and my team. I've got a great team. I love my guys."

Kenny Wilden, of Burlington, Ont., kept pace with the leaders throughout the race, but some mechanical ailments kept him from seriously threatening for the victory. Wilden's third-place finish was his fourth podium finish in last seven races.

"It was a pretty good race up until the yellow flag (from laps 10-16)," said Wilden, who drives the Mike Shank Racing-TrizecHahn/Newcourt Swift. "We picked up a big push in the car and I didn't have a very hard brake pedal, so we struggled for the rest of the race. I just couldn't keep up with Anthony or Lee. But overall, finishing third makes me very happy."

Gidley made it interesting in the championship until lap 17, when suspension problems ended his run for the title. He finished 22nd, and fell to third in the championship with 123 points. Bentham's title-clinching 149 points heads the field, with Bordin's 127 points moving the Woodbridge, Ont., driver into second place.

Alex Tagliani, Bentham's teammate, drove an inspired race, starting ninth and finishing fourth, after troubles in Friday's qualifying. Tagliani recorded the fastest race lap at 1:20.097, taking the $1,000 "MCI Fast Pace Award." Lynx Racing's Buddy Rice started third, fell to ninth, then went on to finish fifth for this seventh top-five finish, earning the $1,000 "KOOL Rookie Challenge" honor. Italian Rino Mastronardi, driving the Condor Motorsports-LionShare Marketing Swift, started sixth, ran as high as fourth from laps seven through 24, and eventually finished sixth.

Bordin, in the B.D.J.S.-Millennium Data Services Swift, started 16th and could have kept his championship hopes alive heading into the final race by finishing sixth or better. After moving up nine positions, Bordin ran out of steam and finished seventh. Nicolas Rondet made his Atlantic debut in the World Speed Motorsports - H.B.C. Swift, and was impressive, running as high as fourth on the 10th lap before sliding off course, ending his day.

ESPN2 will televise Saturday's Round 12 at Laguna Seca on Sunday, Sept. 20, at 5 p.m., with repeat broadcasts onTuesday, Sept. 22, at 3 a.m., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, at 5 a.m., on Saturday, Sept. 26, at 5 a.m., and on Monday, Nov. 30, at 5 a.m. ESPN International will telecast the race on Sunday, Sept. 20, at 5 p.m. CTV will air it in Canada on Saturday, Sept. 19, at 4 p.m., while French Canadian network RDS will broadcast the race on Thursday, Sept. 17, at 7:30 p.m. All times are Eastern.

The final round of the 13-race, 25th anniversary season for the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship will be held Sunday, Oct. 4, at the Texaco Grand Prix of Houston.

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Series Atlantic
Drivers Memo Gidley , Patrick Carpentier , Alex Tagliani , Anthony Lazzaro , Buddy Rice , Andrew Bordin , Lee Bentham