Long Beach preview




LONG BEACH, Calif. (April 7) - - Can early season success pay career rewarding dividends for Atlantic driver Anthony Lazzaro, of Acworth, Ga.? If so, the fabled seaside street circuit through downtown Long Beach, Calif., may offer a hint as to what is ahead in the 1997 KOOL/Toyota Atlantic Championship. West coast racing fans will get their first glimpse in 1997 of North America's richest and longest running open-wheel development series when the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach hosts round two of the 12-race KOOL/TOYOTA Atlantic Championship on Saturday, April 12. The 38-lap/60.38-mile Atlantic sprint around the 1.59-mile, eight-turn temporary street circuit is scheduled to begin at 3:45 p.m. (PDT), and is a prelude to the featured Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach PPG CART World Series race which is set to drop its green flag the following afternoon. Lazzaro has already taken a bite into the championship cake by virtue of his season opening victory at Homestead Motorsports Complex on March 1. It was a victory that reinforced the talent and persistence of one of Atlantics most intriguing characters in 1996. 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. Lazzaro's triumph at Homestead has propelled him to the top of the Atlantic leader board with 20 points, but Homestead third-place finisher Case Montgomery, of Salinas, Calif., should also be considered a pre-race favorite at Long Beach. Montgomery is the defending Long Beach Atlantic pole sitter and race winner. He also led the most race laps at Homestead (31 of 50), but trails Lazzaro by five points, 20-15. Montgomery is a former "SoCal" native who used to live in Long Beach and Moreno Valley. He 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 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. New to the Atlantic mix at Long Beach is Lynx Racings Memo Gidley, of San Rafael, Calif., and former karting and FF2000 standout Alex Barron, of Vista, Calif. Gidley, 27, steps into the shoes of 1996 Atlantic series champion Patrick Carpentier. His racing experience includes bicycles, motorcycles and karts, as well as the USAC Russell Championship Series, Shelby Pro Series, Formula Ford 2000 and Barber Dodge Pro Series. His second-place finish at Homestead in his first career Atlantic race showed his potential as a championship contender. The 26-year-old Barron was signed in December to drive the teams second Atlantic car. Barron has been a regional, state and national karting champion since 1985 and ran FF2000 in 1996 where he finished in the top 10 six times in a series that routinely starts 40 or more cars. 1996 U.S. Formula Ford 2000 National Champion Steve Knapp, of Salem, Wis., makes his Long Beach Atlantic debut 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. The most anticipated moment to date this season was the return of Tony Ave to professional racing at Homestead. Neither pain, nor fractures, nor fear of failure could keep Ave away from racing. The veteran Trans-Am driver and 1996 Homestead Atlantic winner from Indianapolis, Ind., was injured in a crash during the SCCA June Sprints at Road America (Wis.) on June 23, 1996, and suffered injuries that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. In fact, there was quiet speculation that his injuries could be career threatening or worse. For Ave, however, the thought of never racing again was never an issue. Ave is back and looking to win at Long Beach in the No. 25 Olsson Engineering prepared-Ralt RT-41. Jeret Schroeder, of Vineland, N.J., returns for his second year of Atlantic competition with the newly formed Precision Preparation Inc.'s (PPI) MCI Atlantic Team, of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. Schroeder finished fifth place in last year's 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 Beachs Leo Parente. Corona, Calif.-native Michael David is in his second season of full-time Atlantic duties in the PDR Enterprises-prepared Ralt RT-41. David displayed flashes of front running qualities last year when he finished in fifth-place at Long Beach. Portuguese driver Joao Barbosa was the surprise of the field at Homestead when he qualified sixth and finished fourth place. Barbosa is fourth in the point standings with 12. The Players Forsythe Racing Team is showcasing French Canadian drivers Bertrand Godin, of St. Hyacinthe, Que., and Alexandre Tagliani, of Lachenaie, Que. Godin, who finished fifth at Homestead, ran part-time in Indy Lights in 1996 with stops at Toronto, Trois-Rivieres, Vancouver, and Laguna Seca. Tagliani finished seventh place in the 1996 Atlantic championship behind seven top-10 finishes and a season best third-place at Trois-Rivieres II. He finished eighth in this years season opener at Homestead 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, who made his Atlantic debut at Long Beach last year and finished third, won the pole at Homestead this year. He has also expanded his World Speed Motorsports program to include a second car for rookie driver Mark Tague, of Laguna Hills. Joe Sposato, of Arcadia, Calif., will make history at Long Beach as he will be competing in his 100th career Atlantic race. Sposato's first Atlantic race was in July, 1975, at Mosport Park, Ontario, Canada, in the Player's Challenge Series. Long Beach promises to be one of the largest Atlantic fields of the season with 44 cars entered. Other contenders expected at Long Beach include Eric Lang, of New York City; Bill Auberlen, of Redondo Beach, Calif.; Charles Nearburg, of Dallas, Texas; Cam Binder, of Calgary, Alta.; Ian Bland, of Brisbane, Australia; Ted Sahley, of Cleveland, Ohio; and David Pook, of Long Beach, Calif. Among Long Beach entrants making their first Atlantic appearance in 1997 are Frank Allers, of Coquitlam, B.C.; John Brooks of Tucson, Ariz.; Bill Pratt, of Northridge, Calif.; Buddy Brundo, of Hollywood, Calif.; Marcelo Gaffoglio, of Fountain Valley, Calif.; and Bob Siska, of San Francisco. ESPN2 will broadcast round two of the 12-race Atlantic championship on Saturday, April 19, from 1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. EDT (10:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. PDT).

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Series Atlantic
Drivers Memo Gidley , Jeret Schroeder , Bill Auberlen , Alex Barron , Anthony Lazzaro , Steve Knapp , Joao Barbosa , David Cutler , Bob Siska , Bertrand Godin , Eric Lang