Lee Has High Hopes for a Great Season in Champ Car Atlantic SYOSSET, N.Y., March 31 - With 570 laps of pre-season testing behind him, Matt Lee is now looking forward to the real test: the opener of the 2007 Champ Car Atlantic season this coming...
Lee Has High Hopes for a Great Season in Champ Car Atlantic
SYOSSET, N.Y., March 31 - With 570 laps of pre-season testing behind him, Matt Lee is now looking forward to the real test: the opener of the 2007 Champ Car Atlantic season this coming Sunday, April 8, on the temporary, 2.4-mile street course in Las Vegas as part of the Vegas Grand Prix Fueled by VISA.
The 17-year-old rising star from Syosset, N.Y. is part of the Indianapolis-based Conquest Racing team this year. He is a rookie in the 12-race series, formally called the 2007 Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda. The series has produced many stellar racers in the last 34 years, including Jacques Villeneuve, Bobby Rahal, Michael Andretti and Jimmy Vasser.
If the series name is a mouthful, Lee's goal for the year isn't. Although he's one of the youngest drivers in a very competitive series, he wants to finish in the top five in the final point standings and win at least one race in his rookie season. It will be a tall order. More than 30 cars are expected on the starting grid at the season opener in Las Vegas, which would mark the largest field for a series race in over eight years.
Lee knows all about what it takes to run for a title. He finished second in the Formula BMW championship last year, collecting just six fewer points than the titlist in the closest points battle in that series' history.
Now Lee is stepping up to Atlantics and gunning for that series' Rookie of the Year award. He'll drive the yellow No. 44, which has gunmetal gray stripes. Italian Giacomo Ricci will be his teammate at Conquest Racing, which is owned by former Indy Lights champion Eric Bachelart. It has competed in the Champ Car World Series for the last five years and it will be entering its second year in the Atlantic series. The team helped Graham Rahal finish second in the 2006 Atlantic championship.
Lee participated in all three of the series' pre-season open tests, which were all held on permanent road courses. He was ninth of 26 drivers at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla. in January, just 0.343 of a second off the fastest driver at the test, Raphael Matos. He was eighth of 26 competitors at MSR Houston in Angleton, Texas in February, just 0.809 off the fastest lap, which was logged by James Hinchcliff. He was 14th of 28 at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif., in March, but he was still just 1.332 seconds off the fastest time there, set by Franck Perera.
What did he learn?
"I learned a lot about the car and the set-ups," Lee said "I learned about what the car feels like with a full fuel load and how it feels as the fuel load decreases. I learned things I can do to try to manage my tire wear, and how far I can push the car. I also did my best to get the max out of the aero."
Did anything surprise him about the Swift chassis the Atlantic series uses?
"I didn't realize that an Atlantic car corners as fast or faster than a Champ car," Lee said.
Masterminding his set-ups is engineer Steve Erickson, who works closely with team owner Bachelart and team manager Steve Ragan. Hopefully his new teammate, Ricci, will help Lee too.
"I really like him; he's a nice kid, and it's nice to have a teammate who is more experienced than I am," Lee noted. "Hopefully he can teach me something."
Ricci won the Italian and European F3000 championships last year running with Formula 1 driver Giancarlo Fisichella's team.
"It should be a good year; the Atlantic series is very well organized," Lee added. "The team has been working their butts off, and we'll just try our best."
Lee has never raced at eight of the 10 circuits the Atlantic series will compete on in 2007.
"All except San Jose and Road America will be new to me, but I'm a fast learner, so I'm not worried about that," Lee said. "The first three races are all in April, so one-quarter of the season will be over in three weeks. I wish there was more time to test because I don't think we're as prepared as we could be, but the first three races are on street courses and in general I really like the street circuits."
One of Lee's three Formula BMW victories last year came on the street course at Denver. He also did very well on the street circuit at San Jose, Calif., which the Atlantic series will race on in July. "For some reason I've always felt comfortable on street circuits," Lee said.
Bachelart is optimistic. "He's a real racer, and I'm confident that he will be competitive and in the top group of drivers at the first race of the season," his team owner said.
Practice and qualifying are slated for Friday on Vegas' street circuit. Another morning practice session and final qualifying are on tap for Saturday before the series gets the green flag for its first standing start of 2007 at 4 p.m. PT Sunday.
All of the Atlantic races are scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN2.
In addition to being a race car driver, Lee is a senior at Syosset High School in Syosset, N.Y. He also volunteers his time as a national spokesperson for The Think First Foundation, a not-for-profit group that strives to prevent brain and spinal cord injuries by promoting safety and the wearing of protective devices such as seat belts and helmets by the public.