Lynx Racing drivers David Rutledge, Michael Valiante and Sara Senske each experienced trial and tribulation in the streets of Vancouver at last weekend's Molson Indy Vancouver, but for two of the three there was redemption -- of a sort, ...
Lynx Racing drivers David Rutledge, Michael Valiante and Sara Senske each experienced trial and tribulation in the streets of Vancouver at last weekend's Molson Indy Vancouver, but for two of the three there was redemption -- of a sort, anyway.
David Rutledge (who has won three races from the pole this season) went to his home-town race trailing arch-rival Hoover Orsi by 47 points in the battle for the CART Toyota Atlantic championship. With three races left (Vancouver, Houston and Laguna Seca) and a maximum of 22 points available at each race (20 for winning, one for the pole and one for leading the most laps), there was at least a mathematical chance of his staying in the title fight until the end. All he had to do was finish ahead of Orsi. On the other hand, if Orsi finished ahead, it was all over.
Michael Valiante, in his fifth race for the team (he has finished in the top-10 every time, including a podium at Montreal), struggled until literally the last minute to come up with sponsorship that would allow him to run. A consortium of long-time sponsors, new local sponsors, friends and family (as well as former Lynx driver Mike Conte) all chipped in until he was close enough for the team to bridge the gap with its own funds and confirm to the media that he would indeed be driving in the Molson Indy Vancouver.
And the media was yet another major element of the story. The team knew that, with two drivers from Vancouver, there would be a media frenzy the likes of which it hadn't seen since Patrick Carpentier's championship season. And so it was. Beginning two weeks before the race there were stories in the papers and on TV, and during race week itself, the drivers found themselves on national TV or radio several times a day, and there were major front-page features in the newspapers. Media exposure in a young driver's career is like water to a flower, but beyond a certain point it also sets up expectations and a not-so-subtle 'cultural pressure,' becoming a test of character and mental stamina. But, hungry for the sort of exposure that can make a career, both Rutledge and Valiante blossomed under the attention.
On track, however, it was a more complicated story. Rutledge and Valiante qualified third and fourth (behind pole-sitter Orsi and eventual winner Joey Hand), but Valiante's car was faster on cold tires and was able to slip past Rutledge on the opening lap. The top four cars then pulled away from the rest of the field and ran virtually nose to tail for the first half of the race. Hand continued to pressure Orsi, who's car began to fade, allowing Hand to slip pass and Valiante make a decisive pass. When Rutledge attempted to make the same maneuver, Orsi blatantly turned into Rutldge's car, causing front-end damage and forcing him into the pits so the crew could fit a new nose.
Rutledge was able to re-join the race and finished ninth, as well as turning the fastest lap of the race with a car that was still damaged despite the repairs. After the race was over, the Lynx team protested the results and the series judges, after viewing videotaped replays of the event, stripped Orsi of the points he scored in the race. This did Rutledge little good beyond personal satisfaction, since Orsi was allowed to keep the championship.
"Coming into Vancouver I knew it was a long shot to keep our title hopes alive, but I hate to see Orsi win it that way," said Rutledge. "They took away his points, but they didn't give me any of the points I would have scored if I'd been able to get by him, and so he wins the championship. Even the Brazilian ESPN TV guys came over to me and apologized for what happened. But that's all in the past, and in the bigger scheme of things a championship is only a bonus anyway. What I'm at Lynx for is the education, which is first-rate, and to prove that I can run at the front and win, which three wins from the pole should demonstrate pretty clearly. We have several days of testing coming up, and I'm going to focus on that and on winning the final two races."
It should be noted that, of all the currently active CART drivers who graduated from Atlantic, only Patrick Carpentier (also a Lynx driver) won the Atlantic championship. Memo Gidley won three races in his final Atlantic season, and the most recent Canadian to move up to CART from Atlantic -- Alex Tagliani, now driving for Player's/Forsythe as teammate to Carpentier -- won just two races and finished fourth in the championship.
"Memo Gidley is my role model right now," says Rutledge. "His determination to get into CART, and the stylish and determined way he did it are my guide for the future."
Valiante, about whom the media made much of his sponsor hunt and last-minute confirmation of a ride, had the kind of race Rutledge would have wished to have, making an aggressive and successful move on the points leader and closing quickly on the race leader in the final laps.
"If that race had been three laps longer, we would have won," says Valiante. "Twice I got held up by traffic that cost me a couple of seconds each time, and that made all the difference. But, considering how late all this came together, it was a good result and will hopefully do me some good in terms of getting a ride for next season. The Lynx team has taught me so much in these five races that, with a full testing schedule leading up to next season, I definitely think we could be championship contenders."
Sara Senske, meanwhile, experienced a moment of glory two months ago at the Target Grand Prix of Chicago when she became the first woman to start from the front row and finish on the podium in a CART-sanctioned series (the Barber Dodge Pro Series). Since then, however, she has struggled with a series of mechanical problems with the car, interspersed with instances of contact with other drivers. And Vancouver was no different, where she qualified 12th and finished 13th after being involved in a turn one incident and running the remainder of the race with a damaged rear wing.
"It's starting to remind me of that old country-western song lyric 'If it weren't for bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all," mused Senske. "Still, every race adds to my education as a driver, and every moment of adversity builds my determination to come back stronger next time. My goal is to race at the top levels of the sport, including the Indy 500, and the experience I'm gaining as a Lynx driver is absolutely invaluable in getting me where I want to go."
Vancouver was the final Atlantic race for Valiante this season, although the team hopes to have him attend the final two races in an advisory capacity. Rutledge has two races left in the season, during which he will have Jason LaPoint as a teammate. LaPoint, an international karting champion who is currently second in the points in the US F2000 championship, has run one race for the Lynx team, at Road America where qualified third and battled a suspension malfunction to bring the car home in seventh in his first-ever Atlantic race. LaPoint, with sponsorship from Infinity Racing, Regency Aviation and Trackmagic Karts, will compete in the final two events as he also tries out for the Lynx ride in 2002. Sara Senske's final Barber Dodge Pro Series race of the 2001 season is at Laguna Seca also.