Toronto: Round seven preview

SECOND HALF OF 2006 CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC SEASON BEGINS WITH STREET SHOWDOWN AT THE MOLSON GRAND PRIX OF TORONTO INDIANAPOLIS (July 5, 2006) -- With a high-speed peak at the burgeoning talent on display in the training ground for the...

SECOND HALF OF 2006 CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC SEASON BEGINS WITH STREET SHOWDOWN AT THE MOLSON GRAND PRIX OF TORONTO

INDIANAPOLIS (July 5, 2006) -- With a high-speed peak at the burgeoning talent on display in the training ground for the next generation of open-wheel greats, the first half of the 2006 Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda season has been both enlightening and enthralling.

No less than 10 drivers have earned spots on the podium over the first six rounds of racing as one of the most competitive Atlantic fields in the 33-year history of the series engaged each other on track over the first half of the '06 campaign. Impressive youthful speed and an extremely close battle for the Atlantic title and the $2 million champion's Champ Car bonus have also developed, whetting the appetite for an explosive stretch run in the series.

The second half of the season begins in earnest this weekend with what's expected to be a knock-down, drag-out street fight. The Molson Grand Prix of Toronto (tape-delayed telecast on SPEED at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 15), held this Friday-Sunday at Exhibition Place, represents the 16th race for the cars of the Atlantic Championship in the vibrant Canadian city. Joining popular events in Edmonton (July 23) and Montreal (August 27) this weekend's race also signifies the first jewel on the Canadian triple crown with the series' first trip North of the Border this season.

With a mere 12 points separating the top three series title contenders and just 57 markers covering the top 10 drivers in the championship, there will be much at stake and little room for error this weekend at the tight 1.755-mile street course.

Teen racer Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) enters Toronto as not just the hottest driver in the series; arguably he's riding one of the top hot streaks in all of racing. The personable 17-year-old son of former Champ Car champ Bobby Rahal has won three races and two pole positions in his last four Atlantic starts. He also captured the pole and finished second in the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One support race last weekend. Rahal, who rose to third in the series title chase, just 12 points out of the lead following his doubleheader sweep in Cleveland two weeks ago, will make his first series start at Toronto on Sunday for Mi-Jack Conquest Racing.

Even with Rahal's impressive recent run, Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Layer 7/Wirth Solar) has maintained the series point lead from the very first round of competition. The Forsythe Championship Racing driver has been a top-three stalwart, recording podium results in four of the first six races this season, including two wins. Despite suffering the worst result of his two-year series career last round in Cleveland, Wirth is still on top and he brings the experience of a third-place finish last season at Toronto into this weekend's action.

The driver sitting in between Wirth and Rahal in the series standings has quite possibly been the most consistent performer in 2006. French first-year racer Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) has finished among the top five in all but one race this season. He won his first series pole at Cleveland in Round 6 and he leads a tremendously talented crop in the Atlantic Rookie of the Year pursuit. Preparing to make his first start at Toronto, Pagenaud will also be looking to make up his nine-point deficit to Wirth in the championship chase.

While much of the pressure to perform in Toronto will be on the three frontrunners in the standings, the hometown boy will also carry high expectations along with some national pride and historical significance. James Hinchcliffe (#3 Emexis/INDECK) of the Forsythe team is a native of Toronto and he makes his first start in front of his friends and family on his home track this weekend. "Hinch" produced his first Atlantic win earlier this season in Portland and he enters Round 7 ranked fifth in the championship. He would like nothing more than to extend a couple of impressive Canadian streaks at Exhibition Place. A Canadian driver has finished on the podium in all 15 previous Atlantic races in Toronto and either a Canadian or an American has won each year that the series has raced at the venue. Can Hinch help keep those stats in tact? The answer will come on Sunday.

American Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Dynacor) could also factor in the equation. Bomarito has one Atlantic start at Toronto under his belt and sitting fourth in the championship with three top-four results to his credit, he's demonstrated a knack for finishing strong in '06. Bomarito also hopes to have his PR1 Motorsports running mate back in the fold this weekend. Canada's Mike Forest (#32 Miracle Sealants/The Spirit of Edmonton) injured his back at Long Beach in Round 1 and has been recuperating for the last several weeks. Pending medical clearance, Forest looks to return to action in front of his home country fans in Toronto.

Last season in Toronto, Mexico's David Martinez (#4 Mexico/US Racetronics) narrowly missed his first Atlantic victory. He led 10 laps before being passed for the lead late and settling for a second-place finish. He also owns another podium result at Toronto, in the 2003 Barber Dodge Pro Series race, and the driver that's currently ranked seventh in the championship wants to put those positive experiences to good use this weekend. Leonardo Maia (#7 Layer 7/INDECK) also has a couple of prior starts at Toronto on his resume. Maia, the only driver to finish among the top 10 in every race this season, hopes to keep the streak alive and then some in his third time racing at the venue.

After showing flashes of brilliance in both of his 2005 street-racing starts, 18-year-old American Alan Sciuto (#12 Sealy/PKV Racing/The RoomStore of Phoenix) is anxious for his first experience racing in Toronto. Currently sixth in points after five top-10 finishes to start the year, Sciuto will be looking for his first podium of the season on Sunday. His Polestar Racing Group teammate, Alex Barron (#21 The RoomStore of Phoenix) will try to summon the success from his last Atlantic race at the venue. Barron won the '97 Toronto pole before finishing sixth and claiming the series crown.

Rising Brazilian stars Danilo Dirani (#1 Canary Fund/Funcional Card/Sala Design/Perkons) of Condor Motorsports and Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) of Sierra Sierra Enterprises will make their Toronto Atlantic debuts this weekend. Ranked ninth and 10th respectively in the series season rundown, both talented Atlantic rookies will be trying to gain some ground in the tough points race in Round 7. Promising American rookies Joe D'Agostino (#34 Newman Wachs Racing) and Robbie Pecorari (#28 Western Union/USA Today/Gelles Racing) have been coming on of late and both drivers hope to continue to stay hot in their first racing experience on the Toronto streets.

Two drivers coming off their first podium efforts in the series will make their Toronto racing debuts as well on Sunday. Forsythe Racing's 16-year-old rookie Richard Philippe (#33 INDECK/Layer 7) scored a second-place finish behind Rahal at Cleveland in Round 6 while MSR Houston Team Jensen's Steve Ott (#22 MSR Houston) was just a step behind in third place. Both drivers hope to build on that momentum this weekend. British racers Ryan Lewis (#30 Insport) of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing and Tim Bridgman (#2 Epson) of Epson Team Jensen also showed good speed in Cleveland and will look carry that over to their first Toronto starts in an Atlantic machine.

California's Justin Sofio (#26 Mathiasen Motorsports/RLM Investments) scored a seventh-place overall finish in 2005 at Toronto and he's aiming even higher this season while Transnet Racing's Alex Garcia (#16 Dixien OmniSource) will be making his third series start at Toronto. Beginning to hit their stride after joining Brooks Associates Racing after the first quarter of the season, rookies Carlos Mastretta (#8 Tecnoidea/Radiante Digital/Signotech) and Alex Sperafico (#10 Mnyx.com/Sperafico Agroindustrial) will both see their first Atlantic action at Exhibition Place. Mastretta earned a sixth-place result at Cleveland in Round 5 while Sperafico has raced at Toronto in Champ Car, scoring his career-best result of eighth place last season at the venue. Team Australia's James Davison (#5 Team Australia/Aussie Vineyards), New Zealand's Daniel Gaunt (#35 Newman Wachs Racing) and American Duncan Ende (#55 Speedway Motors/Days Inn/Spinnakers) of Bite Racing will also see their first Toronto Atlantic action this weekend.

Following a flawless re-introduction of standing starts to Atlantic competition at Cleveland -- the first stationary launches in the series since 1998 -- the popular starting format will once again be in effect to begin Sunday's race. All Atlantic cars racing at Toronto will feature newly-designed Swift 016.a chassis powered by 300-horsepower Mazda-Cosworth MZR engines capable of speeds in excess of 175 mph. Each entry will ride on Yokohama ADVAN Racing Slicks. The weekend schedule has the series practicing for the first time on Friday morning from 9:10-9:55 a.m. Eastern Time. The first round of qualifying will take place from 1:15-1:45 p.m. Friday. The Atlantics return to the track for practice from 9:40-10:10 a.m. Saturday morning while the final round of qualifying will be held from 1:15-1:45 p.m. Saturday. The Mazda-Cosworth engines roar to life on Sunday morning with a 15-minute warm-up practice from 8-8:15 a.m. before Round 7 gets the green flag at 10 a.m. Sunday. The Molson Grand Prix of Toronto Atlantic race is scheduled for 38 laps (66.69 miles) or 50 minutes.

SPEED will provide tape-delayed television coverage of the Toronto Atlantic race on Saturday, July 15 at 3 p.m. ET. The race will also air to U.S. service men and women in over 130 countries around the world through the American Forces Radio & Television Service. For additional information, and to view this season's races on demand, visit the official web site of North America's premier open-wheel development series, www.champcaratlantic.com.

FAST FACTS

WHAT: The Molson Grand Prix of Toronto Atlantic Race

WHERE: Exhibition Place -- Toronto, Ontario, Canada

WHEN: Friday-Sunday, July 7-9

CHAMP CAR ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP SCHEDULE (All times local): FRIDAY, JULY 7 -- 9:10-9:55 a.m., Practice; 1:15-1:45 p.m., First-Round Qualifying. SATURDAY, JULY 8 -- 9:40-10:10 a.m., Practice; 1:15-1:45 p.m., Final-Round Qualifying. SUNDAY, JULY 9 -- 8-8:15 a.m., Warm-up, 10-11 a.m.., Atlantic Race.

U.S. TELEVISION SCHEDULE: SATURDAY, JULY 15 -- SPEED, The Molson Grand Prix of Toronto Atlantic Race, 3 p.m. ET. Re-broadcast: Wednesday, July 19 at 3 p.m. on SPEED.

2006 TORONTO CHAMPION: Antoine Bessette
2005 TORONTO POLESITTER: Charles Zwolsman

TRACK LAYOUT:  1.755-mile temporary street course

RACE LENGTH: 38 laps (66.69 miles) or 50 minutes

TRACK RECORDS: Qualifying (one lap) -- 2003, AJ Allmendinger, 1:04.920 (97.320 mph). Race -- (one lap) 2003, AJ Allmendinger, 1:05.829 (95.976 mph); (35 laps) 2003, AJ Allmendinger , 40:43.450 (90.499 mph).

RACE ROUND: 7 of 12 in the 2006 Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda

NEXT EVENT: July 21-23, West Edmonton Mall Grand Prix Presented by The Brick, City Centre Airport -- Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

INSTANT REPLAY: Canada's Antoine Bessette earned his first series victory when he captured the checkered flag in dramatic fashion at Toronto last season. Dutchman Charles Zwolsman started from the pole at Exhibition Place and, after fighting off second-place starter David Martinez early, he looked ready to cruise to victory. But Zwolsman ran into problems and lost the lead on Lap 23. Struggling with engine issues that would eventually force him out the race, Zwolsman surrendered the point to Martinez with 12 laps remaining. Martinez began to fight some understeer on his car after taking over the lead, but he continued to hold off Bessette, who was running second. After Tonis Kasmemets came out of pit lane following some quick repairs to his machine, however, Bessette found the break he was looking for. Martinez slowed as Kasemets re-entered the track and Bessette zoomed by. Leading the final two laps of the race, Bessette beat Martinez to the stripe by just 1.281 seconds. The win kept alive a couple of impressive streaks as a Canadian finished on the podium for the 15th consecutive time in Toronto Atlantic race history and either a Canadian or American driver has won all 15 series races at the venue. Andreas Wirth came home third for his fifth consecutive podium result. While Zwolsman retained the series points lead, despite his first DNF of the season, Bessette improved to third in the championship with the win. The St. Bruno, Quebec native would go on to finish fourth in the series standings, adding another victory in his homeland at Montreal.

-atlantic

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Series Atlantic
Drivers Bobby Rahal , Graham Rahal , Alex Barron , Leonardo Maia , Alex Garcia , David Martinez , Alex Sperafico , Jonathan Bomarito , Antoine Bessette , Charles Zwolsman , Robbie Pecorari , Danilo Dirani , Ryan Lewis , Justin Sofio , Andreas Wirth , James Davison , Richard Philippe , Simon Pagenaud , Alan Sciuto , Duncan Ende , James Hinchcliffe , Daniel Gaunt , Carlos Mastretta , Mike Forest , Steve Ott
Teams Conquest Racing