CHAMPCAR/CART: Cleveland: Round nine preview

Inaugural Cleveland night race to shine bright lights on ever-tightening CART Champ Car World Series points race INDIANAPOLIS (July 1, 2003) -- It is only fitting that the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford heads ...

Inaugural Cleveland night race to shine bright lights on ever-tightening CART Champ Car World Series points race

INDIANAPOLIS (July 1, 2003) -- It is only fitting that the Bridgestone Presents The Champ Car World Series Powered by Ford heads to the home of rock-and-roll this weekend since the 2003 series points race has definitely been 'All Shook Up' over the last few events.

The CART Champ Car World Series will head to Cleveland's wide-open Burke Lakefront Airport this weekend for the U.S. Bank Presents The Cleveland Grand Prix as it has 21 times in the past, but this time will see something that no driver has ever before encountered -- a 2.106-mile temporary road course that will be lit from start to finish by Musco Lighting towers.

It will be the second night race in the last four series events, but will be the first of its kind in open-wheel racing in the United States. Many sportscar tracks that run endurance events have light towers in a few corners, but this weekend's U.S. Bank Presents The Cleveland Grand Prix will see the entire circuit bathed in the same Musco Lighting that debuted to rave reviews at the Milwaukee Mile on May 31.

But the novelty of a Cleveland night race is not the only reason for excitement heading into the weekend. The top three drivers in the championship are separated by only nine points while the fourth through eighth spots in the championship are divided by less than 20 markers as the CART Champ Car World Series hits the halfway point of the season.

The championship lead changed hands again last weekend as Paul Tracy (#3 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) used a second-place finish at Portland to vault into the top spot after eight races while Adrian Fernandez (#51 Tecate/ Quaker State/Telmex Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) became the fourth consecutive driver to win his first race of the season as he claimed the G.I. Joe's 200.

Tracy won the pole at Portland and overcame what can only be termed an eventful outing to finish second on the day, leapfrogging Bruno Junqueira (#1 PacifiCare Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) and Michel Jourdain Jr. (#9 Gigante Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) to reclaim the series lead after eight races. Tracy will look to protect his lead on a Cleveland track where he has had a bit of success in his career. He took the pole and won his second-ever CART Champ Car race in the 1993 Cleveland event and has earned two other podium finishes, including last year when he climbed from 11th to place third.

The Cleveland track is fabled among the drivers in the series for its wide straights and ample passing opportunities, which allows drivers to make their way to the front from well back in the pack if necessary. Dario Franchitti showed what could be done in climbing from 14th on the grid to win the 2001 event, Alex Zanardi came from a lap down to win in 1998 and the current roster is full of guys that have made huge climbs through the field. Jimmy Vasser (#12 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) went from 24th to fifth in 2001, Fernandez battled from 17th to fifth in 1998, Roberto Moreno (#4 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) ended in 2001 race in eighth after gridding 25th and Dale Coyne's new pilot Gualter Salles (#19 Alpina Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) climbed 13 spots in his 1999 visit.

But for every driver that makes a power rush through the field, the physical track -- which includes the diabolical first turn that funnels a five-wide rush into a tricky hairpin -- claims more than its share of victims.. Last year saw four cars tangle in the chaotic first turn including Vasser and Mario Dominguez (#55 Herdez Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) resulting in Dominguez being forced to retire after two laps.

Patrick Carpentier (#32 Player's/Indeck Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) not only made it through the first turn last season, he made it through every other turn on his 115 laps to earn his second career CART Champ Car victory. Carpentier, who already has one victory to his credit this season and is fourth in the title hunt, will be looking to join Zanardi as the only repeat winner in 21 seasons of racing at Cleveland.

Carpentier has usually had success at Cleveland -- with five points-paying finishes in six trips -- but the two drivers ahead of him in the championship chase have not been as fortunate. Junqueira has gone scoreless in his two previous visits while Jourdain had never done better than 18th in his first five North Coast events before placing ninth last season.

A pair of drivers a bit further back in the standings will be hoping to reprise past glories in order to jump-start their second-half runs. Moreno earned his first-ever CART Champ Car victory in 2000 when he rolled from the pole while Vasser has a pair of poles to his credit, including a 1998 polewinning time that still stands as the track record. Vasser's teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay (#31 American Spirit Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) will be taking his first Cleveland tours in a Champ Car this weekend but has success of his own to fall back on as he won from the pole in the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship last season. Hunter-Reay was in line for one of his best weekends of the year in Portland, setting a new career qualifying standard by starting seventh, but a clutch problem ended a promising race day after only 21 laps.

Other drivers will be banking not so much on past Cleveland successes as they will on strong 2003 runs. Oriol Servia (#20 Visteon/Patrick Racing Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) has strung together the best streak of his CART Champ Car career and has climbed to sixth place in the points. His run up the ladder has been fueled by five consecutive top-six finishes, including a fifth-place effort last weekend at Portland.

Alex Tagliani (#33 Johnson Controls Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone) has a Cleveland top-five finish on his racing resume, but is coming off a Portland run that saw him give his rookie Rocketsports Racing squad its second podium of the year. Tagliani climbed back into the top 10 in the title hunt with the third-place finish and could move into the top five if he chooses this weekend to claim his first career victory.

The chase for the Vanderbilt Cup is not the only one that has tightened up considerably over the last few weeks as the Rookie-of-the-Year battle has seen a pair of drivers close to within a dozen points of frontrunner Sebastien Bourdais (#2 Lilly Ford-Cosworth/Lola/Bridgestone). Back on the beam after mechanical trouble ended his day early in Monterey, Darren Manning (#15 RAC/Walker Racing Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) finished sixth in Portland and moved to within 11 points of Bourdais while the ever-consistent Mario Haberfeld (#34 Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing Ford-Cosworth/Reynard/Bridgestone) is 12 points back after an eighth-place run in Portland. Haberfeld leads all rookies in road-course points and one of only three drivers (Jourdain, Carpentier) to have completed at least 1,000 laps this year. Bourdais however is the only rookie to win a race this year and is the only one of the top-three rookies to lead laps this season.

Many of the future stars of the series will be on display for the Cleveland fans as the Champ Car Ladder System will take to the track as well in the form of the CART Toyota Atlantic Championship and the Barber Dodge Pro Series. The Ladder System cars will give Cleveland fans a full day of racing action on Saturday at the BDPS event kicks off the day's action with a race at 3:15 p.m. while the Atlantic Championship will begin at 5:30.

The U.S. Bank Presents The Cleveland Grand Prix will take place on Saturday night July 5, and will be broadcast by CBS Sports Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m.


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Mario Haberfeld , Gualter Salles , Jimmy Vasser , Bruno Junqueira , Adrian Fernandez , Roberto Moreno , Patrick Carpentier , Alex Tagliani , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Oriol Servia , Mario Dominguez , Ryan Hunter-Reay , Sébastien Bourdais , Dale Coyne , Michel Jourdain
Teams Conquest Racing