CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach begins domestic season for FedEx Championship Series

DETROIT (April 3, 2001) - The FedEx Championship Series launched its 2001 schedule in spectacular fashion last month with an inaugural event in Monterrey, Mexico that drew 116,000 fans on race day and 318,000 over the four-day weekend. Now, the...

DETROIT (April 3, 2001) - The FedEx Championship Series launched its 2001 schedule in spectacular fashion last month with an inaugural event in Monterrey, Mexico that drew 116,000 fans on race day and 318,000 over the four-day weekend.

Now, the series returns to the United States for one of its traditional crown jewels, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (4 p.m. ET Sunday, live, ABC-TV). Round Two of the championship is scheduled for 82 laps on the 1.968-mile temporary street circuit located on the streets of downtown Long Beach, Calif., marking CART's 18th appearance at the venue since 1984.

While its annual visit to Long Beach has become one of CART's great institutions, the series arrives with a bit of a new look as Cristiano da Matta of Newman/Haas Racing sits atop the drivers' championship for the first time in his three-year career. Da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota Lola), the 1998 Dayton Indy Lights champion, assumed the top spot by virtue of his victory at Monterrey in his debut with the Newman/Haas team.

Da Matta, who spent his first two Champ Car seasons with PPI Motorsports, stepped into the Newman/Haas seat vacated by Michael Andretti when Andretti joined Team Motorola at the start of this season.

While da Matta, who owns 21 points (20 for win, 1 for most laps led), is new to the championship lead, his nearest rivals are anything but and each has enjoyed success on the streets of Long Beach. Coming off a runner-up finish in Mexico, defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske stands second with 16 points. He is also a three-time and defending pole-sitter at Long Beach (1996, '97, 2000). He owns the track qualifying record of 104.969 miles per hour, established last year.

Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard), the defending Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach champion, finished third in the season opener and thus stands third in the championship with 14 points. He claimed his first career FedEx Championship Series victory at Long Beach in 1993 and earned the pole in 1994. His victory from the 17th starting position last year represented the second-deepest position on the grid from which anyone has driven to victory in a CART road- or street-course event.

Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard) holds down fourth place in the championship with 12 points after finishing fourth at Mexico in his Team Motorola debut. Andretti, who announced last week that he would be competing in this year's Indianapolis 500 for the first time since 1995, is CART's all-time victory leader (40), one of which came at Long Beach in 1986. He also owns nine top-10 finishes and three pole positions (1991, '92 and '95) in 16 career starts at the venue.

Other former Long Beach winners on this weekend's entry list include a pair of drivers who parlayed triumphs at Long Beach into FedEx Championship Series championships during their tenure at Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing won at Long Beach during his series championship-winning campaign of 1996 while Alex Zanardi (Pioneer/WorldCom Honda Reynard) of Mo Nunn Racing, captured back-to-back Long Beach victories in 1997 and '98 en route to series titles in both those seasons.

In five of the past seven FedEx Championship Series seasons, the winner at Long Beach has gone on to claim the championship. In addition to Vasser and Zanardi, the feat was accomplished by Al Unser Jr. in 1994 and Juan Montoya in 1999.

All current FedEx Championship Series entries compete on Firestone tires, the Official Tire of CART.

Following the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the FedEx Championship Series makes its first-ever visit to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth for Round 3, the inaugural Texas 600, the weekend of April 27-29.

WHO'S HOT

* Cristiano da Matta (Texaco/Havoline/Kmart Toyota Lola) of Newman/Haas Racing leads the FedEx Championship Series drivers' championship for the first time in his three-year career following his March 11 victory in the season-opening Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix Presented by Herdez at Monterrey, Mexico. In his first-ever start with the Newman/Haas team, Da Matta led a race-high 32 of 78 laps, including the final 18, en route to a 1.982-second victory over defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran (Marlboro Honda Reynard) of Marlboro Team Penske. Da Matta heads to Long Beach with a series-high 21 points, five more than second-place de Ferran.

* Gil de Ferran has finished on the podium in four of his past six FedEx Championship Series starts and among the top five in seven of his past 10, dating to a third-place effort at Chicago Motor Speedway last July. The run also includes runner-up finishes at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca last year and Monterrey this year, and third-place finishes at Houston and California Speedway last year. De Ferran also qualified third for the season opener at Monterrey last month, the 17th time in his past 21 starts that he has qualified among the top five drivers, dating to the pole he won for last year's season opener at Homestead.

* Jimmy Vasser (Patrick Racing Toyota Reynard) of Patrick Racing has scored championship points in seven of his past eight FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a fifth-place finish at Road America last year. The run also includes a victory last year at Houston. Vasser finished sixth in the season opener at Mexico in his Patrick Racing debut.

* Kenny Brack (Shell Ford Lola) of Team Rahal owns top-five finishes in six of his past 10 FedEx Championship Series starts, beginning with a fourth-place performance at Chicago last season. Also included are finishes of second at Australia, third at Road America and fifth at Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca, all last year; and fifth in this year's season opener at Mexico, an event in which Brack captured his first career FedEx Championship Series pole position.

* Helio Castroneves (Marlboro Honda Reynard) finished eighth at Mexico, his sixth consecutive scoring performance and eighth in his past nine FedEx Championship Series starts, dating to a victory at Mid-Ohio last year. Also included is a victory at Laguna Seca last year.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK

* Michael Andretti (Motorola Honda Reynard) of Team Motorola owns nine-top 10 finishes among his 16 career appearances on the streets of Long Beach, including a victory in 1986. He also owns pole positions in 1991-92 and '95, and has led a combined 126 laps at Long Beach in his career, including 47 en route to his 1986 victory and 13 last year.

* Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard), the defending Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach champion, has recorded two victories at the venue, the other one coming in 1993 when he became the first graduate of the Dayton Indy Lights championship to win a FedEx Championship Series event. His victory last year from the 17th starting position represented the second-deepest position on the grid from which anyone has driven to victory in a CART road- or street-course event. Tracy, an 11-year veteran of the FedEx Championship Series, made his first CART career start at Long Beach in 1991.

* Alex Zanardi (Pioneer/WorldCom Honda Reynard) has won two of three career starts on the streets of Long Beach, in 1997 and '98. He led a race-high 41 laps in 1997 and two in 1998. He also qualified on the outside pole in 1996 and '97.

* Jimmy Vasser owns six top-10 finishes in nine career starts at Long Beach, including a victory in 1996. He finished seventh in 1992, ninth in '97, eighth in '98, 10th in '99 and third last year.

* Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) has scored championship points in three of four career appearances at Long Beach, highlighted by back-to-back runner-up finishes in 1998 and '99. He began the run with a 12th-place finish in 1997.

* Defending FedEx Championship Series champion Gil de Ferran has won three pole positions in six career starts at Long Beach (1996, '97, 2000). His pole last year established the track qualifying record of 104.969 miles per hour (1 minute, 7.494 seconds). He led race-high totals of 100 and 51 laps in 1996 and '98, respectively.

MANUFACTURING SUCCESS

* Honda-powered drivers have won the past five FedEx Championship Series events contested at Long Beach, getting victories from Jimmy Vasser (1996), Alex Zanardi (1997, '98), Juan Montoya (1999) and Paul Tracy (2000). Honda also owns four of the past five poles at Long Beach. Three of them came from Gil de Ferran (1996 '97, 2000) and the other from Tony Kanaan (1999).

MILESTONES

* By starting the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Jimmy Vasser will take sole possession of 10th place on the CART career starts list, with 149. Vasser tied the late Scott Brayton at 148 career starts when he started the March 11 Tecate Telmex Monterrey Grand Prix Presented by Herdez in Monterrey, Mexico.

NOTEWORTHY

* Nazareth Speedway last week announced a unique way of commemorating the April 9, 2000 snowstorm that forced postponement of Round 2 of the 2000 FedEx Championship Series. If at least one inch of snow is recorded at Nazareth's Lehigh Valley International Airport on Monday, April 9, the track will distribute one free ticket for Round 4 of the FedEx Championship Series, the May 6 Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, to every fan who calls or visits the Speedway on Tuesday, April 10. "This year, we want it to snow on April 9," said Nazareth Speedway president Craig Rust. "The old saying that 'Christmas only comes once a year' will hopefully be proven wromg. Maybe we can give a late present to our fans by giving a way a lot of tickets to the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix Presented by Toyota." ASU International insurance company is working with Nazareth Speedway as part of the promotion. Following last year's postponement, the race was rescheduled for May 27and the event became historic when Gil de Ferran of Marlboro Team Penske captured the 100th Champ Car victory in the annals of Team Penske. Penske went on to claim the team's record-eighth FedEx Championship Series championship.

ON THE AIR

* Qualifying for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will air 2 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2. CART 2Day airs 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ESPN2, while ABC-TV's live race broadcast begins 4 p.m. ET. Twenty of 21 FedEx Championship Series events are being televised live on ABC-TV or ESPN, and 18 will be televised live on Eurosport, a European network which reaches 250 million viewers in 54 countries. Sunday's race will also air on the Armed Forces Radio Network, the CART Radio Network and on CART's official website, at www.cart.com .

-CART-

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Series IndyCar
Teams Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing