CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach GP Preview

WILL 25TH ANNIVERSARY TOYOTA GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH PREDICT ANOTHER FedEx CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES CHAMPION? DETROIT (April 14, 1999) - To be sure, it's the Southern California sun, the setting and the star power which combine to make ...


DETROIT (April 14, 1999) - To be sure, it's the Southern California sun, the setting and the star power which combine to make the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach one of the premier motorsports events in the world. But beyond that, especially of late, the event has served as an accurate early-season barometer of which driver will conclude the year as FedEx Championship Series champion.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach celebrates its 25th anniversary this weekend, as the FedEx Championship Series returns to North America following last weekend's sojourn to Japan. After featuring the cars and drivers of Formula One early in its history, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will showcase the Champ Cars of the FedEx Championship Series for the 16th time in Sunday's third round of the championship (4 p.m. ET, live, ABC-TV).

In six of those 16 years, including an impressive run of four of the past five, the driver who has won at Long Beach has gone on to win the FedEx Championship Series title. The recent run includes victories by Al Unser Jr. in 1994, Jimmy Vasser in '96 and Alex Zanardi in '97 and '98. Others who have accomplished the Long Beach/series championship double include Mario Andretti in 1984 and Unser Jr. in 1990.

Unser Jr.'s six Long Beach victories are tops among FedEx Championship Series drivers at any active venue. But the "King of the Beach" will not have the opportunity to add to that total this weekend, as he continues his recovery from a broken right ankle sustained in the season opener at Homestead. He'll be replaced once again by rookie Tarso Marques (Marlboro Mercedes Penske), who made his FedEx Championship Series career debut with a 14th-place finish in last Saturday's Firestone Firehawk 500 at Motegi, Japan.

That race was won for the second time in as many years by Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Ford Reynard), whose victory propelled him into fourth place in the championship with 21 points. Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Mercedes Reynard), winner at Homestead, leads with 34 points and is followed by Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Ford Swift) with 26 and Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Honda Reynard) with 25.

With Unser Jr. sidelined, the field for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will include three former winners of the event. In addition to Andretti and Vasser, Paul Tracy (KOOL Honda Reynard) sports a Long Beach victory on his resume, having driven to victory there in 1994. Following its extended two-week road trip, the FedEx Championship Series continues with the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, April 30-May 2 at Nazareth (Pa.) Speedway.

Following an uncharacteristic 22nd place finish in Japan, Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) looks forward to a return to competition on temporary street circuits. He has finished second or better in each of the past three FedEx Championship Series events contested on temporary street circuits, including victories at Vancouver and Houston and a runner-up performance at Australia last year. Franchitti has also recorded podium finishes at five of the past seven street-circuit venues, beginning with last year's runner-up effort at Long Beach. He has qualified on the front row for each of the past five street-circuit events, including poles at Toronto, Vancouver and Australia and outside poles at Houston and Cleveland last year. Of his 243 laps led in 1998, 189 came on temporary street circuits.

On the strength of a victory at Homestead and a spectacular fourth-place finish at Japan, Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Mercedes Reynard) holds the FedEx Championship Series points lead earlier than he has at any time in his career. Moore assumed the championship lead for the first time in his career after finishing third at Nazareth last year and held it until Alex Zanardi's victory at Gateway a month later. Moore maintained the points lead as a result of his breathtaking save of his car following a spin with three laps remaining at Japan last week. Despite the spin, which came while Moore was running second, he was able to keep the car from making contact with any barriers or competitors and bring it home in fourth place under caution. The 12 points he earned for that finish allow him to maintain the championship lead heading into this weekend.

Christian Fittipaldi (Big Kmart Ford Swift) has recorded six podium finishes in his 63-start FedEx Championship Series career and half of them have come in the past eight events. Fittipaldi took third at Road America and Australia last year and recorded his first podium effort of this season when he finished third last week at Japan. Fittipaldi's other podium finishes have been second at Indianapolis in 1995 and Detroit in '96, and third at Vancouver in '96.

Led by a runner-up effort by Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Honda Reynard) and a third-place finish by Fittipaldi, five of the top-10 finishers at Japan were native Brazilians. Tony Kanaan (McDonald's Championship Racing Team Honda Reynard) was sixth, Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) seventh and Helio Castro-Neves (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Mercedes Lola) ninth.

Title sponsor Toyota should have raised expectations this weekend after impressive efforts at Japan by the Toyota-powered trio of Robby Gordon (Johns Manville/Panasonic/Menards Toyota Reynard), Richie Hearn (Budweiser Toyota Swift) and Scott Pruett (Pioneer/MCI WorldCom Toyota Reynard). Gordon finished eighth and Hearn 10th, marking the second time in the past four events that two Toyota-powered drivers have posted points-paying finishes in the same event. Also, Pruett led two laps, marking only the second time that a Toyota driver has led a FedEx Championship Series race.

Al Unser Jr.'s incredible record of six Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach victories notwithstanding, one of the event's more dominant drivers of late has been Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Honda Reynard). The only thing missing in de Ferran's recent dominance is a victory. He has qualified fifth or better in all four of his Long Beach career appearances, including pole positions in 1996 and '97. In '96, he led 100 of 105 laps and appeared a lock for the victory, only to be disappointed when an exhaust hose disconnected from the turbocharger with a handful of laps remaining. He repeated his pole-winning effort in '97 and led 26 laps, but an accident while he was running second ended his day. Last year, de Ferran qualified fifth and overcame an early flat tire to hold the lead with 14 laps remaining only to be forced out with transmission woes. All told, de Ferran has led 177, or 56.2 percent, of the past 315 laps contested at Long Beach.

Courtesy of Dario Franchitti (KOOL Honda Reynard) and two-time series champion Alex Zanardi, Honda-powered drivers have won seven FedEx Championship Series events in a row on temporary street circuits, dating to the start of the 1998 season. Zanardi owns five of those victories (Long Beach, Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Australia) and Franchitti the other two (Vancouver, Houston).

The victory by Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Patrick Racing Ford Reynard) at Japan allowed Firestone to extend its FedEx Championship Series winning streak to 20 events. Fernandez also began the streak with his victory at Japan last year. In addition, Firestone has won 31 of the past 32 events, dating to Greg Moore's (Player's/Indeck Mercedes Reynard) 1997 victory at Milwaukee.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will air live on ABC-TV at 4 p.m. ET Sunday. Qualifying will air 1 a.m. ET Saturday/early Sunday on ESPN2. CART 2Day airs 12:30 p.m. ET Sunday, also on ESPN2.

Source: CART Online

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Robby Gordon , Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Adrian Fernandez , Tarso Marques , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Mauricio Gugelmin , Scott Pruett , Richie Hearn , Mario Andretti , Al Unser Sr. , Greg Moore