CHAMPCAR/CART: Long Beach Preview

(April 1, 1998) -- Fresh from a successful debut in Japan, the FedEx Championship Series executes a quick turnaround this weekend in its return to North American soil for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the streets of Long...

(April 1, 1998) -- Fresh from a successful debut in Japan, the FedEx Championship Series executes a quick turnaround this weekend in its return to North American soil for Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the streets of Long Beach, Calif. With the help of series title sponsor Federal Express, the cars and equipment have been transported from Saturday's Budweiser 500 at Twin Ring Motegi, Japan, to California for Round 3 of 19 in this year's FedEx Championship Series. In addition to his season-long defense of the PPG Cup championship, Alex Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) will defend his Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach title in Sunday's 105-lap, 166.530-mile Toyota Grand Prix, which takes the green flag at 4 p.m. ET (live, ESPN). Zanardi drove to a 3.820-second victory over Mauricio Gugelmin at Long Beach last season, his first of five wins en route to the championship. To repeat against such a competitive field, however, Zanardi will need more good fortune than he encountered at Motegi, where he completed only 118 of 201 laps before retiring due to contact with the Turn 2 wall. His subsequent 23rd-place finish ended a streak of nine consecutive PPG Cup points-paying finishes, including four victories, dating to Portland last year. While fate was not particularly kind to Zanardi in Japan, several omens began to fall into place for other drivers as they head to Long Beach. Adrian Fernandez (Tecate/Quaker State/Labatt Reynard Ford), scored the second victory of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996 at Motegi, and in the process, took the PPG Cup lead for the first time in his career with 29 points. Gil de Ferran (Valvoline/Cummins Special Reynard Honda) continued a spectacular run of eight podium finishes in his past 14 starts with a third at Motegi, and the signs point to further success this weekend. De Ferran is the two-time defending pole-sitter at Long Beach and owns the track qualifying record at 111.313 mph. The omens are strongest, however, for veteran Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes), who is quite rightfully called "The King of Long Beach." Six of Unser Jr.'s 31 career victories have come on Long Beach asphalt. No other current driver has won as often at a given venue, and Unser Jr. has supported those six wins with five other top-four performances in his other eight Long Beach career starts. Moreover, Unser Jr. arrives off a runnerup effort at Motegi, his best finish since taking second at Milwaukee in 1996. He is fifth in the PPG Cup race, his highest standing since finishing fourth in the 1996 championship. Greg Moore (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) finished fourth at Motegi, a strong complement to his runnerup performance in the season opener at Homestead. He and Fernandez are currently tied in the PPG Cup race with 29 points each, but Fernandez holds the upper hand based on best finish to this point. Zanardi and Unser Jr. are two of five former Long Beach champions on this weekend's entry list. Michael Andretti (Kmart/Texaco/Havoline Swift Ford), the 1986 winner at Long Beach and winner of the FedEx Championship Series season opener at Homestead, might have arrived this weekend on a two-race winning streak had he not run out of fuel while in the lead last week at Motegi. He is third in the championship with 21 points. Paul Tracy (KOOL Reynard Honda) won at Long Beach in 1993 and has qualified among the top four in four of his six career starts there, including a pole in '94. He finished fifth at Motegi, his best showing since fourth at Michigan last year. Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda), the 1996 Long Beach champion, picked up his fifth career pole position at Motegi when qualifying was rained out and the starting grid was formed based on best practice times. He led 44 laps and finished seventh. The teammates of Tracy and Unser Jr. come into Long Beach with encouraging performances at Twin Ring Motegi as well. Dario Franchitti (KOOL Reynard Honda) complemented Tracy's effort with a career-best finish of eighth for Team KOOL Green while Andre Ribeiro (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) scored the first points of his Marlboro Team Penske career by finishing ninth. The FedEx Championship Series rookie class also made a strong statement at Motegi. Tony Kanaan (LCI Reynard Honda), the 1997 PPG-Dayton Indy Lights champion, finished sixth and '97 Indy Lights runnerup Helio Castro-Neves (Alumax Aluminum Reynard Mercedes) finished 11th after starting 26th. Mark Blundell (Motorola PacWest Mercedes) improved from his 12th-place performance at Homestead to 10th at Motegi while teammate Gugelmin (Hollywood PacWest Mercedes) wound up without points for the first time in nine events by finishing 20th. Scott Pruett (Visteon Reynard Ford) and Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Swift Ford) look to bounce back from disappointing Japanese performances which left them 21st and 25th, respectively. Pruett owns a streak of five consecutive points-paying performances at Long Beach, including podium finishes in 1995 (second) and '97 (third). Fittipaldi makes his first Long Beach start since '96 after missing last year's event due to a broken leg sustained in Australia. Team Rahal had a tough time in Japan as well. Owner/driver Bobby Rahal (Miller Lite Reynard Ford) was running a strong third late in the race before contact with the wall ended his day. Long Beach is the third stop on the "Rahal's Last Ride" tour, as Rahal's farewell season has been called. He owns four career runnerup finishes at Long Beach in 1988, '91, '92 and '93. Meanwhile, Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Ford) encountered clutch problems which forced his retirement after 49 laps. Max Papis (MCI Reynard Toyota) led the Toyota brigade at Motegi, finishing 13th. Teammate Hiro Matsushita (Panasonic/Duskin Reynard Toyota) improved from the 30th starting position to finish 16th. Arnd Meier (BAAN Business Software/Total Tel Lola Ford) makes his first career appearance at Long Beach after finishing 15th at Motegi, his second-best finish in 12 career starts. Michel Jourdain Jr. (Herdez/Viva Mexico! Reynard Ford) made history at Long Beach in 1996 when he became the youngest driver ever to start a CART event at 19 years, 6 months and 12 days old. Richie Hearn (Budweiser/Ralphs Swift Ford) made his FedEx Championship Series debut that same day. Both are looking to jump start their seasons at a venue where they have considerable personal history. Patrick Carpentier (Player's/Indeck Reynard Mercedes) and PJ Jones (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) are making their second career appearances at Long Beach while rookies Alex Barron (Castrol-Degree Reynard Toyota) and JJ Lehto (Hogan Motor Leasing, Inc. Reynard Mercedes) are making their first. Dennis Vitolo (SmithKline Beecham Reynard Ford) returns to the series after missing the Budweiser 500 due to a finger injury. An entry for Project Indy is still pending. Qualifying for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach will air 6:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN2. ESPN's race telecast begins 4 p.m. ET Sunday. The FedEx Championship Series continues with the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix Presented by Toyota, Sunday, April 26 at Nazareth Speedway in Nazareth, Pa.

Source: CART Online

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Max Papis , Adrian Fernandez , Bobby Rahal , Patrick Carpentier , Christian Fittipaldi , Paul Tracy , Dario Franchitti , Alex Zanardi , Tony Kanaan , Mauricio Gugelmin , Bryan Herta , Scott Pruett , Mark Blundell , Richie Hearn , Alex Barron , Andre Ribeiro , Greg Moore , Michel Jourdain , JJ Lehto
Teams Team Penske