MONTEREY, Calif. (Oct. 11, 2001) - San Francisco native and lifelong California resident Townsend Bell (DIRECWAY Lola) could clinch his first major motorsports title on his home turf this weekend in Round 11 of the Dayton Indy Lights Championship...
MONTEREY, Calif. (Oct. 11, 2001) - San Francisco native and lifelong California resident Townsend Bell (DIRECWAY Lola) could clinch his first major motorsports title on his home turf this weekend in Round 11 of the Dayton Indy Lights Championship at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, Calif. Sunday's 34 lap sprint (76.092 miles) sprint on the 2.238 mile Laguna Seca road course is scheduled to start at 10:30 a.m. PT and is the main support event for the Honda Grand Prix of Monterey Shell 300 FedEx Championship Series race that runs that afternoon.
Bell, 26, has been the driver to beat all season in the Dayton Indy Lights Championship, the "Official Development Series" of CART that is making its 16th consecutive appearance at Laguna Seca. The current resident of San Luis Obispo, Calif., has led the point standings since Round 4 of the 12-race series at the Milwaukee Mile in June where he scored the second of a series-leading four wins this season. Bell's 26-point lead over teammate Damien Faulkner (Dorricott Racing Lola) and Dan Wheldon (Gemstar Communications/PacWest Lights Lola) equates to more than a full-race points lead. Bell has 149 championship points while Faulkner and Bell are tied for second with 123 points apiece.
With a maximum 22 points available to a driver in a race (20 for a win and single bonus points for the pole winner and race lap leader), Bell can lock up the Dayton Indy Lights title simply by maintaining his current advantage or losing no more than three points to his challengers in Sunday's race. A victory - or any finish ahead of Faulkner and Wheldon - seals the championship for Bell. Any realistic hope Faulkner and Wheldon have to take the title fight to next month's season-ending race at California Speedway will require either of them to win Sunday's race and a rare finish low in the points by Bell.
Bell's strong situation gets even better when the pole and lap leader bonus points are taken into consideration. Ten of Bell's championship points have been earned through bonuses, and he leads the series in poles with six - including the last four races - and laps led with 307. If Bell earns both bonus points this weekend, he can wrap up the championship with a second-place finish, even if Faulkner or Wheldon win. Ironically, this very scenario happened one race ago at Road Atlanta where Bell led all but one lap from the pole and finished second after Wheldon slipped by in the rain for the win entering the final corner of the last lap.
In addition to Milwaukee, Bell's other wins this season have been at Long Beach, Toronto and Mid-Ohio. The 2000 Dayton Indy Lights Rookie of the Year is in his second season with Dorricott Racing, a California-based team owned by Bob Dorricott Sr. and headquartered in Bakersfield. Bell's success in Indy Lights has made him one of the most sought after young prospects in open-wheel racing. While the Dayton Indy Lights Championship was idle in September, Bell made his CART Champ Car debut in the FedEx Championship Series races in Germany and England. Driving a Visteon Toyota Reynard for Patrick Racing, Bell finished both races and scored his first CART championship point with a 12th place finish in his second start in England. Bell may make more CART Champ Car starts this season and appears bound for a fulltime ride in CART's big show in 2002, but wrapping up the Dayton Indy Lights Championship title is an immediate priority.
Rookies Faulkner and Wheldon have each won two races this season in addition to a strong string of podium finishes. Wheldon heads to Laguna Seca in the midst of a two-race win streak and a bit of controversy. His Road Atlanta victory was tempered by a contact incident with his PacWest Lights teammate Mario Dominguez (del Valle/Corona/Televisa Lola) at the race start. Dayton Indy Lights Chief Steward Terry Dale assessed Wheldon with a one-race probation to be served this weekend and excluded him from Friday morning's first practice session as a result of the incident. It is the second time this season Wheldon has been placed on probation and the second time he and Dominguez have come together at a race start. The teammates also made contact at the start of June's race at Portland International Raceway. Wheldon's first series win came two races ago at Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis. He also has second-place finishes at Long Beach and Mid-Ohio in addition to third-place showings at Milwaukee and Kansas.
Like Wheldon, Faulkner is in his rookie season of Dayton Indy Lights competition after first making his mark in European open-wheel competition. The Irishman was a surprise winner in his oval debut at Texas Motor Speedway in April and scored his second win of the season at Portland International Raceway in the rain in June. He has posted top-three podium finishes in five of the last five races, a streak that includes third at Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Road Atlanta, a runner-up showing at Kansas Speedway and the Portland win.
Dominguez is the only other driver mathematically alive in the championship and is fourth in the standings with 107 points. A championship run is realistically out of the question, however, and Dominguez will likely focus on earning his first win in a season that has seen him record a trio of second place finishes at Milwaukee, Toronto and Gateway. He also won the pole at Long Beach and Kansas.
Derek Higgins (Mexpro/StarlightDiamonds.com/PrecioBase.com Lola), an Irish countryman of Faulkner's, won the season-opening race at Mexico and is the only driver to lead the championship other than Bell. He earned four podium finishes early in the season but distant showings in three mid-season races dropped him from title contention. He finished fourth at Gateway and sixth at Road Atlanta and ranks fifth in the championship with 93 points.
Dominguez is the on-track leader of competitive contingent of drivers from Mexico. The group includes Rudy Junco (Mexpro/StarlightDiamonds.com/ PrecioBase.com Lola) and Roquin Motorsports teammates Luis Diaz (Telmex /Roquin Motorsports, LLC Lola) and Rolando Quintanilla (Telmex/Roquin Motorsports, LLC Lola). Junco, a teammate of Higgins who earned a career-best finish of second at Portland, sustained ligament injuries to his left foot and ankle in a late race accident at Kansas after contact with Cory Witherill (WSA Healthcare/Motors Lola) at Kansas. He missed the Toronto race but returned to finish seventh at Mid-Ohio and Gateway. Diaz placed a career-high fourth at Texas and Milwaukee while Quintanilla's top showings were fifth place finishes at Texas and Portland.
July's mid-season race at Kansas was won by Danish rookie Kristian Kolby who left the series one month later after the Mid-Ohio race due to sponsorship issues. He was teammates at Conquest Racing with New Zealander Matt Halliday (Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing Lola) who performed well as the team's only driver at Gateway where he finished a season's best third. That top result capped a strong streak that saw him finish no lower than fifth in the last five races, including thee consecutive fourth-place finishes at Toronto, Kansas and Portland. Kansas was just Halliday's third start but he qualified third and led three laps. He was also looking at a possible top-three showing at Road Atlanta until a last lap incident with Higgins dropped him to an eighth place finish.
Witherill is completing the Dayton Indy Lights Championship season after finishing 19th with Indy Regency Racing in May's Indianapolis 500, a race that was won by former Indy Lights star and Helio Castroneves. Witherill, a %100 Navajo, is the only Native American driver currently competing in major league auto racing.
Laguna Seca also marks the second race in the return of Portola Valley resident Jon Fogarty (Thomas Fogarty Winery & Vineyards Lola) who had been sidelined most of the season with a neck injury. Fogarty returned to action with Dorricott Racing last week at Road Atlanta where he qualified second, set the fastest race lap and recovered from an early spin to finish fourth. He could be a championship spoiler on a Laguna Seca track that he knows well.
Sunday's Laguna Seca Dayton Indy Lights race will be part of two hours of back-to-back series television coverage late that evening on ESPN2. Last week's Road Atlanta race airs at 1:30 a.m. ET, Sunday, Oct. 14, and will be immediately followed at 2:30 a.m. ET by the Laguna Seca race. Although the late-night television times are actually early Monday morning, Oct. 15, viewers on the West Coast can catch the shows on the 14th at 10:30 p.m. PT and 11:30 p.m. PT, respectively.