CHRIS SIMMONS TAKES FIFTH AT HOMESTEAD IN MATTCO RACEWORKS INDY LIGHTS DEBUT Homestead, Fla.; Sunday, March 15, 1998: Series veteran Chris Simmons fought an ill-handling car and avoided a spectacular 5-car, mid-race melee to claim fifth place...
CHRIS SIMMONS TAKES FIFTH AT HOMESTEAD IN MATTCO RACEWORKS INDY LIGHTS DEBUT
Homestead, Fla.; Sunday, March 15, 1998: Series veteran Chris Simmons fought an ill-handling car and avoided a spectacular 5-car, mid-race melee to claim fifth place in today's season-opening PPG-Dayton Indy Lights race at the Miami-Dade Homestead Motorsports Complex.
Simmons qualified ninth in the No. 78 Alco Capital Group/Nassi Group Lola, but moved to eighth on the starting grid after third-place qualifier Clint Mears crashed during morning warm-up. The race was marked by three caution periods, including the 5-car incident on lap 35 which brought out the yellow for 13 minutes. Shigeaki Hattori won the race with an average speed of 114.825 mph, and finished 0.468 seconds ahead of second-place Cristiano da Matta. Rounding out the top-5 were Guy Smith, Oriol Servia, and Simmons.
"I thought we were perfect for the race," said Simmons, 24, of East Granby, Conn., "but right from the start we were really loose. I don't know if it was the change in track temperature or something on the car. We'll put it on the set-up pad and see if something moved or a shock lost gas pressure or something. But I was just holding on. We thought about making a pit stop during the first yellow, but my engineer (Ina Gastesi) said, "It's OK. Just keep going.' I told him, 'Easy for you to say!' It's probably lucky we didn't, because with the big accident we wouldn't have had time to get back up front. This is the loosest oval car I've ever driven and I'm just glad to bring it home in one piece. But we held on for fifth and it's a good strong finish for our first time out."
"I'm very happy," added team owner Matt Cohen, "but not so happy, too. Chris didn't have the car he wanted. But for our first race we're pleased. This is still an evolving team and to come away with a top-5 in our first race is great, especially on a big oval like Homestead and especially given the caliber of the competition."
The team's second driver, Tony Renna, 21, of DeLand, Fla., did not start the race. Renna crashed during open testing on Wednesday and his No. 77 Alco Capital Group/Nassi Group Lola was not repairable at the track. The crew worked diligently during the last three days (and nights) and nearly accomplished the daunting task of building an entirely new car at the track, but fell just short of making this morning's 11:00 a.m. race.
Next race on the 14-race PPG-Dayton Indy Lights Championship schedule is the Long Beach, Calif., street circuit on April 5.