BRASELTON, Ga. (Oct. 5, 2001) -- Road Atlanta turned out to be too much like the movie, "Ground Hog Day," for Townsend Bell. It was a figurative repeat of one race ago at Gateway International Raceway. Only the "how" of the facts changed.
BRASELTON, Ga. (Oct. 5, 2001) -- Road Atlanta turned out to be too much like the movie, "Ground Hog Day," for Townsend Bell. It was a figurative repeat of one race ago at Gateway International Raceway. Only the "how" of the facts changed. Bell finished second place despite being the dominant driver in round 10 of the 12-race Dayton Indy Lights Championship.
Bell, of San Luis Obispo, Calif., started from the pole. He was untouchable from the moment the green flag fell. His lead grew to over 16 seconds around the 2.54-mile, 12-turn road course. Then the unthinkable happened. A brief, light mid-race rain sprinkled portions of the circuit. The dampness was partially responsible for Cory Witherill running into the tire barrier at Turn 3 on lap 23 of the 29-lap race. Witherill was uninjured, but the five-lap caution period to clean up the accident site eliminated Bell's advantage and prefaced a two-lap dash to the finish.
"This was like watching the stock market crash," said Bell. "We expected the race to run dry so we committed to a set-up that would work in the dry and only in the dry. We built a comfortable, 16-second lead similar to Gateway but we had a fuel pump failure there. Here, the rain forced everyone to pack up because of the caution flag.
"Gerald Tyler, my engineer, kept me abreast of the lap times between me and Dan. I guess there was a lot going on behind me because the race for second, third, and fourth was tight. I didn't think the weather would get to the point where I'd lose much lap time based on the radar I checked before the race. I thought we were looking at a few sprinkles, but it kept getting worse. Then the car started to slide around. We could have cruised home with the 16-second lead but that went away when Cory (Witherill) packed it in and bunched the field."
The race restarted with one lap to go, but Bell's DIRECWAY Lola was unable to suppress the rain's effects. Dan Wheldon, of England, had positioned himself for any opportunity by working into second place after starting sixth. His opportunity surfaced entering the final turn. Wheldon passed Bell and though he only led the last couple of hundred yards, it was all he needed for a 0.256-second margin of victory.
"Dan deserves credit because he picked me off on the last corner," said Bell. "I drove inside and guessed where the most traction would come out of the last right-hander. I guessed wrong. Regardless, second place was an important finish. We earned bonus points for most laps led and winning the pole, as well as 16 points for second place. Still, this is one race I would like another crack at."
Teammate Damien Faulkner, of Moville, Ireland, scored another podium finish but did it the hard way. Faulkner moved into second place on lap two and held that position through 10 laps. A hard charging Luis Diaz, of Mexico, challenged and then passed Faulkner on lap 11.
Faulkner, however, continued to pressure Diaz and passed him at the start of lap 20 going into Turn 1. Race control first reported rain sprinkles on lap 21 and Faulkner became the first victim. Rain began striking limited portions of the track but Turns 10 and 11 were dampened first. As Faulkner entered Turn 10, his Dorricott Racing-prepared Lola slid and spun off course. Faulkner recovered and resumed the race but fell to seventh place.
"After I spun, the rain turned out to be a curse," said Faulkner. "The rain didn't help anybody except those who were way down. Once I passed Jon, I felt I could keep with Wheldon. Then I came under pressure from Diaz. He was quick in the first half of the race. He indeed passed me and there nothing I could do to stop him. I tried to stave him off but there wasn't much point. It only allowed Townsend to extend his lead. When Diaz slowed, I was able to pass him. The rain followed and that's when I made a stupid error that cost me second place at the least."
On the re-start of Witherill's caution, fate favored Faulkner when fellow Irishman Derek Higgins came together with both Diaz and New Zealander Matt Halliday in separate incidents. All but Higgins flew off course. Faulkner passed all three to complete a near perfect comeback and secure third place. Higgins crossed the line in fourth only to incur a post-race penalty of two positions for his incidents with Diaz and Halliday.
"I'm still mathematically in the championship so that's how I view it," reflected Faulkner. "I learned from today's silly mistake. I paid the price. I was seventh place when the race resumed after the caution. I had two laps to do something about it. Even though we didn't have a large field, I still passed three cars. That's what I'm good at - getting to the podium."
Jon Fogarty's return to Indy Lights was a welcome sight for Dorricott Racing and the Indy Lights community. He didn't disappoint. After qualifying on the outside pole, Fogarty proved he didn't lose his competitive edge after a five-race lay-off due to an injury.
Fogarty, of Portola Valley, Calif., had a tough race start when Wheldon, Diaz, and Halliday passed him through the first couple of turns on lap two. An aggressive attempt to regain positions led Fogarty to spin and continue in Turn 11 on lap four. He wasn't able to regain all the lost positions but he did run to a fifth place finish.
"My 'spin' on the spin is Halliday passed me and I tried to make up time," said Fogarty. "I braked late and he braked early. It forced me out of rhythm with my downshift. I had to stand on the brakes to avoid running into the back of him. It caused me to spin. I kept my foot in it through the spin trying to line my tires up. I wanted to come out of it ready to make up ground. I ended up cooking my clutch then had trouble getting going."
Bell's championship lead is now 26 points over both Faulkner and Wheldon, 149-123. Mario Dominguez, of Mexico, is fourth with 107 points and the only remaining Indy Lights driver with a mathematical chance of winning the championship. Any combination of finishes that provide Bell a 23-point lead after next weekend's race at Laguna Seca will hand the 2001 Dayton Indy Lights Championship to Bell.
Faulkner's 14 championship points for third place kept Ireland in the lead for the Nation's Cup with 155 points. The United States is close behind in second place with 148 points followed by Mexico with 128 points. Faulkner and Wheldon are tied for Rookie-of-the-Year honors.
Bonus awards to Dorricott Racing include two pairs of Dayton Daytona racing tires for Bell being the top qualifier, and Faulkner as the Dayton Rookie Award recipient.
Fogarty received the $1,000 WorldCom Fast Pace Award for setting the fastest race lap at 119.536 mph (1:16.496 seconds).
ESPN2 will provide a delayed telecast of the Road Atlanta Indy Lights race Monday, Oct. 15, from 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. ET (Sunday, Oct. 14, from 10:30 to 11:30 p.m. PT). All times are subject to change.
Detailed race results, team, and sponsor information are available on Dorricott Racing's official web site, http://www.dorricottracing.com.
- James Hyneman