NA-F2000: Watkins Glen Morioka PR

For more information: Linda Mansfield: lindamansfield@CompuServe.com Despite Trailer Fire, Morioka Earns the Pole for Saturday's U.S. FF2000 Race WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., Aug. 22 - Point leader Zak Morioka earned his first career U.S. Formula...

For more information: Linda Mansfield: lindamansfield@CompuServe.com

Despite Trailer Fire, Morioka Earns the Pole for Saturday's U.S. FF2000 Race

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., Aug. 22 - Point leader Zak Morioka earned his first career U.S. Formula Ford 2000 pole position in qualifying for Saturday's U.S. Formula Ford 2000 race at Watkins Glen International during a half-hour qualifying session Friday afternoon.

Morioka and the Kentucky Fried Chicken of Brazil/A.M.E. Sports Van Diemen Quicksilver Ford No. 27 were clocked at 1:15.129 (117.39 mph) to earn the right to start first in Saturday's race, the first half of a season-finale doubleheader presented by the New Line Cinema release "Money Talks." The 20-lap, 49-mile races around the Glen' 2.45-mile, 11-turn road course are scheduled to get the green flag at 1:15 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

Qualifying for the first race was delayed due to rain, and was held on a rapidly-drying to dry track. Andrea De Lorenzi will start alongside Morioka in Saturday's race, followed by Andy Lally, David Rutledge and Matt Sielsky.

Morioka said his fastest lap in qualifying came on either his last lap or one of his last laps. "We wanted to start up front, but nothing is decided yet," he said. "It's the championship that is important, and the races are a totally different situation. It's easier for me to start at the front of the field, but we still have to have two good finishes in the races on Saturday and Sunday.

"Because of the rain before qualifying, we softened up the car and put more wing in it," Morioka added. "In the middle of the track it was still pretty slick. As the session went on the track got better. The wing was kind of holding me up a little at the end because the track conditions were getting better. It was a fine line."

Morioka best time in the first practice session Friday was a lap at 1:15.773 (116.40 mph), which was fifth fastest behind Duncan Dayton, Rutledge, De Lorenzi and J. Michael Johnson. The field was split into two groups for two subsequent practice sessions, and Morioka topped the "A" group on Friday before the qualifying session with a lap at 1:14.931 (117.70 mph), which is just off Steve Knapp's track record of 1:14.868 (117.80 mph). Both of those sessions were held under dry conditions. When those two practice sessions were combined the top five were Morioka, Rutledge, De Lorenzi, Dayton and Sam Hornish Jr.

Morioka is one of nine drivers in contention for the national championship, which will be determined here this weekend. With the extra point for earning the pole, he currently leads the point standings by 21 points over his closest rival, Buddy Rice.

Just being able to compete here this weekend is a miracle. Morioka's Hayes Motorsports crew suffered a trailer fire enroute to Watkins Glen on Tuesday, and if it wasn't for the quick thinking and action of team manager Rick Hayes and mechanic Brian Sharp, all would have been lost.

Both men escaped injury in the fire, but Hayes later became ill from breathing fire extinguisher chemicals as he tried to clean up the damage. He missed most of Thursday's practice session, but he was back in charge on Friday.

The electrical fire occurred on Interstate 81 in Pine Grove, Pa., on Tuesday. The team's 1995 back-up car was damaged, but the primary 1997 Van Diemen Morioka is driving at the Glen this weekend wasn't damaged thanks to the crew's quick work.

The fire began in wires to the electric winch which aids in the loading of the cars. The heat from the blaze was so intense that the ramp that the back-up car sits on in the trailer melted, as did one of the back-up car's tires. The team's crew shirts and some other support items were lost. Morioka's driving uniform, helmet and driving shoes escaped damage.

"I'm just glad no one was hurt," Morioka said, surveying the blackened trailer. "That is the most important thing."

Morioka is optimistic about his chances in Saturday and Sunday's races.

"I'm confident in my car and my crew," Morioka said. "I'm going to be cautiously aggressive and just try my best."

Qualifying for the second half of the doubleheader is slated for 4:30 p.m. Saturday, after Saturday's race. The FF2000 doubleheader supports the Parts America 150 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race and the Ruffles 150 NASCAR Featherlite Modified Tour event.

Sunday's race will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Sunday, Sept. 21 at 10:30 a.m. and rebroadcast on Thursday, Sept. 25 at midnight.

Prior to that, armchair race fans can watch Morioka win the Mid-Ohio race on ESPN2 at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 1; 3 a.m. on Sept. 4; or 2 a.m. on Sept. 11.

The coverage can also be seen on ESPN International; check local listings.

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Series Other open wheel
Drivers Duncan Dayton , David Rutledge , Andy Lally , Steve Knapp , Buddy Rice , Sam Hornish Jr. , Michael Johnson