NA-F2000: Watkins Glen Morioka report

For more information: Linda Mansfield: Morioka Is 1997 National Champion of U.S. Formula Ford 2000 Series WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., Aug. 24 - With a strong fourth-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen ...

For more information: Linda Mansfield:

Morioka Is 1997 National Champion of U.S. Formula Ford 2000 Series

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y., Aug. 24 - With a strong fourth-place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen International, 18-year-old Zak Morioka of Sao Paulo, Brazil and Miami, Fla., earned the national championship of the U.S. Formula Ford 2000 series during the most competitive season in the series' history.

He was in his familiar white and red Kentucky Fried Chicken of Brazil/A.M.E. Sports Van Diemen Quicksilver Ford prepared by Hayes Motorsports of Aurora, Colo.

Morioka, who also won the series' Oval Crown Championship earlier this year, finished 28 points ahead of Matt Sielsky in the overall point standings, 205 to 177. With a similar fourth-place finish in Saturday's race here and his first two series pole positions, Morioka had to finish 16th or higher Sunday to win the title even if Sielsky had won the race.

Andrea De Lorenzi actually won both 20-lap races on Saturday and Sunday in the season finale doubleheader presented by the New Line Cinema release "Most Wanted." Seth Taylor finished second Sunday followed by Duncan Dayton, Morioka and Sielsky. Jeff Simmons, J. Michael Johnson, Robby McGehee, Owen Trinkler and Augie Pabst III rounded out the top 10 unofficially.

Morioka's goal was to finish Sunday's race in 16th or higher to win the title. Although he started on the pole, he slipped to third at the end of the first lap when both De Lorenzi and Taylor out-dragged him into turn one. He ran in third until Sielsky passed him in turn one with eight laps down to push him to fourth. Sielsky made a slight bobble with 11 laps down and Morioka was able to repass him for third before a full-course yellow waved with a dozen laps down. He survived the restart on lap 14 and still held third comfortably at that point.

Andy Lally and Jeff Horne tangled in the inner loop with five laps to go to force another full-course yellow and set up a one-lap dash to the checkered when the green came out again with 19 laps down. Duncan Dayton, who had started seventh, got by Morioka on the last lap to nail down the final podium spot, and Morioka finished a comfortable fourth to win the overall championship.

"I raced with my head this weekend more than my right foot," Morioka said. "Sometimes as a driver that's hard, but finishing is most important, especially when the championship is on the line. More maturity brought me here.

"My car was very easy to drive today," he added. "I was very conservative with the start and the restarts. Winning the championship was my goal, and it feels great to accomplish it. I am just very happy, not only for myself but also for my crew of Rick and John Hayes and Brian Sharp, and for my sponsors, Kentucky Fried Chicken of Brazil and A.M.E. Sports."

When asked what winning the championship means for his career, Morioka noted that many influential team owners and sponsors watch the U.S. FF2000 series. "You have great drivers from the United States, Europe, Australia, Brazil and other countries in this series," he noted. "All of the big guys are watching."

When asked about running so close with his rival for the title during the race, Morioka said he actually felt fairly comfortable handling the pressure.

"I was very conservative," he reiterated. "I just let him go by early in the race. Then he did a little mistake going into turn one and I just passed him. Then Duncan [Dayton] got by me at the end, but that was OK too. Duncan and I have raced very closely together many times, and I was glad to see him have a good finish. I'm just very, very happy.

"I have to say that De Lorenzi did a great job in the race," he added. "It was very fun to watch from where I was, and I really didn't get involved with it..

"I think my crew has enough to do to get the car back on the trailer, and I didn't want to bring it back in separate pieces," he added with a smile, referring to the trailer fire the team experienced on Tuesday enroute to Watkins Glen. The electrical fire started with the trailer's winch, and was so hot it melted the metal ramp the back-up car sits on. If it wasn't for the quick action of team manager Rick Hayes and mechanic Brian Sharp, all might have been lost before the weekend even arrived.

When looking over the entire 12-race season, Morioka said there were two main turning points. "Getting our first win at Pikes Peak was very important, because it put us in the right place for the championship," he said. "Then when we won the Oval Crown Championship, that really pumped up the team. It was a great morale builder."

The FF2000 doubleheader supported 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. -30-

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Series Other open wheel
Drivers Duncan Dayton , Andy Lally , Jeff Simmons , Owen Trinkler , Augie Pabst III , Michael Johnson