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Indy Car Series’ star-studded event draws huge crowds at Long Beach

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Indy Car Series’ star-studded event draws huge crowds at Long Beach

Tony Kanaan and Paul Tracy, a former four-time Long Beach Grand Prix winner, chat before practice.

Photo by DALE BOSOWSKI/


POSTED April 23, 2009 2:17 a.m.
Despite being the crown jewel of the Champ Car/CART series from 1984-2008, all was forgiven when Tony George’s rival IndyCar Series made its Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix debut last weekend, as an estimated 170,000 fans turned out for event.

Veteran drivers such as Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves all expressed their joy to finally return to the famed 1.969 mile, 11-turn venue while other drivers such as Dan Wheldon, Vitor Meira and Ryan Briscoe relished in the opportunity to compete on America’s oldest and most famous street circuit for the first time.

“It was a lot of fun out there,” proclaimed Briscoe, despite finishing the race in 13th. “It was just fantastic to race around the streets of Long Beach.”

The performance difference between the previous turbo charged Champ Car and the normally aspirated Indy Cars was negligible as lap times were only two to three seconds slower than last year.

“The two cars are very different animals. The Champ Car had a higher nose which allowed you to run over the curbs more while you have to be a bit more careful these cars,” explained Justin Wilson, who finished the race in 22nd after being caught up in a multi car accident early in the race. “The Indy Cars are definitely more finicky and it is harder to get the maximum out of them.”

There was a multitude of former race winners roaming the pits in various capacities including AGR team owner Michael Andretti, his father Mario, Jimmy Vasser, Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy, who have a cumulative 17 wins at the Beach. Tracy announced that he had secured a ride for the Indy 500 next month while Little Al took part in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race, which he won for the second time, 24 years (and several pounds) after his first victory in 1985.

Normally the center of attention, Danica Patrick’s star power was overshadowed by the hoopla surrounding the return of two-time Indy 500 champion and “Dancing With the Stars” titlist Helio Castroneves, who was acquitted of tax evasion charges in Miami as his peers practiced on Friday.    

 “Wow. This was a special day for me. This is my therapy,” said a smiling Castroneves after his seventh place finish. “Everyone was cheering for me before the race and it was an incredible compliment I will never forget.”

Patrick hit the wall in qualifying and starting Sunday’s race well back on the grid from the 21st position, but used the same early pit stop strategy employed by race winner Dario Franchitti to earn a fourth place finish, her best ever on a street circuit. Her effort, combined with teammates Tony Kanaan’s third place finish and Marco Andretti’s sixth, gave Michael Andretti’s AGR team half of the top six finishers.

“I am proud of how we all kept our heads up and made a good result of it instead of getting down,” said Patrick.Also leaving with his head held high was high was Will Power, who had the fastest car in practice on Friday and was then forced to switch to a backup car when Castroneves returned on Saturday. With a car he had never driven previously, Power qualified for the pole and finished Sunday’s race in second place.

He leaves Long Beach second in the point to Franchitti, but will be on the sidelines for this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway, before returning for the Indy 500 with team Penske.

 “I am happy to have this opportunity with Penske. It is a special team and being with them gives me a chance to run up front at Indy,” said the gracious Power before adding, “I am not a good spectator and I don’t know if I can handle watching others race this week.”
 
Madera Speedway
Madera Speedway will be hosting one of the year’s biggest events this Saturday when the NASCAR Camping World Series West returns to the “Fastest 1/3 Mile in the West” for the first time since 2003 with the NAPA Auto Parts/Toyota 150 Presented by Exclusive Energy Drink. The triple feature card also includes the USAC and BCRA Midgets teaming up for the 100-lap Fred Gerhardt Classic and the Western Late Models in a 50-lap main.

Defending series champion Eric Holmes of Escalon holds a narrow lead over Jason Bowles of Ontario in the season standings by a 535 to 503 point margin while Greg Pursley of Newhall sits a close third with 490 points. Other drivers that will be looking to take the checkers at Madera include fan favorite Mike David, the 2007 series champion from Modesto, who currently  sits fourth in the standings, Oakdale’s Wes Banks and Madera late model regular Ross Strmiska of Stockton.

Prior to the race, Modesto’s Jack McCoy will be honored in a special ceremony. McCoy, who passed away last week at age 72, was a two-time champion and the winningest driver in series history with 54 victories.

The Western Late Models will have a very special guest competitor as PRO-RDS has teamed up with “Race for Autism” car owner/driver Carlos Vieira of Merced to put NHRA Nitro Funny Car driver Ron Capps behind the wheel of Vieira’s spare car for the race.

Capps drives the 6,000 horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger Funny Car for Don Schumacher Racing and he currently leads the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Funny Car standings.

Stockton’s Vito Ranuio captured last Saturday’s Western Late Model feature at Stockton’s 99 Speedway to become the first repeat winner of the season. The late models will be back at it this Saturday in Stockton with a 99-lap feature. The Street Stocks and a 199-lap Endure will share the bill.

To contact Dale Bosowski, e-mail dalebosowski@yahoo.com.
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