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HE'S ON THE MARCH : Phil Conte Has a Dream: Buick-Powered Cars Will Beat Porsches at Riverside

April 21, 1985|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Phil Conte, a flag-waving American who came from the ghetto of Brooklyn to build a successful business in Southern California, has this recurring dream: He sees two Buick-powered Marches, dark blue and white, Nos. 45 and 46, sitting in the front row on the starting grid for next Sunday's L.A. Times/Nissan 600-kilometer race at Riverside International Raceway.

"I'm not fighting World War II over again, but I believe in waving the American flag and I want an American car to beat those Germans (Porsches)," Conte said as he lifted the hood and showed a visitor the powerful V-6 turbocharged Buick engine that puts out more than 790 horsepower.

The dreamer, who owns CGI (for Conte Glantz Industries) of Paramount, also owns the two 3.5-liter March 85Gs. And the dream is not all that farfetched.

No. 45, with John Paul Jr. driving, was the fastest qualifier at two of the three International Motor Sports Assn. races it ran, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the Miami Grand Prix, and it had the fastest race lap in the Atlanta 500-kilometer event. No. 46, which will be driven in Friday's time trials by Whitney Ganz, a Stanford graduate from Laguna Niguel, is an identical machine.

"I'm a man who puts his money where his mouth is," Conte said. "I'll bet we win 14 or 15 poles out of 18, and we didn't even go to Sebring. We have more horsepower, and we have the secret weapon--John Paul Jr."

Paul, a lanky 25-year-old whose remarkable driving talents have been overshadowed by charges of marijuana smuggling against him and his father, John Paul Sr., was IMSA's Camel GT champion in 1982, when he won nine races. This season, Paul had planned to juggle a few IMSA races between races on the CART Indy-car schedule, but he was dropped by his Indy-car sponsor when the FBI issued a warrant for his arrest. Conte posted a $125,000 bond to free Paul, who now plans to drive Conte's car on the entire IMSA schedule. Paul's trial is scheduled June 3 at Jacksonville, Fla.

"Our main concern right now is not the trial but the car," Paul said after a test at Riverside. "We have all the speed we need but not reliability. The Buick engines have performed perfectly, but every race some crazy little thing knocks us out. Every race we've been fastest but we've never finished."

At Daytona it was suspension failure. At Miami it was a defective plate in the battery. At Atlanta, where Paul missed being fast qualifier by .007 of a second, it was a faulty gear. During the Atlanta race, Paul ran a lap at a track-record 116.943 m.p.h. while chasing pole-sitter Al Holbert in a Porsche 962. An 80-second pit stop dropped Paul back to third, where he was running when he dropped out with a shattered gearbox on lap 85 of the 124-lap race.

"These cars put out so much torque that it puts a lot of added pressure on the gears, and one we got from March was not up to standard and it failed us," Conte said. "They admitted it was weak and said they'd get us a new one. They're overworked at March right now. They built 49 new cars for Indy and 10 new IMSA cars and that's stretched them thin in supplying parts."

To assure that he got the proper gears in time for the Riverside race, Conte flew to London last Thursday to pick them up personally.

"We'll be ready for Riverside," he said. "The engine has been bullet-proof, and all we need is for the car to stay together. We're gonna win at Riverside. Wouldn't that be great, to win right in front of the home folks."

Paul knows his way around the nine-turn, 3.25-mile road course at Riverside. In 1981, he won the pole and finished second with his father, a two-time world endurance champion, as his co-driver in a six-hour race won by John Fitzpatrick and Jim Busby. A year later he was third in qualifying but was involved in a starting-line accident with Jim Adams that cost him any chance of challenging in the race.

"The keys at Riverside are staying out of traffic and getting through Turn 9," Paul said. "At nine, you really have to hang it out. It's a fast turn, and if you're not careful, you can find yourself in the wall. On the other hand, if you get through nine and don't bobble, you can get a fast lap--if you don't run into traffic. There are a lot of slower cars on the track and there are a lot of places where it's almost impossible to pass. You have to be patient, but when you're in a hurry, sometimes it's hard to be patient."

Paul did not run the last two years at Riverside because of Indianapolis 500 commitments.

"Maybe I should have been at Riverside, the way things went for me," Paul said, somewhat bitterly. "I'm not superstitious, but. . . . "

At Indianapolis, Paul crashed in Turn 1 during practice May 13, 1983, breaking his left leg. May 13 that year was Friday the 13th. Last year, also on May 13, he crashed again in precisely the same spot, suffering head injuries. After staying overnight in the hospital for observations, Paul was released, but he missed the race.

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