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Too Hot to Handle?

Motor racing: Inaugural Marlboro 500 features plenty of speed and way too much sun, but little excitement until Blundell takes charge late and holds on for victory.

September 29, 1997|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FONTANA — Maybe the cars are going too fast. Maybe 500 miles is too far for a race at record speeds. Maybe it's too hot in Southern California for a race in September.

Whatever the reason, or combination of reasons, the 90,000 or so spectators who sat in 101-degree heat for the Marlboro 500 on Sunday at California Speedway didn't see much of a race.

The start, or rather the lack of a start, set the tempo for the long afternoon. Before the race could start, Juan Fangio II's car caught fire and caused the first 10 laps of the race to be run single-file at 70 mph behind the pace car.

For the first 50 laps of the 250, the caution flag flew for 40 laps.

A late-race flurry of action had Englishman Mark Blundell take the checkered flag for the first CART open-wheel race at Roger Penske's magnificent new stadium after first Andre Ribeiro, then Gil de Ferran, Mauricio Gugelmin and Greg Moore fell victim to racing gremlins.

Jimmy Vasser, in his last race as PPG Cup World Series champion, didn't give up the lead in the final laps, but long after the race he was still smarting over what he believed should have been an automatic yellow flag. On lap 240, 10 from the end, Moore was leading when his engine blew and fire flamed out the car's rear end.

Vasser, second at the time, slowed in anticipation of a yellow flag but Blundell sped ahead, passing Vasser and Moore to grab the lead.

"I think they took one away from me," Vasser said. "Moore blew an engine, he's shooting flames and who knows what all over the place, and they don't throw the yellow. I don't understand that."

Blundell's version: "Jimmy backed out and so did I. Coming out of [Turn] Two, I assessed the situation very quickly and saw there were no yellows. Greg went high up in the gray [area of the track] . . . he didn't really drop any oil. He just blew the engine. The race was still going. I decided to go for it and got a run on Jimmy."

Vasser chased Blundell home for second place, the only car on the lap with the winner. Adrian Fernandez finished third, one lap down, as were Gugelmin, Bobby Rahal and de Ferran in that order.

"I tried everything I could the last 10 laps to catch Mark, but he just had a better car," Vasser said. "I was a little dizzy when I got out of the car because I had been holding my breath and driving as hard as I could trying to catch him."

It was a great week for Bruce McCaw, the Seattle-based owner of the PacWest team of Gugelmin and Blundell. On Saturday, Gugelmin ran the fastest official lap of racing history, 240.942 mph, and on Sunday his other driver won the California Speedway's inaugural Marlboro 500.

"We've got two guys that I think are as good as any two drivers in the series," McCaw said. "We're coming back next year and make a run at the championship."

Alex Zanardi, who clinched the 1997 championship one race earlier, missed Sunday's final race after crashing twice during practice Friday. De Ferran, despite not winning a race, finished second and Vasser third.

Arie Luyendyk, who was flown Saturday from Phoenix by car owner Chip Ganssi as a replacement for Zanardi, suffered the worst accident of the day.

The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner started last (27th) because he did not arrive in time to qualify, but by the 26th lap he had worked his way to 18th. As he was set up to lap Arnd Meier, the German rookie suddenly lost control and spun in front of Luyendyk. The impact sent Luyendyk crashing into the wall, then rebounded back on the track where he was walloped again by the spinning Meier.

Luyendyk was knocked temporarily unconscious and was airlifted to Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he was examined and released later in the day.

Robby Gordon, the other rent-a-racer in the Marlboro 500, finished eighth in his week away from Winston Cup stock car racing. It was the highest finish for Carl Hogan's team this season. Gordon replaced rookie Dario Franchitti.

"I'm happy with our finish today, but I used up all of my muscles," said Gordon, who will return to NASCAR next week at Charlotte. "We definitely didn't have a very good car to start the race, but all credit to the crew, after 50 laps, I felt we had a car to win the race."

After the Luyendyk-Meier accident, the pace quickened and the remaining 200 laps were run with only minor incidents. However, perhaps because of the speed, the cars were spread out with only a minimum of passing except for lapped cars. There was plenty of that, with Dennis Vitolo still running, 19 laps down, when Blundell took the checkered flag.

Fifteen cars were still around at the finish of the race, in which Blundell averaged 166.575 mph.

It was the third victory this season for Blundell, a former Formula One driver who joined PacWest last year. He also won on a road course in Portland and a street circuit in Toronto.

Moore had the fastest lap of the day, 236.388 mph on lap 89. Like almost everything else here this weekend, it was the fastest in racing history.

"We really had it in hand there at the end," Moore said. "With only 10 laps to go, I was sure we had the race tied up. Then the engine blew and that was it."

Moore had taken the lead when Gugelmin, who seemed to be pulling away, abruptly slowed on lap 231.

"We were running away from everyone, they couldn't catch us," Gugelmin said. "Then, boom, the right rear tire just went away. It had major blisters. It is so disappointing."

Rahal, at 44 the oldest driver in the race, may have put his finger on the race's problem: "We have to look at slowing the cars down here. It's just too damn fast."

It was also too damn hot. Long before the end of the race, thousands had emptied the grandstands, either to head home or find a patch of shade.

* COMMENTARY

Indy car racing's return to Southland fails to live up to expectations. C8

* NOTES: C8

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