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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Willow Springs Raceway Is Back in the Spotlight This Weekend

April 24, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Willow Springs Race- way, where the first national championship motorcycle race west of the Appalachian Mountains was held in 1954, will return to the American Motorcyclist Assn. schedule this weekend for the first time in nine years.

The MBNA Superbike series headlines three days of racing on the wind-swept 2.5-mile high-desert road course 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles, near Rosamond.

For years, Willow Springs and the AMA road-racing program served as a proving ground for up-and-coming riders such as Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, Kevin Schwantz, Doug Polen, Fred Merkel and Doug Toland, all of whom went on to win world championships.

"Things have changed in Superbike," says defending national champion Doug Chandler of Salinas. "A few years ago, all the American riders thought about was getting to Europe to ride for a world championship. That was where the money was. But today, the Superbike series in the United States is better than the world championship series, and it's paying just about the same."

Chandler won his first championship in 1990, riding for Team Muzzy/Kawasaki and like Kenny Roberts, Lawson, Rainey and Schwantz before him, headed for Europe and the world championship scene. After four years, he returned home and in 1996 and 1997 won national Superbike crowns.

"Factory involvement, especially when Harley-Davidson came aboard, has increased interest and financial stability to the national series," Chandler said. "And if you have a family, it's a whole lot easier running in the States than all over the world.

"The competition is probably stiffer here too. In addition to the best U.S. riders, we have the best from Canada in Miguel DuHamel, Steve Crevier and Pascal Picotte, and two of the best from Australia, Mat Mladin and Anthony Gobert. We have more depth."

Competition is spread among manufacturers too. Chandler rides a Kawasaki, DuHamel a Honda, Picotte a Harley, Gobert a Ducati, and Mladin and Crevier are on Suzukis.

Other contending Americans include Jason Pridmore, defending 750cc Supersport champion from Ventura; Rick Oliver, former 250cc champion from Fresno, and Ben Bostrom, DuHamel's Honda teammate from Redondo Beach.

DuHamel defeated Chandler in last Sunday's Superbike race at Laguna Seca, but Chandler's second-place finish enabled him to move into the series lead by a single point over Mladin, who finished third after setting a qualifying record of 94.121 mph.

Chandler is doing double duty this year, also riding in the 600cc Supersport class, in which the bikes must have conventional street tires. At Laguna Seca, he won his third consecutive race, beating DuHamel.

"Kawasaki came out with a new 600cc bike this year, so that class is a big marketing area for them," Chandler said. "It's closer to a showroom bike than the Superbikes. Practicing, qualifying and racing in two classes keeps me busy, that's for sure."

In addition to the Superbike and 600cc classes, there will be competition for 750cc, 250cc, 125cc bikes, plus Formula Xtrme and Pro Thunder. Practice and qualifying start today.

CHAMP CARS

It wasn't too many years ago, when both were teenagers, that there was some question who would be the most successful racer named Gordon, Jeff or Robby.

Jeff, of course, went on to win two Winston Cup championships and take his place among the great names of NASCAR racing.

Robby, on the other hand, is at the crossroads of a career that has been marked by more minuses than pluses. After four years and two victories in CART, he tried Winston Cup stock cars last season and didn't last the year. Now he is back in CART, where he hooked on with the Arciero-Wells team as a Toyota test driver.

The once precocious off-road racer from Orange, now 29, will return to competition this weekend in the Bosch Grand Prix at Nazareth, Pa. He will be in the Toyota-powered Reynard that has been driven by Hiro Matsushita, who plans to retire after the CART race in Brazil next month. Matsushita, in his ninth year with CART, will be at Nazareth, but will not drive.

After the Rio 400 in Brazil, Gordon will become the full-time driver of the No. 24 Panasonic Reynard.

Gordon's task is formidable. There are four Toyotas campaigning in CART and after four races, the highest finish among them is an 11th by PJ Jones of Dan Gurney's All American Racers team.

NASCAR

One week before coming to California Speedway for the California 500, Winston Cup teams will be at Talladega, Ala., on Sunday for the Diehard 500.

Last spring, Mark Martin won the fastest NASCAR race in history, averaging 188.354 mph in a caution-free race on the 2.66-mile oval. Talladega is one of two tracks, Daytona being the other, where carburetor restricter plates are used to hold down speeds.

"Restricter plate racing forces you to draft with other cars in order to get anywhere," Martin said. "You really have to trust the drivers you draft with. You have to trust them with your life.

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