FONTANA — Mark Hotchkis, the man without a car to call his own most of the season, showed what he could do with one Saturday at California Speedway. The Pasadena driver made a smooth move from third into the lead with three laps left, then put a lapped car between him and his closest pursuers and won the Indy Lights prelude to today's Marlboro 500.
Hotchkis, a 44-race veteran caught in a team downsizing early this season, spent most of it substituting for other teams' injured drivers. One of those teams was Mattco Raceworks, which was so impressed by Hotchkis as a fill-in that it gave him a new Lola to drive here in the season-ending 100-mile race.
In appreciation, Hotchkis drove it to victory. But it wasn't easy.
"We were so far back. . . ," he said. "I made a mistake in the first three laps paid for it for the first third of the race. I picked my way back up front and here I am. . . . The race was great but it goes back to all the people who helped me this season. I think this is the seventh car I've driven this season."
In a close approximation of last season's Indy Lights inaugural here, replete with multiple lead changes and wheel-to-wheel draft racing, NASCAR style, Hotchkis nosed out Felipe Giaffone of Brazil by .437 of a second, averaging 153.395 mph. Tony Renna, Hotchkis' teammate, was third, followed by Cory Witherill of Santa Monica and Didier Andre of France.
Christiano da Matta, the Brazilian driver who won the season title and has signed for next season with the Arciero-Wells champ car team, drove with the lead pack for part of the race, but finished 11th. Another Indy Lights driver, Naoki Hattori of Japan, is moving up to CART with Walker Racing.
Brazilian Sergio Paese was fined $10,000 and suspended for one year for trying to fight Spaniard Oriol Servia after their cars had tangled and flipped off the track. Paese scrambled out of his car and over to Servia's, slapping at the Spanish driver and trying to kick him.
If all goes according to plan, a weekly television action series built around CART racing will be in syndication next fall.
Neil Russell and Peter W. Kuyper will produce the series of 22 one-hour shows in partnership with CART and the Newman-Haas team.
"It will be life behind the champ cars," said Andrew Craig, CART chairman and CEO. "It will be an accurate representation of what we do. . . . This is a great opportunity to take this sport and put it in front of a new public."
The series will set fictional characters against the backdrop of CART racing in the form of a "third" Newman-Haas driver and crew. Newman-Haas, whose real drivers are Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi, will provide technical support. Drivers, if they desire, may be cast in dramatic roles.
The show is untitled, scripts have yet to be written and no actors have been hired but Russell said he hoped to have the series in production by next fall. It will be syndicated on a market-by-market basis, he added.
Fans of Bobby Rahal will be riding with him, in a manner of speaking, today in his last CART race before retirement. For a donation of $25 or more to the Bobby Rahal Foundation, they signed special decals that will be mounted on the sidepods of Rahal's car before today's Marlboro 500.
Said Rahal, who has had a free autograph session at each of the previous races this season, "I thought it was time to turn the tables."
Rahal, three-time former CART champion and winner of the 1986 Indianapolis 500, began his foundation to generate and distribute money for charity in his final season as a driver. Worthwhile organizations in the areas the CART series has visited this year will share the money.
"So many supportive individuals, organizations and communities have contributed to what success I've achieved," Rahal said.