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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

Gugelmin and Blundell Looking to Get Jump on '99

October 30, 1998|SHAV GLICK

After Mauricio Gugelmin ran a record 240 mph to win the pole and then teammate Mark Blundell won the inaugural Marlboro 500 last year at California Speedway, great things were expected for the PacWest team this year.

Somehow, they didn't materialize. Gugelmin's best finish in 18 CART races was a fourth at Mid-Ohio. Blundell's best were sevenths at Long Beach and Road America.

PacWest president Bruce McCaw has not lost confidence, however. He has already renewed the drivers' contracts for 1999.

"I strongly believe PacWest has the best drivers, sponsors and equipment in the CART series," McCaw said. "We intend to challenge for the FedEx championship in 1999, and entering the new year with continuity on all fronts will provide us with an excellent head start."

In the meantime, there's one final race, Sunday's Marlboro 500, in which the team hopes to jump-start next year's program.

"Coming back to California Speedway as reigning champions and champions of the inaugural race is a great feeling," said Blundell. "That's something I can tell my grandchildren and be proud of. Hopefully, the weather will be a lot kinder this year."

Temperatures soared as high as 105 degrees during last year's Sept. 28 race.

"Being defending champion is incentive enough to win a race, but an extra incentive to win this year is the $1 million in prize money."

Blundell won $90,500 last year when he finished .847 of a second ahead of Jimmy Vasser. Sunday's winner is guaranteed $1 million.

With the Handford Device--a winglike aerodynamic piece designed to help reduce speeds on superspeedways--in effect, Gugelmin's record will be safe when cars qualify Saturday.

"I won't be doing 240 this year, that's for sure, but it is always a pleasure to return to a track where I have some great memories," Gugelmin said. "We definitely have some unfinished business to take care of, because we were in a position to win the race last year from the pole.

"I was already counting the money when I had to come into the pits [after blistering a tire while in the lead on Lap 231 of the 250-lap race].

"I think a podium finish for the PacWest team is a good possibility Sunday. It would give us a bit of positive momentum heading into 1999."

SHORTER SCHEDULE

California Speedway is cutting back on its schedule next year with only two weekends of racing, instead of three, at Penske Motorsports' Fontana facility.

"To put on events here costs lots of money, so when we had a Saturday and Sunday that weren't selling out like CART and the Winston Cup, we decided to bring things together," said Les Richter, the Speedway's executive vice president. "Actually, it's a return to the way we scheduled our first season, with the Winston Cup and CART weekends packaged with a single-season pass.

"Then we scheduled a NASCAR stock car tripleheader and people became confused. It wasn't part of the season pass, and although it was a good weekend of racing, it didn't come close to selling out.

"This way, we'll give our fans two big super weekends."

Sunday's race, last of this year's CART champ car series, is expected to attract more than 105,000 spectators.

Next year's season will open with the Winston Cup race, on Sunday, May 2. It will be complemented by a Winston West and Busch Grand National doubleheader on May 1.

The CART race will be Sunday, Oct. 31, along with a NASCAR Craftsman Truck race on Oct. 30 and a PPG-Dayton Indy Lights race Oct. 31. All three series will close their seasons at Fontana.

FORMULA ONE

As it has so often in recent years, the Formula One championship is coming down to the final race of the season, Sunday in Suzuka, Japan.

And, as usual, Germany's Michael Schumacher is in a pivotal role, although this year he is trailing Finland's Mika Hakkinen and unable to use his previous tactic of trying to wreck both himself and his prime rival--thus insuring the championship would be his.

It worked in 1994 at Adelaide, Australia, when Schumacher's Benetton-Ford collided with Damon Hill's Williams-Renault, knocking both out of the final race. The German won the title by one point, 92-91.

Last year it was more blatant as Schumacher appeared to deliberately turn his Ferrari into the side of Jacques Villeneuve's Williams-Renault midway through the European Grand Prix in Jerez, Spain. The incident backfired when Schumacher bounced to a stop, but Villeneuve, surprisingly, motored on in his damaged car, finished third and passed the German for the championship.

As in Adelaide three years earlier, Schumacher held a one-point lead going to the final race.

"The German press contingent, which had been rooting strongly for him, led the booing and condemnation of this clumsiest of low punches," wrote veteran GP columnist Nigel Roebuck.

The move was so obvious that Formula One's ruling body stripped Schumacher of his second-place finish in the driver's standings.

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