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Independence Day

Trans Am race: Gentilozzi, defending champion at Long Beach, carries on as Series makes huge transition.


Paul Gentilozzi won the Trans Am support race for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 1988 in an Oldsmobile Cutlass.

Last year he won again, in a new C-5 Chevrolet Corvette.

This year he will try winning in a Ford Mustang Cobra.

The 49-year-old Michigan commercial real estate developer says the Trans Am, once one of America's premier road racing series, is at the crossroads this year. After the factories pulled out at the end of the 1997 season, there was talk that the series might collapse.

"If we can live through this transition from a factory-supported series to an independent series, we should be better off," he said. "Factory teams escalate costs to the detriment of everyone else. Their objective is pure and simple, to win. They have no consideration for the well-being of the series."

In 1997, Jack Roush's Ford factory team, headed by Tommy Kendall, nearly ruined the series because of overkill. Kendall won a record 11 of 13 and Fords also won the two others.

"It was the fault of the sanctioning body, more than anything," Gentilozzi said. "The SCCA [Sports Car Club of America] told us that we would run year-old cars. Roush came in with money, new technology and new cars and kicked everyone's butt.

"Tommy Kendall is a fine driver, make no mistake about it, but if you threw him back into the mix today, without Roush, he wouldn't dominate like that."

Roush pulled out to concentrate on his NASCAR programs, and Kendall was left without a ride.

Gentilozzi, who won the Long Beach opener last year in his Corvette, went on to win seven races and led the entire season in the championship race. He was named to the racing writers' All-American team.

Although Gentilozzi has switched to a Mustang, his Corvette will be driven in Sunday's Johnson Controls 100 Trans Am by Craig T. Nelson, better known as Hayden Fox in the ABC series "Coach."

"Trans Am has some strong support in BF Goodrich as the series sponsor and Johnson Controls as sponsor of the $50,000 Triple Challenge, a prize for the winner of the Long Beach, Detroit and Grand Rapids [Mich.] street races," Gentilozzi said.

"I always look forward to coming out to Southern California. It seems like years ago, but I used to haul my drag racer out to Pomona to run in the Winternationals. Then I won those two races in Long Beach. And it's nice to be coming back as defending champion."

Two Southern California drivers--Brian Simo of Carlsbad and Stu Hayner of Yorba Linda--may offer Gentilozzi his biggest challenge.

Simo was runner-up for the championship and Hayner finished second to Gentilozzi at Long Beach last year.

"Long Beach has always been one of my favorite events," said Hayner, 49, who will drive a Camaro. "First of all, it is in my backyard and it is always great to run in front of friends and family. But, more than that, it is one of the best street courses I have ever raced."


Trans Am Race

* What: Johnson Controls 100 BF Goodrich Tires Trans Am.

* Cars: Ford Cobras, Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros, Pontiac Grand Prix, Olds Cutlasses, 650 horsepower V-8 engines, BF Goodrich radial tires.

* Qualifying: 5:15 p.m. Saturday.

* When: 3:45 p.m. Sunday.

* What: 55 laps (100 miles) on 1.85-mile street course.

* 1998 winner: Paul Gentilozzi.

* TV: 9 p.m. Monday, TNN.

* Drivers to watch: Gentilozzi, Stu Hayner, Brian Simo, Michael Lewis and Craig T. Nelson.

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