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Coach Discovers He Has the Drive to Try This Sport

April 16, 1999|SHAV GLICK

Hayden Fox, TV's "Coach," can be seen only on reruns these days.

Craig T. Nelson, the actor who portrayed Fox, can be seen live Saturday, driving in the Johnson Controls 100 Trans Am race during Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach festivities.

At Long Beach in 1991, Nelson drove in the pro-celebrity race, finished third and was hooked on becoming a race car driver. He eventually formed his own team, Screaming Eagles Enterprise.

"If I could have found a solid sponsor, money-wise, I would have stayed in it," he said the other day, after a few test laps in the Corvette he will drive Saturday. "I loved every minute of it--except trying to raise money. You know, it's a heck of an expensive hobby."

In 1997, he completed his ninth and final season on "Coach," and also retired as a team driver-owner. He hasn't raced since.

A few months ago, however, Trans Am champion Paul Gentilozzi was looking around for a driver for his Rocketsports team and remembered being impressed with Nelson's abilities in IMSA's World Sports Car class, where Nelson was named most improved driver of the year in 1995. He also campaigned in the American City Racing League.

"I sent him a vial of gasoline, told him, 'Sniff this,' and he was on his way back," said Gentilozzi with a big laugh. "He's not your typical Hollywood driver. We tested him and he impressed us.

"We're not looking at Craig T. as an actor who can drive, but rather a driver who happens to act. Over the years, I've worked with a lot of drivers from the entertainment industry, but seldom have I seen someone as focused on personal performance as he is."

Nelson won two Emmys as outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for "Coach," and was nominated four times for Golden Globe awards.

When practice begins today for the Trans Am season opener, Nelson will be in the Corvette that Gentilozzi drove to the championship last year. Gentilozzi has switched to a Ford Mustang Cobra.

Although he has always been a General Motors driver, Gentilozzi said he switched because, "I believe, under the current rules, that the Mustang is the best race car. The chassis are all basically the same, so it's really the body and engine combination that drives your choice of car. The Ford engine makes more power and the Mustang body is every bit as aerodynamic as anything else out there."

As for Nelson in the Corvette?

"The car is a lot different from what I drove before," he said. "I had never driven a car before where you had to climb in the window. Getting in and out of the car is a major achievement in itself. I had to learn a whole new technique."

Nelson is committed to three street races, Long Beach, Belle Isle in Detroit and the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Grand Prix. They make up the Johnson Controls Triangle, which will pay $50,000 to any driving sweeping them.

"Paul won seven races in the Corvette last year, so it must be pretty good," Nelson said. "I ran three days on the road course at Fontana [California Speedway] and felt pretty comfortable when I finished. I'm really looking forward to the first four turns at Long Beach. No one else has raced them, so I won't be at any disadvantage."

The first four turns on the reconfigured 1.85-mile Grand Prix course are new, since the course now goes past the new Aquarium of the Pacific.

"This is really a dream come true," Nelson said. "I had been thinking about something like this for more than a year, sort of hanging around on the outskirts of racing. With no TV series to take up my time, I can structure my other work around the race schedule. It's sort of a window of opportunity for me."


Two widely different American Motorcyclist Assn. national championships are scheduled this weekend for Southern California two-wheel fans.

Riders in the MBNA Superbike series will be at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.

And the North American Observed Trials and the American Trials Assn.'s 29th El Trial de Espana will be contested at Reed Valley, near Aguanga, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.

Round 3 of the Superbike series features series leader Mat Mladin on a Suzuki, defending champion Doug Chandler on a Kawasaki and Daytona 200 winner Miguel Duhamel on a Honda.

Duhamel edged Mladin by .014 of a second in one of the closest Daytona finishes in the race's 58-year history. It was the Canadian's third victory in the 200-mile classic.

Chandler won his second straight Superbike championship last year, joining Reg Pridmore and Fred Merkel as three-time AMA champions. Pridmore's son, Jason, rides for the Suzuki team. He finished sixth at Daytona while still recovering from a broken arm he suffered a the last race of 1998.

Other Suzuki favorites are Steve Crevier, 600cc SuperSport series champion, and Steve Rapp, who finished fifth in his first Superbike race aboard a factory Suzuki.

Riders will practice and qualifying today on the 2.5-mile, nine-turn track, with more qualifying Saturday and the 600cc final Sunday at 11 a.m., followed by the Superbike final.

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