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Grand Prix Taking a New Turn

Motor sports: Qualifying for race begins today on revamped Long Beach course.


When the 27 champ car drivers take their first laps today on the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach course, they will see some dramatic changes, the most significant since the race moved down off Ocean Boulevard in 1982.

Will the four new turns on the west end of the approximately 1.85-mile circuit make for more passing opportunities?

Will a longer run down curving Shoreline Drive make for record speeds?

Those questions will be answered today when CART FedEx teams practice and qualify for Sunday's race--the length of which has not yet been determined. Until the new configuration has been measured by Omega, official timekeeper of the CART series, the precise length of the circuit, and the length of the race will remain a mystery.

Not a mystery, however, is that qualifying will remain of the utmost importance to the drivers. Changes or not, Long Beach remains a tight, relatively narrow circuit that does not lend itself to much passing.

The first qualifying session is set for 2:30 p.m. today, with a second at 12:45 p.m. Saturday.

"Having the road course season start on a street course, where we can't test, is a little like starting blind," said Richie Hearn, who will drive the No. 10 Swift-Toyota. "It's a different test of the equipment and of yourself than the ovals offer."

The CART season's first two races were on oval tracks. Greg Moore won at Homestead, Fla., and Adrian Fernandez won last week in Motegi, Japan.

"With the changes to the track and the fact that we can't test there, it will be a real challenge for drivers to find the fast line and teams to find the proper setup," said Paul Tracy, who won the 1993 race and will be in one of Barry Green's Reynard-Hondas today.

"Those that do will start up front, which is extremely important on a tight street circuit. For those that don't, it will be a long day trying to catch up."

Also unknown is what effect the four new turns will have on Bryan Herta's race lap record of 111.226 mph, in which he took 50.945 seconds to navigate the 11 turns last year on a 1.574-mile course.

"I'm sure it will take longer to get around because the track is longer, but I imagine the average speed will be pretty close," said Herta, one of the favorites in the No. 8 Reynard-Ford Cosworth, one of retired driver Bobby Rahal's entries. "We won't really know until we get out there and see how it's like getting through those Aquarium corners. You can study all you want on paper, but you need to get the feel of it to know exactly what to expect."

Michael Andretti, the 1986 winner, believes the changes will favor both drivers and spectators.

"The Long Beach track has always been a fast one with two long straightaways [Shoreline Drive and Seaside Way] but it was difficult to pass," said Andretti, who drives the No. 6 Reynard-Honda for Carl Haas and Paul Newman. "The changes will make the race more exciting and allow for more passing opportunities."

Andretti, whose 37 wins are the most among active CART drivers, has another objective this season--besides trying to win a second championship. He won in 1991.

"One of my personal goals is to match my dad [Mario] in the record books," he said. "If I can lead 739 laps this season, then I can match A.J. Foyt and start working on my dad's record."

Mario Andretti, a four-time Long Beach winner, led 7,587 laps in his Indy car career. Michael has 5,882.

"Leading laps is the first step to winning more races and more importantly a championship. My dad had a phenomenal career and if I get near his record, I know I have accomplished something."

Gil de Ferran, who drives the No. 5 Reynard-Honda for Derrick Walker, might dispute the suggestion that leading races brings more victories. At Long Beach, at least.

The Brazilian veteran led 100 of 105 laps in 1996 only to lose when an exhaust hose disconnected from the turbocharger with the checkered flag in sight.


Long Beach Grand Prix

* What: The silver anniversary Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Race 3 of the 20-race CART FedEx champ car series.

* When: Today, Saturday, Sunday.

* Where: An 11-turn, 1.85-mile temporary circuit through the streets of downtown Long Beach.

* Schedule: Today--practice and qualifying. Saturday--practice and qualifying, Toyota pro-celebrity race, Kool-Toyota Atlantic race. Sunday--PPG-Dayton Indy Lights race, Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Johnson Controls Trans Am race.

* Tickets: Grand Prix ticket office at 430 E. First St., Long Beach; all Ticketmaster locations.

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