While a sixth-place finish in a CART race is generally cause for celebration inside the offices at PPI Motorsports in Rancho Santa Margarita, team owner Cal Wells III had to be a little disappointed this week.
Though his driver, Oriol Servia, moved from 21st on the grid to a near-top five finish, it was another Toyota driver, Jimmy Vasser, who finished on the podium at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in the FedEx Championship Series.
Vasser's third-place finish was notable because it made him the first driver to finish third or better in the series with a Toyota-powered engine, and it came in the Chip Ganassi Racing team's second race.
PPI drivers have developed the Toyota engine since 1996--in 70 races prior to this season--and it finally appears competitive with its Ford, Mercedes and Honda counterparts.
But only one person can be the first of anything, which Wells driver Scott Pruett hammered home when he provided Toyota its first pole position at Fontana in the last race of last season--right after Ganassi announced he was switching from Honda to Toyota power.
But in the race to the podium, Wells lost.
"I'm glad to see Jimmy Vasser did as well as he did," Wells said. "I would have liked to have been the [owner] who gave Toyota its first podium [finish]. Maybe I can still be the one to give them their first win."
Vasser started third at Long Beach, but Servia started from the 11th row. He might have started higher, but he blew an engine in qualifying, and he didn't have a backup car available because gear parts were being used in teammate Cristiano da Matta's primary car. Servia had the fifth-fastest time in the practice leading up to qualifying and da Matta--who finished last because of a mechanical problem--was eighth-fastest; both were faster in practice than Ganassi's drivers, Vasser and defending series champion Juan Montoya.
Robby Gordon of Orange hired Richard Buck as the team's general manager. Buck left PPI this year after four seasons.
"Right now, this team has a lot of potential," Buck said of Gordon, who has raced everything from off-road to Indy cars. "I took my time deciding where my next step would be, and I kept coming back to Robby. . . .
"CART, NASCAR, World of Outlaws--I don't care what the type of racing is, there are simple formulas that apply regardless of the chassis and motor you put on the track. Robby's got all the tools here. We just need to label those tools, come up with a consistent set of answers for all the questions, and build a system."
Before joining PPI, Buck was at Team Penske Racing. As a crew chief he garnered 25 pole positions, 22 race victories, five Indy 500 victories, two CART Series championships and six pit stop championships, and was awarded Chief Mechanic of the Year twice.
"He's a tough customer, which is exactly what we need to make our team stronger and better prepared," Gordon said. "We've been going nonstop since December building cars, testing and getting ready for a 34-race schedule. I think we've done a pretty good job of getting to this point; the only thing that's been missing is someone like Buck to really tie it all together and take us to the next level."
Buck's first race with Gordon was Sunday, the DieHard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway. Gordon, an owner/driver last season in CART who has the same role this season in NASCAR, qualified 34th and finished 37th after being collected in a 17-car crash. However, he moved to fifth place in the first 20 laps and stayed there until a tactical error on a pit stop on Lap 54, when he took on four tires instead of two.
Pruett, PPI's Winston Cup driver, was at the front of the crash, setting it off when he drifted down into Gordon. Pruett started 15th and finished 20th.
LONG BEACH WRAP
Peter Shea of Newport Beach finished 12th and Mike Davis of Huntington Beach was 15th in the Trans-Am Championship race. They were sixth and 10th, respectively, at the checkered flag after completing 35 laps. However, a review of the race showed the last lap, which had four crashes involving the race leaders, began 1.2 seconds after the 60-minute deadline for the timed race, and the Sports Car Club of America made the uncommon ruling to revert to the order after 34 laps.
"I think it's crazy--the checkered flag fell, and that's the way the race should have ended," said Shea, who would have raced a full schedule of events had he received the points for sixth place. "Quite honestly, I don't think [the SCCA is] sophisticated enough to figure out 1.2 seconds difference, anyway. The big tragedy is that they raced the last lap, almost killed Don Sak and wrecked six cars on a lap that never happened. They probably did a half-million dollars worth of damage."
* Townsend Bell of Costa Mesa, third in last year's Barber Dodge Championship, finished 17th among 19 drivers in his Dayton Indy Lights debut. Bell's car was hit from behind by Soheil Ayari after completing only seven of the event's 38 laps and was unable to continue.
VIVA LAS VEGAS
Dick Simon Racing will try to win its first Indy Racing League event Saturday at the Las Vegas 300. Simon and driver Stephan Gregoire are enthusiastic, and optimistic, about their chances. The team has tested this season, unlike last season, and has performed well at Las Vegas Motorspeedway. "I'm looking for a top-five finish," Gregoire said.
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