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SPORTS * WEEKEND | ORANGE COUNTY MOTOR RACING

Wells' Team Finally Gets Ride Down Victory Lane

August 04, 2000|MARTIN HENDERSON

The long wait is over.

After five years and 153 starts in the CART Championship Series, Cal Wells III's dreams of victory finally became reality Sunday at Chicago Motor Speedway in the Target Grand Prix.

Wells, the owner of PPI Motorsports in Rancho Santa Margarita, and the driver who provided him with that victory, Cristiano da Matta, remembered the steep price of victory in their moment of glory.

Da Matta, a diminutive Brazilian, dedicated the victory to Jeff Krosnoff, a driver he never met, and Wells remembered the man whose life ended only 11 races into his first season.

"It has been a long road for us, which makes this victory all the more sweet," said Wells, who watched da Matta hold off Michael Andretti Sunday for the victory. "This is a very special moment. Words cannot even begin to describe it.

"After we lost Jeff Krosnoff, the guy we all knew would be the future of this team and the engine program, we focused on building something that would honor his memory and what he, along with us, was trying to accomplish. Max [Papis] did a tremendous job stepping in and really helped keep this team and keep this program together and moving forward. For Jeff, success in this journey is the best tribute there is."

Krosnoff was killed in a racing accident in Toronto in 1996, the darkest moment in the history of the fifth-year Toyota engine development racing program.

But this season, PPI has become one of the series' more competitive teams. Da Matta's victory moved him into fourth place in the series with 82 points, seven behind third-place Gil de Ferran with eight races remaining. Da Matta's 82 points are 22 more than he and former teammate Scott Pruett combined for all last season. The highest any Wells' driver has placed previously was 18th.

"The potential for success has been there, and finally everything is coming together to prove that we are a championship-caliber team," Wells said. "We've got consistency on our side, and with one [win] in the books, the will to earn our next win has only gotten stronger. We will, as Jeff Krosnoff always said, 'Stay hungry.' "

Though da Matta is not likely to forget being thrown in the air by his celebrating crew like some ragamuffin in a mosh pit, the 1998 Indy Lights champion's most memorable moment came after the final pit stop, when he emerged in first place with a lapped car between himself and Andretti, and bolted to a lead of more than four seconds on the restart.

"[That's] when I won the race, not when I took the checkered flag," da Matta said. "I was able to go at almost qualifying pace, while those [contenders] were in traffic. That was the key to the race for me.

"It's been almost two years since my last win, and it's good to refresh in your mind what it is to win a race."

SHOW HIM SOME CHAMPAGNE

Alex Gurney finally got to partake in a tradition his father, Dan, started more than 30 years ago at LeMans--spraying champagne from the victory podium. Gurney, of Newport Beach, took third at the Player's Grand Prix de Trois Rivieres Canada.

Driving for All American Racers of Santa Ana, Gurney trailed winner Buddy Rice and second-place PPI driver Dan Wheldon of Newport Beach.

Rice, with 120 points, leads Wheldon by 17 points in the standings.

"I had been hoping for a real good result because I have had what I think was a lot of bad luck this year," said Gurney, who is ninth in the standings with 39 points.

Rocky Moran Jr., of Coto de Caza, finished fifth for P-1 Racing of San Clemente. PPI driver Andrew Bordin, who started second, finished 15th after colliding with another car while leading. Bordin, with 91 points, is third in the standings, and Moran is fifth with 75 with four races remaining.

* Wells announced he is phasing out his PPI Toyota Atlantic team after four seasons. The program won the championship last season with driver Anthony Lazzaro, who Wells moved into PPI's NASCAR Grand National entry.

"We won a championship within three years, which was my personal goal for the program, and we've contributed to our own growth and to the CART community as a key supporter of CART's ladder system," said Wells, who is moving his CART operation to the same facility that houses his NASCAR shop in Hickory, N.C.

"Ultimately, we needed to weigh the value of the program against the resources required to keep it going, in light of the fact that we've achieved everything we set out to do.

"I'm extremely proud of the accomplishments of this program."

INDY LIGHTS

Indy Lights rookie Townsend Bell of Costa Mesa was a fortuitous second-place finisher in the Grand Prix in Chicago.

Bell, who drives for Dorricott Racing, was in fourth place when Casey Mears and Chris Menninga crashed while racing for second place with three laps remaining.

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