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Pruett's Long Beach Return Not What He Had Expected

April 06, 2001|SHAV GLICK

The Toyota Grand of Long Beach celebrity race in 1984 was a turning point early in Scott Pruett's racing career. Now he hopes the 2001 celebrity race will create a similar opportunity late in his career.

"I had won a couple of kart races at Long Beach the previous two years, so I got invited to drive in the celebrity race in '84," Pruett recalled during a visit to the street course he will drive Saturday in this year's 10-lap pro-celebrity race. "It was kind of a big break for me. I was only 22 and trying to make my way into Indy cars and out of go-karts. When I finished second overall to David Hobbs [then an Indy car driver] it attracted enough attention for me to get rides with IMSA [International Motor Sports Assn.] and the Trans-Am."

Although the 41-year-old driver is pleased to have the opportunity to run again in the celebrity race, it is not where he expected to be.

Pruett was named with great fanfare by Cal Wells last year to replace Ricky Rudd in the Tide car on the Winston Cup circuit. He signed a three-year contract, leaving Wells' CART team to take a shot at stock car racing's premier series with a new team. Neither the car owner nor the driver had ever competed in NASCAR, and Pruett finished 37th in the season standings.

"Unfortunately, sometime between Christmas and New Year's, Cal got scared and decided to put another driver [Ricky Craven] in the car," Pruett said. "I was hugely disappointed. I believed in the program, believed we were making progress. We had led some races and I started on the front row at Las Vegas, but Cal decided he wanted a more experienced NASCAR driver and it left me in a difficult position. It was too late in the year to get another full-time ride so I'm sort of left playing the field."

After driving in Saturday's fun race, Pruett will be in the ABC television booth Sunday. He also can be seen on ESPN's "RPM Tonight" show.

As for racing, he will drive the factory Chevrolet Corvette in the 24 Hours of LeMans with Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell. It will be his first visit to the French endurance classic.

"I would love to go back to Indy for the 500, or go back into Winston Cup, but it's very difficult to get an opportunity with a good team," he said. "I think my best chances are in sports cars."

He has driven in four Indy 500s and shared rookie-of-the-year honors with Bernard Jourdain in 1989.

In sports cars, Pruett won the IMSA GTO title in 1986 and 1988, the Sports Car Club of America Trans-Am championship in 1987--the same year he won at Long Beach--and again in 1994. He also was in the winning car in the 24 Hours of Daytona three times.

"Long Beach has always been special to me," he said. "For my 16th birthday, I got to come down to see the Formula One race. I wandered around the track in awe, wondering when I'd ever get a chance to drive in a place like that.

"Then, in 1988 I rented [an Indy] car from Dick Simon and ran as high as ninth before we had engine failure. That put me in a position to run three more races with the Machinists Union car when Kevin Cogan was injured and from there I landed a full-time ride with Truesports in 1989. I never won [a CART race] at Long Beach, but I made the podium twice."

He was second to Al Unser Jr. in 1995 and third, behind Alex Zanardi and Mauricio Gugelmin, in 1997.

Besides the usual assortment of entertainment celebrities, Pruett will be joined by three other pros--Robert Huffman, three-time NASCAR Goody's Dash champion; Sara Senske of the Lynx Racing team in the Barber Pro Series; and actor Josh Brolin, who was moved up in class after beating all the pros last year.

The pros will start 30 seconds after the celebs take the green flag. All will drive identically prepared Toyota Celicas.


The speedway motorcycle season will start Saturday night with its traditional Coors Light Spring Classic season opener at the Orange County Fairgrounds, but without its biggest attraction.

Charlie Venegas, who won last year's national championship at Costa Mesa, may sit out the entire season because of a broken upper leg suffered during an ice race this year in St. Louis. The San Bernardino rider was a champion ice racer before taking up speedway racing.

Gary Hicks, defending Spring Classic champion, will return to face such veterans as former U.S. champions Bobby Schwartz and Mike Faria, who has moved to Reno and is making a rare Costa Mesa appearance.

Heading a strong group of the new challengers will be Ryan Fisher, 17, of Norco, runner-up in last year's Spring Classic handicap main event.

The regular season at the tiny eighth-mile Costa Mesa Speedway, in its 33rd consecutive year, will start April 21. Weekly racing through the Oct. 13 U.S. Nationals will include both scratch and handicap main events, plus sidecars.


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