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LONG BEACH GRAND PRIX NOTES

Swimmer Torres Makes a Splash

April 14, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Saturday was Ladies Day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

For the first time in the 26-year history of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race, a woman took the checkered flag.

Swimmer Dara Torres, an Olympic gold medalist, started from the pole and ran away from the rest of the celebrity field, doing something that previous stars Cameron Diaz, Ashley Judd and Crystal Bernard could not.

Torres wasn't alone. Danica Patrick, a 20-year-old from Illinois who raced in Europe the last few years, won the professional category and finished third overall despite starting 30 seconds behind the leader on the 1.97-mile street course.

Racing in identically prepared Toyota Celicas, Torres pulled away from No. 2 qualifier Bill Goldberg, a former wrestler who completed only four laps before crashing, and led by more than six seconds going into the last of 10 laps. Pumping her arm out the window before taking the checkered flag, Torres won by 3.31 seconds over actor Christopher Kennedy Masterson.

"She's a really solid driver who goes fast, brakes late and makes very few mistakes," said Masterson, the oldest brother on the sitcom "Malcom in the Middle."

"Obviously, in our class, she's the very best."

Torres won the pole last year and was leading on the last lap, only to spin out when hit by another driver. "It took me six months to get over that," she said.

Patrick snaked her way past 10 of the 12 celebrities and, despite the starting handicap, finished 8.06 seconds behind Torres. Four-time Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall was fourth, and two-time Indy 500 starter Sarah Fisher was fifth, giving women three of the top five positions.

"I don't think it has anything to do with women," Patrick said. "We were all drivers out there doing what we were brought here to do.

"The car doesn't know the difference between a girl or a guy."

Kendall, the most accomplished of the five professional drivers, said that celebrities are getting such good instruction from Danny McKeever's Fast Lane Driving School, and the race is so short, the professionals are going to have a tough time winning again.

"Without yellow flags, it's going to be rarer and rarer for the pros to win overall," he said.

*

Ford and Honda might be out of CART in 2003, but MG Rover announced Saturday that it is in. The English manufacturer is the first to confirm participation under CART's new rules calling for a 3.5-liter normally aspirated V8 engine. Cosworth, the current manufacturer of Ford's racing engines, has indicated it will continue in the series.

In partnership with Engine Developments Ltd, the builder of Judd engines, the XV powerplant will be developed jointly using the basic architecture from the existing Judd V8 and V10 engines. Max Papis drove a V10-powered car that won this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona. Bobby Rahal won the 1988 Pocono 500 in a Judd-powered Lola.

"[This] is one of the single-most positive developments I have seen since I joined the organization [in December]," said CART President and Chief Executive Chris Pook. "As a native Englishman, I am honored to have one of Great Britain's premier brands join CART."

CART began racing last season in England.

*

Dorricott Racing won two of the last three titles in the defunct Dayton Indy Lights Championship--a step above Toyota Atlantics in CART's ladder system--and opened this season with a victory in the rain at Monterrey, Mexico, with rookie driver Jon Fogarty.

But veteran Atlantic teams threw down the gauntlet Saturday during qualifying, relegating Bob Dorricott's racing bloc to fourth, fifth and sixth on the starting grid.

Drivers for veteran Atlantic teams held the top positions as Joey Hand qualified first, Michael Valiante second and rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay third.

Hand, driving for DSTP Motorsports, averaged 90.494 mph to win the pole, and Valiante of Lynx racing averaged 90.463.

However, Hunter-Reay of Hylton Motorsports guaranteed himself a spot on the front by being the top qualifier during Friday's session.

"There was a lot of hoopla going in that [Dorricott] was going to dominate moving over because it's a very professional team and has very good personnel, but we always felt a strength in ourselves," said Hunter-Reay's owner, Keith Hylton, whose Irvine-based team won its first championship last season with Hoover Orsi. "They're definitely a target. We want to back that championship up and know it's for real."

Fogarty will start fourth, Alex Gurney fifth and rookie Luis Diaz sixth for Dorricott.

*

Paul Gentilozzi and Boris Said started on the front row last year at Long Beach, and will do the same today in the Trans-Am series' Johnson Controls 100. Last year, the two made contact, and Gentilozzi's day ended on the first lap.

Gentilozzi, a three-time Long Beach winner, will start from the pole after averaging 86.854 mph, ahead of Said's 86.594. Both drivers are well aware of the perils of racing on the street.

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