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LONG BEACH GRAND PRIX NOTES

Gentilozzi Shows He's Game on Last-Lap Jam

April 15, 2002|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For anyone enjoying late-race theatrics, it was hard to top the Johnson Controls 100 in the Trans-Am Series for the BF Goodrich Tires Cup.

Three drivers led the last lap, the leader going into the last lap made contact with other drivers at least four times in the final minutes, and Paul Gentilozzi went from third to first with only three turns remaining to score the 24th victory of his career.

The timed race was scheduled for 51 laps or 70 minutes, and it went 45 laps. The wild finish began with Boris Said taking the white flag and second-place Gentilozzi and Justin Bell trailing. Said went into Turn 1 too hot, and Gentilozzi closed the deficit--bumping the back of Said's Panoz Esperante.

They continued to battle to the back straightaway on the 1.97-mile layout on the Long Beach streets, their cars touching as Said tried to block the three-time champion.

As they tangled and Gentilozzi backed off, Bell--who won last year's season finale--made a desperate move past Said, "but I think he forgot to brake," Gentilozzi said. Bell appeared to take the lead ever so briefly before making contact with Said, and in Turn 8, he spun nearly 180 degrees as Gentilozzi moved into first on the 11-turn course.

"That last straightaway was World Wrestling at its best," Said said. "[Bell] threw a Hail Mary on fourth and long."

Gentilozzi, the pole-sitter in a Jaguar XKR, took on new tires during his pit stop and won Long Beach for the fourth time. Said, who started second and did not take tires, was second and Johnny Miller, also in a Jaguar, was third. Bell, who started 15th in a Corvette, finished eighth.

The climactic end was set up by a caution flag with nine laps to go, wiping out about a seven-second lead that Said had built by pitting early and then passing last year's race winner, Lou Gigliotti, as the leaders pitted on Lap 24.

"I hated to see that last yellow come out because we had this race won easily," Said said. "No way they were going to catch me."

*

Canada's Michael Valiante made a daring pass of Alex Gurney on Lap 20 and scored his first victory in the series, giving Lynx Racing its second consecutive victory at Long Beach in the Toyota Atlantic Chevron Challenge.

The timed race was shortened from 32 to 29 laps because it was slowed by 14 laps under caution. A first-turn accident on the first lap brought 24 of the 27 cars to a standstill. Gurney, Valiante and the man who caused the pileup, third-place finisher Jon Fogarty, were the only drivers to get through the first turn.

Fogarty made an aggressive attempt at the lead from the inside of the second row, but locked his wheels and slid past the apex of the turn, sending pole-sitter Joey Hand and No. 2 qualifier Ryan Hunter-Reay into a tire wall.

Several cars made contact in the bottleneck.

The first six laps, and 14 of the first 19, were run under yellow all because of three crashes in Turn 1. On the restart on Lap 20 with Gurney protecting the inside, Valiante made a gutsy pass on the outside going into the first turn.

"I knew that was probably going to be my last chance," Valiante said. "I couldn't come off the hairpin [at the front of the straightaway] as good as him, but I was running a little less downforce. I don't think I would have passed him if I didn't pass him right then."

Valiante wobbled through the turn, coming within inches of the wall, and was never challenged, winning by 2.812 seconds.

"I pulled up a little because I thought he wasn't going to make it," said Gurney, who lives in nearby Newport Beach. "When he made it, I said, 'You lucky dog.'"

In seven Atlantic races, Valiante has never finished lower than sixth.

Fogarty retained the series lead with 35 points, three more than Valiante. Rocky Moran Jr., who finished fifth, has 21 points, followed by Luis Diaz with 19 and Gurney with 17.

Hunter-Reay, who finished 18th, broke the Atlantic course record with a lap of 1 minute 18.456 seconds, and was more than a second faster than anyone else in the field.

"I feel like the entire Atlantic field got lucky today because I had the best car I have ever driven," he said.

It was particularly heartbreaking to Dorricott Racing's Gurney, who started fourth, because his father, Dan Gurney--who celebrated his 71st birthday on Saturday--played such an integral role in creating the Grand Prix.

"It would have been great to win," he said, "but they had the strongest car."

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