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It's No Act

Priestley isn't giving up Hollywood, but he's testing his skills in IRL developmental series


Celebrities are nothing new to auto racing. Paul Newman and Gene Hackman are among the biggest stars to get behind the wheel, and Motley Crue lead singer Vince Neil took a run in the old Indy Lights Series, a breeding ground for some of today's top drivers. But Jason Priestley is accelerating into uncharted territory for a Hollywood figure. The star of "Beverly Hills 90210" is racing against the next generation of Indianapolis 500 drivers.

Competing in Kansas earlier this month at speeds nearly three times the legal limit of the San Diego Freeway, Priestley finished second to one of racing's most famous names--A.J. Foyt IV, grandson of the four-time Indy winner--in the Infiniti Pro Series, a newly formed developmental series for the Indy Racing League.

A crash took out three of the top five cars just 20 laps from the finish, but Priestley was running in the group within a second of the leader. Priestley, 32, "hanging back in fifth to see what would happen," avoided the crash by slipping under it. Just as telling was his performance before the race--he qualified third in the field of 12.

It was his first oval race. His second comes today at Nashville Superspeedway. He qualified fourth.

"I was thrilled," team owner Tom Kelley said. "I was hoping [he'd] go there and come home with the car in once piece--that would have been a victory. He was very competitive, he made some good passes, he learned a lot, and I think every race he'll improve."

Not that Al Unser Jr. or Scott Sharp--Kelley's IRL drivers--should be looking over their shoulders. Unlike many he is racing against, Priestley is not being groomed for open wheel oval racing's highest level, Kelley said. But that doesn't mean the actor isn't taking his new role seriously.

"To say I do this as a hobby is disrespectful to the other drivers, to other teams," Priestley said. "This is professional racing. We race for money. I've got another job I do as well, but for a lot of people, this is how they make their living."

Race engineer Ray Gosselin is one of them. He has worked with such talented drivers as Sharp, Mark Dismore, Tony Kanaan, two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves and the late Greg Moore.

"We want him to lead races and win races," Gosselin said. "No one's going to be happy if he comes home 10th. No one's going to be happy if he comes home second. We want him to win races."

Priestley's commitment to racing has impressed those in the paddock. He worked on two movies the last two months--"Die Mommy Die!" a black comedy that he assures won't be straight-to-video despite its title, and "The True Meaning of Christmas." On days off from shooting, he participated in three tests in the car. He admits he will go as far as the asphalt will take him, even if it leads to Indianapolis.

"I'd definitely be open to the opportunity," Priestley said. "I wouldn't be so arrogant to say I could get in one of those cars tomorrow; that's just not the case. But if that opportunity came, it's an opportunity I would relish."

Spoken like a true racer.

"I'll give that to him, he's very focused on what's going on at the track," said Gosselin, who along with driver coach Tony Renna will have the greatest impact on Priestley's development. "His excitement and enthusiasm level is right where it needs to be; he's putting forth the effort and commitment to do the best he can.

"He's shown he wants to get better. He's willing to listen and learn. When he's not running, he's watching the other cars, seeing what lines they're running, what their brake points are ....I don't think there are a lot of people who are expecting too much, but I think he's expecting a lot of himself."

Said Kelley: "Jason's got a chance to win the series, and I'm not sure I thought that 90 days ago."

Kelley Racing's new sponsor, HomeMed Pharmacy, wanted a driver who could bring it immediate attention. In a developmental series, finding that kind of driver can be a problem.

"We had to find a person we thought could be competitive and bring our sponsor instant recognition, and we thought [Priestley] would be a good fit," Kelley said. "This is a serious deal, with cars that go 180 mph. This is not a road course where you run off on gravel.

"We did a lot of soul searching on this. We told Jason, 'We know you want to do this, but this is not just a thrill, this is a job.' "

There are risks.

The walls don't take kindly to these Indy-style cars, which don't have coverings over their wheels and have open cockpits. Priestley qualified in the season-opening event at Kansas Speedway at 177.988 mph; by comparison, Jason Leffler qualified first for last year's NASCAR Winston Cup stock car race at Kansas at 176.449 mph.

"This isn't Gene Hackman or Paul Newman racing sports cars," said Roger Bailey, director of the Infiniti Pro Series. "This is very serious stuff. My first impressions are that he may not be a world champion, but he won't be a hazard."

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