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MOTOR RACING

Long Beach Events Will Build Up to Grand Prix

April 06, 2006|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

It's early April, which means racing on the streets of Long Beach. A series of races this weekend will lead up to Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the season opener of the Champ Car World Series.

Saturday's schedule includes the traditional celebrity race, followed by a race for prototype cars in the Grand American Rolex Sports Car Series.

A race in Champ Car's development series, the Atlantic Championship, is scheduled Sunday before the Grand Prix, and an SCCA Speed GT sports car race will immediately follow the Grand Prix.

There also will be drifting challenges -- drifting an increasingly popular event in which two cars slide through corners at high speeds while trying to stay as close to each other as possible -- all three days.

Grand Prix qualifying is scheduled Friday and Saturday. Drivers in all of the races will be practicing on those days along the 1.97-mile, 11-turn course that features a high-speed stretch along Shoreline Drive.

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The Grand Prix arrives on the heels of confirmed talks between officials of Champ Car and the rival Indy Racing League regarding a merger of their series.

The groups split a decade ago, and the fortunes of U.S. open-wheel racing have largely sagged ever since. Most people in the sport hope that trend will be reversed if the rival camps reunite and present one series.

When drivers, Champ Car officials and Grand Prix promoters met with the media Wednesday, one of Champ Car's principals, Kevin Kalkhoven, stepped to the microphone and said he would give the shortest speech of the week.

"Yes, we're still talking," he said, referring to the merger negotiations. Amid laughter and applause, he then stepped down.

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Two of the favorites to win the Grand Prix, Sebastien Bourdais and Paul Tracy, said they don't plan to resume their feud of last season.

Bourdais, who won the race last year on the way to his Champ Car World Series title, and four-time Long Beach winner Tracy were openly at odds last year.

But the drivers downplayed any hard feelings.

"I don't think we're particularly unfriendly off the track, other than maybe [in] the immediate aftermath after something happens," Tracy said. "As time goes by, tempers cool down and we get back to racing."

Bourdais called their rivalry "a little overrated" and said, "It's just racing." But he added, "[Tracy's] a rough competitor and I'm not giving up anything."

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Veteran driver Jimmy Vasser, 40, who won the Long Beach race and the Champ Car title in 1996, when the organization was known as CART, said it was "more than likely" that this would be his last Long Beach race. But the Canoga Park native, who lives in Las Vegas, is expected to stay heavily involved in Champ Car racing. The car he drives is owned by PKV Racing, a team Vasser co-owns with Kalkhoven and Dan Pettit.

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