Trans Am Series : Qualifying Today at Riverside

Times Staff Writer

Today's battle for starting positions in Sunday's opening round of the SCCA Bendix 1986 Trans Am sedan series at Riverside International Raceway figures to be a test between the new and the old.

Will the several new cars that will be making their racing debuts be able to outrun the proven machines?

Fans, owners and drivers will begin to find out during this afternoon's qualifying runs over the 2.54-mile short course at Riverside.

Representing the new today will be the latest factory-backed entries from Ford, Chevrolet and Porsche.

Ford, which has dominated the Trans Am series the last few years, will unveil a turbocharged Mercury Merkur that it hopes will continue that domination. The Merkur is the lastest of the Jack Roush-prepared machines and will have Indianapolis veteran and long-time road racer Pete Halsmer at the wheel.

Chevrolet is pinning its hopes on a new Camaro designed and built by Protofab Racing of Livonia, Mich. It will be driven by defending Trans Am series champion Wally Dallenbach Jr.

The Protofab-Dallenbach team ran under the Roush banner last year to win the title in a Mercury Capri. After the season, they parted ways, however, so there is not only a Ford vs. Chevy battle, but one between former associates as well.

The third new car is a turbocharged Porsche 944 that will be driven by Ludwig Heimrath Jr., son of the 1977 Trans Am champion.

Heading the pole contenders among the proven cars are a pair of factory-backed Nissan 300ZX turbos from Newman-Sharp Racing, a pair of Roush Mercury Capris and a Buick.

The Nissans will be driven by actor Paul Newman and Jim Fitzgerald, both of whom are in their 60s. Newman is 61, Fitzgerald 64. Although he failed to win last year, Newman took the pole for three straight events and led all three races before being slowed by minor car problems.

One of the Capris will be driven by former Indy car driver Chris Kneifel as a teammate to Halsmer. It is one of the machines that Dallenbach and Willy T. Ribbs drove to 12 victories in 15 events last year.

The other Capri may start at the back of the pack Sunday, with Scott Pruett, defending International Motor Sports Assn. GTO champion, at the wheel. Pruett will compete in an IMSA event today at Charlotte, N.C., then will fly to Riverside for Sunday's 100-miler.

The Buick will be driven by Elliott Forbes-Robinson, a former Californian who now lives in Denver, N.C. Last year, Forbes-Robinson and the Buick sat on the pole for one race and also posted one of the few victories that didn't go to Dallenbach or Ribbs.

In addition to Trans Am qualifying, time trials will be run today for the five supporting races on Sunday's program--Formula Atlantic, Formula Russell, Sports 2000, Volkswagen Cup and Sports Renault.

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