Pruett Flies in From East, Soars to Riverside Win : Mercurys Finish 1-2-3 as the Opposition Falters in Trans Am Series Opener

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<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

Jack Roush gave another demonstration of why his Ford Motor Co. cars have dominated both the Trans Am and International Motor Sports Assn. circuits Sunday at Riverside International Raceway in the opening event of the SCCA 1986 Bendix Trans Am series.

Sunday’s race started out as a battle among the Camaros of Wally Dallenbach Jr. and Jim Miller and the Nissan turbos of Paul Newman and Jim Fitzgerald and Roush’s Ford entries. But by the time it was over, it was all Roush’s Ford-made Mercury cars, as they wound up 1, 2, 3.

The winner was Scott Pruett of Roseville, who didn’t even arrive in Riverside until 2:30 Sunday morning.


Pruett, 26, had competed in a Roush Mustang Saturday in an IMSA race at Charlotte, N.C., and if he was suffering from jet lag it sure didn’t show as he roared up from his 31st starting position.

Chasing Pruett across the finish line was Indy veteran Pete Halsmer of Anaheim in the Mercury Merkur XT4Ri with another Indy veteran Chris Kneifel, who survived an early off-course spin to finish third. Pruett and Kneifel were in Mercury Capri cars.

Pruett, who had been battling with Halsmer for several laps, finally got by on lap 26 and suddenly found himself in the lead when Newman, who had led since lap 8, slowed with engine problems and left the race.

The sudden fortune came as a surprise to the winner.

“I thought Pete and I were fighting for second and that somebody else was way in front,” Pruett said afterward. “After that things went really well, although I was getting a little tired since I only had about four hours of sleep last night.” Pruett was also quick to praise teammate Halsmer, who did the basic setting up of the car while Pruett was in North Carolina.

“Pete really had it close,” Pruett said. “All we did was make a couple of minor changes this morning.” As pleased as they were with Pruett’s victory, Roush and the rest of the Mercury crew were even more happy with the showing of turbocharged Merkur, which is scheduled to replace the 3-year-old Capris this season.

“It’s hard to believe that this car performed as well as it did considering that everything, including the engine, is new,” a happy Halsmer said.


“We had been fighting a miss in the engine and just before the race we decided to take a chance and change to colder spark plugs. I guess we were lucky because it cured about 80% of the problems.

“Other than a slight problem with the brakes midway in the race I had no problems.”

Kneifel head to earn his third-place finish the hard way.

“I guess you could say that I did things in reverse of Scott. He started in the back and went to the front while I started in front, went to the back and then had to fight my way back,” he said.

Kneifel, who started on the front row, had his troubles on the seventh lap when he was running second behind Miller’s Camaro. The pair tangled in Turn 7 with both of them spinning off the course.

“He (Miller) was holding me back and I decided I had to make a move. Unfortunately we both ended up in the same place at the same time,” he said.

It was more unfortunate for Miller, who returned to the race after a pit stop, but dropped out shortly thereafter with electrical problems.

At that, he lasted longer than his teammate Dallenbach, who had started on the pole. Wally’s ride was fast, but short.


He jumped into the lead at the start but got only as far as the back straight where his Camaro went dead with electrical problems, failing to complete a lap.

With Camaros and Kneifel out of the way, Newman, who had started third, took over the top spot and appeared on his way to his first Trans Am victory as he began to pull away from Halsmer, who was helping unintentionally to keep Pruett back.

Just as Pruett finally got past Halsmer, Newman’s engine went sick and he coasted around and into the pits.

“Everything was fine, the tires were holding up great until the engine began to miss,” a dejected Newman said. “I thought it might clear up, but it just got worse, so I shut it off and coasted down the back straight.”

With their last competition eliminated, the Mercury trio was home free.