Pro know-how prevailed Saturday in the pro-celebrity race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
P.J. Jones, son of former Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones and touted as a rising star on the road-racing scene, took advantage of amateur errors and drove to an easy victory in the 10-lap event.
Another pro, off-road racer Rod Millen, finished second, and even the celebrity winner, third-place finisher Joe Amato, drives cars for a living. Amato, however, is a champion in top-fuel dragsters, which, under normal circumstances, turn neither left nor right, hence his non-pro status.
And Amato, for all his lack of experience, made the move that ultimately determined the outcome.
The race format handicaps the pro drivers, who start 25 seconds behind the celebrities. All the drivers are in similarly prepared, basically stock Toyota Celicas. That means the pros have to weave their way through the field of celebrities, whose uncertain skills can make passing a dubious proposition.
Jones, however, passed two celebrities in the very early going, opening a gap between him and the other pros, then took off after the leading celebrities, who were having a nice little race of their own up front.
Ian Ziering of “Beverly Hills, 90210,” was in front, holding off Mike Bealmear, a New York businessman who paid $28,000 at a charity-ball auction for his ride here, with Amato a strong third for the first three laps over the 1.59-mile street course.
With Jones lurking in the background, Bealmear passed Ziering for the lead on the fourth lap but Amato slipped over to the inside line on the main straightaway, setting himself up to pass both Bealmear and Ziering on Turn 1 of the fifth lap. So startled were they to see him there when they went into the turn that both piled into the wall, leaving the lead to Amato.
But not for long. Jones, by then past all the other celebrity drivers, quickly picked off the drag racer and, except for a cozy little get-together by Craig T. Nelson of “Coach,” and Tim Allen of “Home Improvement,” the race continued without incident. Gunnar Nelson, who with twin brother Matthew makes up the rock duo Nelson, was fourth overall, and Ziering was fifth.
Said Jones: “As soon as I got up to the top three guys . . . I see two of them on the wall and Joe’s the only survivor, so I got right on his bumper and got him on Turn 3.”
The race, a part of the “Racing for Kids” program, earned $57,000, to be shared equally by the Children’s hospitals of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Orange County.
Robby Gordon, making his Trans-Am debut, gladly accepted an exceptional piece of racing luck and won the opening race of the Sports Car Club of America’s Tide Trans-Am Tour for sports sedans.
Gordon, of Orange, had led from the early stages of the 45-lap race in his Ford Mustang when Scott Sharp, the defending series champion from East Norwalk, Conn., passed him in the backstretch in a Chevrolet Camaro.
Ordinarily, that pass, on the 41st lap, would have been enough for Sharp.
Instead, though, his momentum carried him a little wide, he got into some oil on the outside of the hairpin at Turn 8, and Gordon was able to slip past him inside.
“He hit the oil and went straight on through,” Gordon said of Sharp. “I got (through) on the inside of the oil.”
That left Sharp nothing to do but try to avoid hitting the outside wall. He succeeded, but found himself angle-parked against it, with nowhere to go.
Gordon brushed that wall himself, then continued on. Sharp had to let other traffic go by before he could get back on his way, and finished fourth.