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De Ferran Is Right at Home on the Long Beach Circuit

The circuit for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, with eight turns on 1.586 miles of city streets, is one of the slowest on the CART FedEx championship series, which seems to fit the precise driving style of Brazilian Gil de Ferran.

For the last two years, driving for Jim Hall in 1996 and Derrick Walker last season, de Ferran has won the pole, setting a record of 111.313 mph last year.

Only temporary street courses at Toronto’s Exhibition Place and Detroit’s Belle Isle have slower qualifying records than Long Beach. And, another indication of his ability on tight circuits, de Ferran holds the Detroit record at 109.483.

Qualifying for Sunday’s 105-lap (166.530-mile) main event will start today at 2:30 p.m., with another session Saturday at 12:45 p.m. Times in both sessions will determine the starting positions.

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“I guess there must be some intricacies in my driving style that suit Long Beach,” said de Ferran, who will be driving a Reynard-Honda for Walker Racing. “I think I tend to be good under braking and Long Beach obviously has two very important braking areas, so that might be one reason I do well.”

Unlike oval courses, where cars do not race in wet weather, the Grand Prix schedule will go as planned--rain or shine. Only if the course becomes flooded will the race be postponed until Monday.

TOYOTA PRO-CELEBRITY

Celebrity races sponsored by Toyota have been a part of the Long Beach Grand Prix since the inaugural race in 1975.

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The first one matched four former Formula One drivers, world champions Phil Hill and Graham Hill, and Dan Gurney and Bob Bondurant, all driving Toyota Celicas. It turned into a demonstration run that ended in close to a four-car dead heat, Phil Hill was declared the photo-finish winner.

In 1976, the first year of Formula One participation, interest in the celebrity race almost matched interest in the main event as the legendary five-time world champion, Juan-Manuel Fangio, 64, came up from Argentina to drive a vintage Mercedes sent from the factory in Germany just for the day.

Also in the historic car race were Gurney, in a 1959 BMW; Carroll Shelby in a 1951 Ferrari; Maurice Trintignant in a 1958 Talbot Lago, Denis Hulme in a 1957 Cooper Climax and Rene Dreyfuss in a 1932 Bugatti.

Gurney, only six years removed from his last Formula One race, won with a majestic pass of Fangio on the last turn going into the straightaway.

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“I was almost embarrassed,” Gurney recalls. “I didn’t really want to pass the Maestro, a man I had revered for many moons. I told him I was very embarrassed to pass him, and he said I just pick on old men.”

Toyota’s 22nd pro-celebrity race Saturday will be one of four supporting events this weekend.

Qualifying for the 18 celebrity and professional drivers will be held today at 1:45 p.m., with the 10-lap race scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Saturday, after final CART qualifying.

Driving as “professionals” will be Greg LeMond, better known for winning the Tour de France three times on a bicycle, but now campaigning in the Formula 2000 series; Cristen Powell, a winning top-fuel driver on the National Hot Rod Assn. circuit; Sean Patrick Flanery, last year’s winning driver, and two race drivers from Japan, actress Junko Mihara and journalist Kumi Sato.

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From the entertainment industry, entrants include Cameron Diaz, James Belushi, Queen Latifah, Eric Braeden, Joshua Morrow, Catherine Bell, Andy Lauer, Daryl Mitchell, Jim Moret and Carlos Amezcua. Also racing will be Derrick Thomas, Kansas City Chief linebacker; John Cage, a Toyota dealer in Long Beach, and Bob Fouts, who bid $50,000 in an auction to get into the race.

INDY LIGHTS

The future of CART FedEx champ car racing may be on display Sunday when the PPG-Dayton Indy Lights cars race for 75 miles as part of CART’s development series.

The Indy Lights series was designed to showcase driver talent. All teams run Lola T97/20 chassis powered by non-turbocharged V-6 engines producing 425 horsepower. Teams own the Lolas, but rent sealed engines, on which no modifications are permitted.

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The complete package, about 25% smaller than the CART champ cars, has a top speed of 190 mph, although not on a slow circuit such as Long Beach.

This race will be the second of a 14-race schedule that began two weeks ago at Homestead, Fla., with a surprise winner, Shigeaki Hattori, a Formula Toyota driver from Japan who now lives in Laguna Niguel.

At 34, Hattori is the senior driver in the Lights series, nearly 10 years older than the average age of the field in Miami, which was 25.5 years. Driving an Epson Lola, he finished nearly half a second ahead of Brazil’s Cristiano da Matta, 24, who was second last year in Long Beach, and rookie Guy Smith, 23, of England.

“In the head, I am 20,” Hattori said.

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In a series dominated by foreign drivers, American entrants include Casey Mears of Bakersfield, son of off-road champion Roger Mears; rookie Mike Borokowski of Dublin, Ohio, a Bobby Rahal protege; and Chris Simmons of East Granby, Conn., the only American driver among the first eight finishers in Miami.

Clint Mears, Casey’s cousin and son of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, will miss the race. He is recuperating from injuries suffered in a crash during a warmup session at Homestead. Mears has a separated left shoulder, which would make driving difficult on a mostly right-turn road course like Long Beach.

“Nazareth [April 26] looks like it should be OK,” he said. “It’s an oval and I should be better healed by then.”

TOYOTA ATLANTIC

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In the 25th anniversary year of the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic series, drivers will be in new open-wheel cars built by Swift, equipped with a CART-style sequential gearbox and 18-inch Yokohama tires, two inches wider than permitted last year.

Among the drivers are 13 rookies, hopeful of gaining attention and moving up to Indy Lights or Fed-Ex champ cars. However, there are also a number of veterans returning.

Alexandre Tagliani of Canada, last year’s Long Beach winner, is back, as is Case Montgomery of Salinas, the 1996 winner.

The team to watch is Lynx Racing’s Memo Gidley of San Rafael and rookie Buddy Rice of Phoenix, up from the Formula 2000 series. Lynx drivers won the last two Formula Atlantic championships, Patrick Carpentier in 1996 and Alex Barron in 1997. Both will be driving in Sunday’s FedEx championship race.

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Gidley was series runner-up to Barron last year with wins at Toronto and Vancouver. The Lynx team is also unique in that it is owned by two women, Peggy Haas and Jackie Doty.

Also driving are David Pook, son of Long Beach Grand Prix founder-president Chris Pook, and Derek Hill, son of former Formula One champion Phil Hill. This is Pook’s third year in Atlantics, whereas Hill is a rookie. He won the Barber Dodge series title last year.

The race is scheduled for 4 p.m. Saturday and will shown on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. on April 11.

TRANS-AM

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Tom Kendall, the champion the last three years, and Jack Rousch, whose Ford Mustangs won the championships, are not racing in this year’s NTB Trans-Am series, which will debut Sunday with a 100-lap (63-mile) race after the champ car main event.

Paul Gentilozzi, winner of the 1988 Long Beach race, is the best known driver among the 28 entrants. He will be driving a new Corvette for his Rocketsports team.

“I’ve got absolute faith in our car design,” said the veteran from Lansing, Mich. “Any time we’ve introduced a new car, we’ve always been up front, whether it was the pole a Daytona in 1993 or the podium sweep at Sears Point in 1991.”

If Gentilozzi, 48, can be beaten, it probably will be by Brian Simo, 38, of Carlsbad, driving a Ford Mustang; Stuart Hayner, 48, of Yorba Linda, in a Chevy Camaro; or Mike Lewis, 38, of San Diego, a former SCCA national champion, who will drive a Mustang Cobra in his second Trans-Am campaign.

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The Trans-Am, known as America’s Muscle Series, is also something of a senior-citizen gathering. Among the drivers are Bob Ruman, 56, of Munroe Falls, Ohio; Bill Saunders, 50, of Dallas; and Peter Shea, 52, of Newport Beach, the publisher of Entrepreneur magazine.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Grand Prix of Long Beach at a Glance

* When: Today-Sunday. Practice and qualifying today and Saturday. Support races Saturday and Sunday. CART race Sunday.

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* The course: A 1.59-mile, eight-turn circuit in downtown Long Beach.

* Drivers: Include defending and PPG Cup champion Alex Zanardi, six-time Long Beach winner Al Unser Jr., Jimmy Vasser, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy.

* TV: 1 p.m. Sunday, ESPN.

* Radio: XTRA (690).

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