Saturday was Ladies Day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
For the first time in the 26-year history of the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race, a woman took the checkered flag.
Swimmer Dara Torres, an Olympic gold medalist, started from the pole and ran away from the rest of the celebrity field, doing something that previous stars Cameron Diaz, Ashley Judd and Crystal Bernard could not.
Torres wasn’t alone. Danica Patrick, a 20-year-old from Illinois who raced in Europe the last few years, won the professional category and finished third overall despite starting 30 seconds behind the leader on the 1.97-mile street course.
Racing in identically prepared Toyota Celicas, Torres pulled away from No. 2 qualifier Bill Goldberg, a former wrestler who completed only four laps before crashing, and led by more than six seconds going into the last of 10 laps. Pumping her arm out the window before taking the checkered flag, Torres won by 3.31 seconds over actor Christopher Kennedy Masterson.
“She’s a really solid driver who goes fast, brakes late and makes very few mistakes,” said Masterson, the oldest brother on the sitcom “Malcom in the Middle.”
“Obviously, in our class, she’s the very best.”
Torres won the pole last year and was leading on the last lap, only to spin out when hit by another driver. “It took me six months to get over that,” she said.
Patrick snaked her way past 10 of the 12 celebrities and, despite the starting handicap, finished 8.06 seconds behind Torres. Four-time Trans-Am champion Tommy Kendall was fourth, and two-time Indy 500 starter Sarah Fisher was fifth, giving women three of the top five positions.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with women,” Patrick said. “We were all drivers out there doing what we were brought here to do.
“The car doesn’t know the difference between a girl or a guy.”
Kendall, the most accomplished of the five professional drivers, said that celebrities are getting such good instruction from Danny McKeever’s Fast Lane Driving School, and the race is so short, the professionals are going to have a tough time winning again.
“Without yellow flags, it’s going to be rarer and rarer for the pros to win overall,” he said.
Ford and Honda might be out of CART in 2003, but MG Rover announced Saturday that it is in. The English manufacturer is the first to confirm participation under CART’s new rules calling for a 3.5-liter normally aspirated V8 engine. Cosworth, the current manufacturer of Ford’s racing engines, has indicated it will continue in the series.
In partnership with Engine Developments Ltd, the builder of Judd engines, the XV powerplant will be developed jointly using the basic architecture from the existing Judd V8 and V10 engines. Max Papis drove a V10-powered car that won this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. Bobby Rahal won the 1988 Pocono 500 in a Judd-powered Lola.
"[This] is one of the single-most positive developments I have seen since I joined the organization [in December],” said CART President and Chief Executive Chris Pook. “As a native Englishman, I am honored to have one of Great Britain’s premier brands join CART.”
CART began racing last season in England.
Dorricott Racing won two of the last three titles in the defunct Dayton Indy Lights Championship--a step above Toyota Atlantics in CART’s ladder system--and opened this season with a victory in the rain at Monterrey, Mexico, with rookie driver Jon Fogarty.
But veteran Atlantic teams threw down the gauntlet Saturday during qualifying, relegating Bob Dorricott’s racing bloc to fourth, fifth and sixth on the starting grid.
Drivers for veteran Atlantic teams held the top positions as Joey Hand qualified first, Michael Valiante second and rookie Ryan Hunter-Reay third.
Hand, driving for DSTP Motorsports, averaged 90.494 mph to win the pole, and Valiante of Lynx racing averaged 90.463.
However, Hunter-Reay of Hylton Motorsports guaranteed himself a spot on the front by being the top qualifier during Friday’s session.
“There was a lot of hoopla going in that [Dorricott] was going to dominate moving over because it’s a very professional team and has very good personnel, but we always felt a strength in ourselves,” said Hunter-Reay’s owner, Keith Hylton, whose Irvine-based team won its first championship last season with Hoover Orsi. “They’re definitely a target. We want to back that championship up and know it’s for real.”
Fogarty will start fourth, Alex Gurney fifth and rookie Luis Diaz sixth for Dorricott.
Paul Gentilozzi and Boris Said started on the front row last year at Long Beach, and will do the same today in the Trans-Am series’ Johnson Controls 100. Last year, the two made contact, and Gentilozzi’s day ended on the first lap.
Gentilozzi, a three-time Long Beach winner, will start from the pole after averaging 86.854 mph, ahead of Said’s 86.594. Both drivers are well aware of the perils of racing on the street.
“This is a race of attrition,” said Gentilozzi, a three-time series champion. “It’s easy to make a mistake here, clip a wall, flat-spot the tires. It’s easy to get caught up emotionally.”
That’s what happened to Said last year.
“I could have won if I didn’t let my ego get in the way,” Said said. “I watched Paul put it in the fence, and then I was driving as fast as I could every lap for no reason. I could have backed off 10 or 15%.”
And then Said put his car into the wall.
Lou Gigliotti went on to win. He will start fifth, behind Butch Leitzinger, who was third, and Michael Lewis, who was fourth.
This will be the first Trans-Am race in Long Beach in which drivers will be forced to pit. The series reduced the allowable fuel load, forcing mandatory pit stops.
“All real racing has pit stops,” Said said. “I think it’s good. It makes the team more involved.”
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*--* * Schedule: Today, race (Ch. 11, 12:30 p.m.) * Track: Long Beach Street Circuit (temporary road course, 1.968 miles, 11 turns) * Race distance: 90 laps, 177.12 miles * Last race: Cristiano da Matta ran a nearly flawless race to successfully defend his Monterrey Grand Prix title on March 10. The Brazilian has three consecutive CART victories * Last year: Helio Castroneves fought off Da Matta to win the Toyota Grand Prix. The two Brazilians put on a sensational show in the last half of the race, with Castroneves holding off Da Matta by 0.534 seconds * Fast facts: A win by Da Matta this week will tie the CART record for consecutive victories. Al Unser Jr. (1990) and Alex Zanardi (1998) hold the record with four. Christian Fittipaldi has not won since the 2000 season-ending race at California Speedway. Castroneves won from the pole last year, the first driver to do so at Long Beach since Unser Jr. in 1990. The best finish for a Toyota was third, in 2000 by Jimmy Vasser. Mario Andretti won three of the first four events at Long Beach. Paul Tracy owns the track record for fastest winning speed by going 82.626 mph in 2000 * Next race: Bridgestone Potenza 500, April 27, Motegi, Japan