Tracy remains man to beat at Long Beach

Originally Published: April 9, 2005
Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Paul Tracy spent most of last season watching the Newman/Haas Racing duo of Sebastien Bourdais and Bruno Junqueira win races and listening to people question the commitment of the former series champion and his Forsythe Racing team.

After running away with the Champ Car World Series title in 2003, Tracy won only twice -- including the season-opening Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach -- in 2004. He slipped all the way to fourth in the standings as Bourdais and Junqueira combined for nine wins and finished 1-2 in the points.

A new season begins Sunday at Long Beach, where Tracy is not only the two-time defending champion and a four-time winner, but also goes into the 81-lap race on the 1.968-mile downtown street circuit as the pole winner.

"I'm definitely very motivated for the team,'' Tracy said after setting a track record with his lap of 1 minute, 7.485 seconds (104.982 mph). That broke the mark of 1:07.494 (104.969 mph) set in 2000 by two-time series champion Gil de Ferran.

It was his second Long Beach pole -- he also started from the pole here in 1994 -- and the 23rd of his Champ Car career. But Tracy figures he and the team owned by Gerald Forsythe have a lot to prove in 2005.

"It gets me upset when you pick up some motorsports magazines that say the Forsythe team has lost its way and that we're not motivated,'' Tracy said, eyes flashing.

He noted that new teammate Mario Dominguez, who joined Forsythe on Thursday, qualified third in the 19-car field for Sunday's race.

"You can't go fast like that unless the car is good,'' Tracy said.

Dominguez, who moved ahead of Bourdais on the grid with a lap of 1:07.803 (104.491 mph), said, "Forsythe just has something special about it: a lot of experience and confidence. They know what they're doing.

"I didn't know anybody on the team until Thursday. I've been on a crash course and it just shows how professional this team is.''

Bourdais saw his 15-race string of starts from the top three end.

Junqueira took the provisional pole on Friday, assuring himself of a front row start, and he came close to retaining the top spot with a lap of 1:07.644 (104.737 mph) as the checkered flag flew for the end of Saturday's qualifying.

"It was very, very close,'' Junqueira said, shrugging. "I had two tries and that's pretty much all I could do. Paul had a great car and a great lap, but tomorrow counts the most. I hope we can have a good start, great stops and great strategy and win tomorrow.''

If he or Bourdais does win Sunday, it would be the first victory here for the Newman/Haas team since Mario Andretti took the checkered flag in 1987.

The team co-owned by Chicago businessman Carl Haas and actor Paul Newman won three of the first four Champ Car races at Long Beach.

"Newman/Haas has always been competitive here,'' said Junqueira, who has finished third and second here the past two years. "It's just a matter of everything has to fall in the right place. There's no reason why we shouldn't win the race.''

The racing may look a bit different on Sunday, with Champ Car abandoning a 2-year-old rule that forced teams to pit and change tires within a specified number of laps at each event.

"It's a long race and, without the forced stops, there will be a lot of different strategies going on,'' Junqueira said.

Bourdais, who won eight poles and seven races last year on the way to the title, was a little disappointed after qualifying fourth at 1:07.821 (104.463 mph).

"The car was pretty good but I was just trying very hard and made a couple of mistakes,'' he said. "But, if (fourth) is a bad day, I'll take it. We'll be ready to race tomorrow.''

Justin Wilson was fifth at 1:07.919 (104.312 mph), followed by former Formula One driver and Champ Car rookie Timo Glock at 1:08.274 (103.770 mph), Alex Tagliani at 1:08.466 (103.479 mph) and 2002 series champion Cristiano da Matta, returning after a two-year stint in F1, at 1:08.493 (103.438 mph).

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press