GRAHAM RAHAL SEIZES OPENING RACE IN CLEVELAND FOR DRAMATIC SECOND CAREER ATLANTIC VICTORY
CLEVELAND (June 24, 2006) - Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) turned back the clock Saturday in the opening race of the Gehl Atlantic Championship of Cleveland.
The 17-year-old racing phenom overcame a challenging start - the first standing start in the Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda since 1998 - and fought by both the faster and slower cars in front of him on the race track to claim his second career series victory in his fifth Atlantic start. The win was a special one for the native of New Albany, Ohio as it came on his "home" track at the Burke Lakefront Airport road course and it also occurred at the site where his famous father, racing legend Bobby Rahal, claimed his first Champ Car victory 25 years ago in the very first Grand Prix of Cleveland.
While the young Rahal cruised to his first Atlantic win at Monterrey, Mexico in May, leading every lap to become the youngest winner in the 33-year history of the series, he had to work hard to get to Victory Circle on Saturday.
Series leader Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Wirth Solar) started on the pole for the first race of the doubleheader weekend, but the young German couldn't hold the point at the start. French rookie Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) started second behind Wirth and the Team Australia racer got a great jump to claim the lead. While the 24-car Atlantic field staged a picture-perfect standing start for the first stationary format launch in nearly eight years, Pagenaud took control of the race as the field made it cleanly through the always-treacherous Turn 1 on the 10-turn, 2.106-mile road circuit.
While Wirth stayed in Pagenaud's mirrors in second place, the early part of the 32-lap race certainly belonged to the Frenchman. He paced the first 23 laps as he weaved his way through lapped traffic to maintain his lead. Rahal wasn't happy with his start, but he maintained his fifth-place position early and even moved up a couple of spots, grabbing third place after Robbie Pecorari (#28 Western Union/USA Today/Gelles Racing) suffered heavy damage on his car after hitting the Turn 8 wall.
Both Pagenaud and Wirth once again began to encounter slower lapped cars in the later stages of the race, opening the door for the speedy Rahal. While Wirth tried to work his way around one of the backmarkers on Lap 21, Rahal saw his opportunity and pounced. He passed the Forsythe Racing sophomore in Turn 8 to claim second place and then set his sights on first place.
Just two laps later, Rahal closed quickly on Pagenaud as the leader tried to avoid the slowing car of Daniel Gaunt (#35 Newman Wachs Racing), who was fighting mechanical problems.. Rahal zoomed around Pagenaud to capture the lead on the 23rd orbit of the race heading into Turn 1. With the boisterous Cleveland crowd cheering for their local hero, Bobby Rahal couldn't help but smile as his son's impressive and gutsy performance brought back memories of his 1982 Cleveland Champ Car victory.
Just five laps from the finish, Justin Sofio (#26 Mathiasen Motorsports/RLM Investments) made hard contact with the Turn 8 wall as Rahal continued to hold off Pagenaud and Wirth. The damage caused by Sofio's crash required extensive cleanup, forcing the race to end under a yellow caution flag as the Champ Car Safety Team attended to the wreckage.
After first-lap contact with Pagenaud took him out of contention last week in Portland when he started from the pole, Rahal's victory not only lifted his spirits emotionally, it also elevated him in the championship standings. Saturday's win enabled him to rise from seventh to third in the chase for the title and the $2 million Champ Car champion's bonus. Rahal ended the day 40 points in back of Wirth in the season standings.
Pagenaud secured his third podium finish in five events this season with his second-place result as he moved back into the second position in the championship standings, now just 27 points behind the leader. Wirth claimed his fourth podium finish of the season and his 11th top-three result in 15 career Atlantic starts. He also maintained his championship lead, now with 135 points through five rounds of action.
PR1 Motorsports racer Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Dynacor) came home fourth for his third top-five of the season, while Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) of Sierra Sierra Enterprises completed the top-five finishers.
Carlos Mastretta (#8 Tecnoidea/Radiante Digital/Signotech) of Mexico and Brooks Associates Racing earned his best series finish in sixth place while Leonardo Maia (#7 INDECK) also scored his best Atlantic finish, crossing the stripe in seventh place. Brazilian Danilo Dirani (#1 Canary Fund/Funcional Card/Sala Design/Perkons) claimed his fourth top 10 to start the year with an eighth-place run and Joe D'Agostino (#34 Newman/Wachs Racing) equaled his best result in ninth. Mexican series sophomore David Martinez (#4 Mexico/US RaceTronics) rounded out the top 10.
Sunday morning starts with a 15-minute morning warm-up at 9 a.m. ET for the Atlantic cars before the second race of the Gehl Atlantic Championship of Cleveland doubleheader takes the green flag standing start at 12 p.m. Follow all of Sunday's racing action through the Live Timing link, and see all 2006 races on demand, at www.champcaratlantic.com.
ATLANTIC RACE NOTES · Rahal set a new course one-lap race record as he clocked a time of 1:04.744 (117.100 mph) on Lap 17. He earned a bonus championship point for turning the fastest lap of the race.
· Tim Bridgman (#2 Epson) of MSR Houston Team Jensen also scored a bonus point for improving the most positions in the race. Bridgman started 19th and bettered his spot to 12th at the checkered flag.
· The top two finishers in today's race will flip positions at the start of Sunday's race. Pagenaud won his first series pole on Saturday morning as he will start from the point, while Rahal will line up second.
· Video highlights of Sunday's Atlantic race will be included on the Champ Car satellite video uplink feed. Racing action and interviews with the top finishers from the Atlantic Championship will be featured on the feed, scheduled for Sunday, June 25 from 7:15-7:45 p.m. ET. The satellite coordinates from the uplink are: KU-Band (ANALOG), AMC 6, Transponder: K-22, D/L Frequency:12140 Horizontal and Audio: 6.2 6.8.
Quotes from the top three finishers in today's race follow:
Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing: "The start was pretty upsetting for me. I had done a lot of testing in these cars. I did exactly what I though was best, and it didn't work out for me. By the time we got out of Turn 1, I was in fifth. From there, I caught up to Steve Ott and Robbie (Pecorari). Going in to Turn 8, Pecorari hit the wall. It was a close call for me. We kept ripping off fast laps and I was getting closer and closer to Andreas (Wirth). We hit traffic and I just took advantage of it. It worked in my favor, as soon as Andreas pulled up next to Simon in the back straight, I knew that I could get a good run coming out and I did. It worked perfectly. I could see they were struggling in traffic. It kind of dispersed by the time I got there. (on the win) It's nice to win here, it's the closest thing to home. I was disappointed by qualifying and I knew we could have done better. The important thing is to be consistent. Eventually everyone else will get worn out. I knew the opportunity would come and it did. "
Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) of Team Australia: "My start was very good. I did not practice a lot with this car, but I felt the clutch was good. I was clear into the first corner There was no crash. It was a great start. The car was good. I was under control, when I needed more gap with Andreas, I was pushing. Then, we caught the traffic. The slow guys at the back don't see the blue flags. I was behind him and I couldn't overtake. It was difficult with all the downforce on the car, when you are behind you don't have any grip. I went into Turn 7 and tried to overtake Alex Garcia and he closed the door. He slowed me down, but I could have crashed and not finished the race. I had a good car, but the traffic was too busy."
Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Wirth Solar) of Forsythe Championship Racing: "I just wanted to get through Turn 1 My car was good at the beginning. After about 10 or 15 laps, it started to fade away. It went better at the end of the race, but then we started getting lapped cars, which is really unfortunate because we lost a lot of time. Graham could catch up. I'm happy to be on the podium. I just hope that we can improve and do better tomorrow. (About lapped traffic) Simon almost crashed in Turn 7 (because of traffic) and I don't understand because there is no wider track on our schedule. If cars can not go out of the way on the track that's 200 feet wide, I don't get it. I was really pissed about that in the race. All these guys are trying their best, but I think they should get out of the way when the faster guys are coming that are fighting for the championship. The lapped traffic affected our result today. But, I'm happy, for me it's about points and consistency."