Race No. 4
DETROIT (April 5, 1996) A dominant individual career streak will clash
with a prevailing season run as the PPG IndyCar World Series prepares
for round four with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, April 12-14.
Al Unser Jr. (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) has turned the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach's temporary road course into his personal playground by winning six of the last eight events, including the last two in a row. His six career PPG Cup triumphs at Long Beach are the most by any driver on a track that is part of the current IndyCar schedule. The closest pursuer of such a mark is Michael Andretti (Kmart Texaco/Halvoline Lola Ford), who has five career victories at the Molson Indy Toronto event.
Unser Jr., who is tied for fourth in the PPG Cup points with 25, did not win at Long Beach in 1992 or `93, but he has re-established himself in the past two seasons. In those victories, he has won by an average of more than 81 seconds, including a 23.125-second win over Scott Pruett (Firestone-Patrick Racing Lola Ford) last season.
The combination of Unser Jr. and Long Beach will attempt to overcome one that has reigned over the first three races of this season. The Honda engine with Firestone tires has been the winning combination in all three events, with Jimmy Vasser (Target Reynard Honda) winning at Miami and Australia, and Andre Ribeiro (LCI International Lola Honda) at Rio. Honda and Firestone also have teamed up to lead 116 of the last 118 laps of IndyCar competition.
Vasser's first two career victories, along with his first career pole at the IndyCar Australia, have helped vault him into the PPG Cup lead with 47 points. He maintains a five-point advantage over Pruett.
Pruett finds himself on an interesting countdown to victory entering Long Beach. It began last season when he finished sixth at Vancouver - the second to last race of the year - and since then he has improved one position every race. He was fifth at the `95 season finale at Laguna Seca, fourth at the `95 season opener at Miami, third at Rio and runner-up at Australia.
Christian Fittipaldi (Kmart Budweiser Lola Ford) also has used consistently high finishes without the benefit of a victory to put him in the thick of PPG Cup race. Fittipaldi has finished among the top six in each of the three races, including a recent fifth in Australia. Ribeiro, on the strength of his emotional victory at Rio, is tied for fourth in the PPG Cup race. He is coming off his second consecutive top 10 showing, finishing eighth at the IndyCar Australia.
Two rookies are coming off season-best finishes from their debuts on a road course at the IndyCar Australia. Greg Moore (Player's Ltd./Indeck Reynard Mercedes) topped his seventh-place showing at the season opening Marlboro Grand Prix of Miami with a third. The performance also gave him the lead in the Rookie of the Year standings. Eddie Lawson (Delco Electronics High Tech Team Galles Lola Mercedes) secured his first top l0 effort by finishing seventh.
Two other veterans - Mauricio Gugelmin (Hollywood Reynard Ford) and Stefan Johansson (Alumax Aluminum Reynard Mercedes) - also turned in season-best performances at the IndyCar Australia and are hopeful of continuing their road-course success at Long Beach. Gugelmin and Johansson bounced back from difficult outings in Miami and Rio to finish fourth and sixth, respectively, and earn their first PPG Cup points of the season.
Unser Jr. holds the record for most victories at Long Beach, but Bobby Rahal (Miller Reynard Mercedes) holds the distinction for runner-up performances. He has finished second a record four times, including a streak of three in a row from 1991-93. His other came in 1988.
Andretti and Paul Tracy (Marlboro Penske Mercedes) are the only active drivers in the field that have won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach besides Unser Jr. Andretti won the 1986 event while Tracy is one of the two drivers - the other is Danny Sullivan - who has interrupted Unser Jr.'s streak with a triumph in 1993.
Gil de Ferran (Pennzoil Special Reynard Honda) has placed in the PPG Cup points in all three races, including second at Miami. His performances have him situated in sixth in the PPG Cup race with 21 points, but only seventh out of third place.
Emerson Fittipaldi (Marlboro Hogan Penske Mercedes) has four podium finishes in his career at Long Beach, but has been more impressive in his qualifying on the road circuit, In 12 career starts, he has qualified fifth or better eight times, including a best of second in `90, and out of the top 10 just once (12th in 1984).
Rookie Alex Zanardi (Target Reynard Honda) finished 21st at the IndyCar Australia after having transmission problems, but he continued to qualify extremely well. After posting his first career pole at Rio, he followed by starting third at Australia. Parker Johnstone (Motorola Reynard Honda) and Adrian Fernandez (Tecate Beer/Quaker State Lola Honda) also have been strong in recent qualifying, Johnstone qualified fifth at Rio and seventh at Australia, which rank behind only his pole at Michigan last season for career bests. Fernandez has been among the top 10 in the last two events, including a season-best eighth at Rio.
Robby Gordon (Valvoline/Cummins/Craftsman Special Reynard Ford), a California native, has a podium finish in front of the home crowd in his three appearances at Long Beach, taking third in 1994. Raul Boesel (Brahma Reynard Ford) returns to the course that he produced one of his three top-four efforts in the past two seasons with a fourth in `94.
Hiro Matsushita (Panasonic/Duskin Lola Ford) matched his second-best performance since `94 with a 10th-place showing in Australia. Payton/Coyne teammate Roberto Moreno (Data Control/Mi-Jack Lola Ford) has placed in the PPG Cup points in the past two races, finishing 9th at Rio and 12th at Australia.
Juan Fangio II (All American Racers Eagle Mk-V Toyota) continues to make progress with a new engine and chassis combination. He improved his finish for the third consecutive race, taking 15th in Australia. Rookie Jeff Krosnoff (Arciero-Wells Racing Reynard Toyota) also showed improvement with a season best effort in Australia of 18th and 14th.
Bryan Herta (Shell Reynard Mercedes) was positioning himself for a season best finish in Australia before being struck by misfortune. Herta was in sixth with 25 laps left, but was forced to retire when a fire started in his pit. He finished 17th.
Two new faces will dot the IndyCar landscape at Long Beach. Michael Jourdain Jr. signed a five year contract with Team Scandia and will take over for Carlos Guerrero in the No. 22 Herdez Perry Ellis/ALTA Natural Spring Water Lola Ford. Jourdain Jr., 19, spent the past four years competing in Mexico's Marlboro Cup Formula 2 series. Richie Hearn (Ralphs/Food 4 Less Reynard Ford) will make his IndyCar debut with Della Penna Motorsports, the first of five races he will run in the series this season.
The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the second consecutive road-course event on the PPG Indy Car World Series schedule, will be televised live on ABC-TV beginning at 4 p.m. EDT. ESPN2 will broadcast a qualifying show April 13 (5-6 p.m. EDT) and a pre-race show April 14 (3:30-4 p.m. EDT), The series returns to the ovals April 28 with the Bosch Spark Plug Grand Prix at Nazareth (Pa,) Speedway.