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Long Beach Diary:
Day One
Atlantics Are Promoted, and Danica Patrick Steals The Limelight

Long Beach, CA, April 12 — It was another gray, overcast day in the city that hosts "The World’s Largest Beach Party." This was good news to the segment of the population that has sun allergies. For the rest of us, it was just another cold day down by the ocean. Of course, cold is a relative thing. If you live in a climate where it actually, say, snows, it was sweater weather – no jackets required.

If you attend Long Beach every year as we do, it has an element of reunion, with the good possibility of running into people you haven't seen since last year's race or Fontana. According to one circuit photographer, it's "spring break for gear heads."

This phrase was running through my mind as I spoke to the operator of another Internet motorsports site. One nice benefit of the press pass is that they type your name right on your credential, so that those who can read fast can call you by name and give the impression they actually remember you, even if you don't.

This year's Friday activities were a bit different than last. For one thing, there's no more Indy Lights, so the schedule feels a little more flexible, and a bit less rushed. The Pro-Celebrity Race returns, which is the comic relief of the weekend, although they do a wonderful job of raising money for charities.

Toyota Atlantics has been "promoted" to the premier support series of CART, which means that fans tend to walk right past the young competitors unless they are dressed in racing suits (that's the drivers, not the fans). Savvy fans do know that Atlantics is where to spot new and upcoming talent.

If you can arrive early and stay late, which many a gear head will do this weekend in order to soak up the smells of all those racing fumes, Trans-Am offers fantastic competition amongst what looks like street sports cars on LSD. But, most of the crowd, at least the part that is there to actually see racing, is here to see CART. And, to their credit, the drivers put on quite a show on Friday for all to see.

If you remember last year, CART had decided to eliminate Friday qualifying. Why, I don't quite remember. And last year, there was that two group qualifying thing, as well. It's all gone now, folks. The only problem with the new system is that the beginning of the session can be down right boring. If you're used to the green flag dropping and the cars coming out running, the new system requires a little shift in attitude. The crowd sat there and waited. And waited. And waited.

Announcer Bruce Landers tried his best to yuck it up, but after 10 minutes of stone silence, they threw on some taped music. The problem, in a nutshell, is the 15-lap limit. Even with traffic, these guys can lay down 15 laps in less than 20 minutes. The session was scheduled for an hour.

Finally, close to 15 minutes into the session, driver Mario Dominguez drove out to what has to have been some of the biggest applause of his career – and all for going out to run a lap on a race course. Then came Paul Tracy. Then, others, and by the time the session was 25 minutes in length, it seemed like a real qualifying session.

It's obvious by now that Cristiano da Matta is exerting a dominance on this group of drivers. Friday was no exception as the Tall Man took the provisional pole. Whether or not this will continue is what makes auto racing such an exciting sport. Of course it won't, but it's a matter of when that magic bubble bursts and who's there to climb into it once it does.

Team Rahal looked very strong out there today, and I'm not saying that just because they invited Deep Throttle to their Media Happy Hour. Jimmy Vasser looks like a great fit with his old friend Bobby Rahal. And, as Robin Miller of ESPN and others have pointed out, Michel Jourdain (he seems to have dropped the Jr. this year) has risen to the occasion.

Everyone in the paddock knows that it took major money for the Mexican to get the Rahal ride. But, instead of coasting, as other rent-a-rides have done at times, Jourdain has shown himself to be a racer in the truest sense of the word, and is bound to be wildly popular with the Long Beach crowd.

Teams, not drivers, can dominate in any series of motor sport, and Atlantics show dominance in two teams – Hylton and Dorricott Racing. Last year, Hylton won the championship with Hoover Orsi. This year, they took provisional pole with Ryan Hunter-Reay (the last name is pronounced "ray"). But, throughout the session, it was mostly the Dorricott triplets tearing through the fast laps.

Luis Diaz, a Mexican racer had some fastest laps. Then Jon Fogarty (who is listed as a rookie even though he ran races last year) had some more. And, Dan Gurney's son, Alex, also had the pole for a time. As a field, this year's Atlantics crop looks much stronger than the dozen or so cars that took the field in last year's Indy Lights series. It will of course take time before Atlantics becomes the support series for open wheel racers.

Speaking of future stars, I saw one yesterday. And, the racer wasn't competing in CART or Atlantics. It was Danica Patrick, and she took the pole in the Pro-Celebrity Race. I'm sure neither Sarah Fisher or Tommy Kendall enjoyed being bested by her, but that's the way it went.

The P-C race will feature the usual mix of soap stars, movie and television personalities, and people with too busy press agents. Saturday's race promises to be entertaining, although I don't know if anything could top my all time favorite pro-celeb race, which was the year that TK and Sir Jack Brabham ran together – it was some time in the late 90s.

Deep Throttle did not spend all their time at the Rahal Happy Hour. Photographer Jeff Davidson was granted that Holy Grail of Press Credentials, a track side clearance, so there should be plenty of great photos all weekend. We found out the credential will get him anywhere but the hot pits, the Pro-Celebrity area, and the Judd-Franchitti motor home.

I settled for less exalted credentials, while providing you with continued coverage throughout the weekend. See ya then!

Copyright © 2002 by Lisa Davidson and Deep Throttle. All Rights Reserved.

 
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