TORONTO, Ontario, Canada - It was the kind of opening lap that Robbie Pecorari (#28 Western Union/USA Today/Gelles Racing) was dreaming of and, to his credit, the young American took advantage of the opportunity that was presented to him securing his first victory in the Yokohama Presents the Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda.
As the Atlantic cars staged their third standing start of the season and the first at the Toronto street circuit since the 1998 campaign, a pair of opening-lap incidents shuffled the field and made for a very interesting Atlantic race Sunday at the Molson Grand Prix of Toronto (tape-delayed broadcast on SPEED at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 15).
The 21-car series field roared into the always-challenging Turn 1 on the 1.755-mile Exhibition Place street circuit with polesitter Graham Rahal (#18 Gehl Company) leading the way. After pacing both rounds of qualifying in his first series visit to Toronto, Rahal was looking for his third straight win on Sunday. As several cars got together in the first turn of the race, it appeared that Rahal and the frontrunners would make it through unscathed. But entering Turn 3 on the 10-turn circuit, Sierra Sierra Enterprises rookie Raphael Matos (#6 ProWorks) made contact with Rahal's car, spinning the 17-year-old son of former Champ Car champion Bobby Rahal. Matos would be penalized for avoidable contact in the incident as both he and Rahal dropped back in the field.
While second-place starter Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Dynacor) also found himself collected in the incident with Rahal and Matos, Pecorari was suddenly looking at daylight. After starting fifth in his Toronto racing debut, Pecorari thought his car may have been damaged as Steve Ott (#35 Newman Wachs Racing) made contact with him in the first-turn fracas, but Pecorari soldiered on. The 19-year-old native of Aston, Pennsylvania seized the lead and hoped for the best as he radioed his Gelles Racing crew to make sure there was no damage to his Atlantic machine. Assured by his team that his car was OK, Pecorari drove on in pursuit of his first victory.
While Pecorari took advantage of the opening lap incidents to move to the front, British rookie Ryan Lewis (#30 Insport) used the melees to his advantage as well. After struggling to keep his car on course throughout the weekend in his first-ever street race, Lewis began his day with a big accident in the morning practice that left his car with serious suspension damage. His Mi-Jack Conquest Racing team came through with some last-minute repairs as Lewis barely made the start of the race. He paid his crew back, however, at the start by getting a good jump and working his way forward from a 14th-place starting position. Lewis also made the most of the incident involving Rahal and Matos, shooting up to second place by the end of the opening lap.
Although Bomarito found his car without power after trying to avoid the Turn 3 dustup, he quickly got his Atlantic started and moving again. The PR1 Motorsports racer found himself in fourth place and he quickly set about getting his spot back among the top three. Bomarito quickly reclaimed third and then fought his way past Lewis for second place on the 15th orbit of the 38-lap event.
After producing his best qualifying performance of his two-year Atlantic career on Saturday with a second-place result, Bomarito was hoping to follow that up with his first series victory. He didn't quite have enough to catch Pecorari, however. Keeping the gap to second place between two and three seconds for most of the race, Pecorari took the checkered flag for his first Atlantic win, 2.566 seconds ahead of Bomarito, who came home second for his top career series result.
The finish also marked the first time in more than two seasons that American drivers held the top two finishing positions in an Atlantic race. Jon Fogarty won while Danica Patrick claimed second during a series race at Portland in 2004.
Despite his eventful weekend, Lewis produced a third-place finish third for his second podium result in just four series races this season.
French rookie Simon Pagenaud (#15 Team Australia/Location U/Cons. Gen. Vienne) also came out smelling like roses after what looked to be a lost weekend entering Sunday's race. The Team Australia rookie struggled to find the right setup on his car from the moment he arrived in Toronto and he suffered his worst qualifying result of 15th place on Saturday. Pagenaud kept plugging away, however, and he worked his way into the top five late in the race. He even fought Lewis for third place in the closing laps before settling for fourth - his sixth top-five result in the first seven races. The finish allowed Pagenaud to claim the Atlantic championship lead as the other two top drivers in the point standings - Rahal and series leader Andreas Wirth (#37 INDECK/Layer 7/Wirth Solar) - were both forced to retire early after the opening-lap accidents put them behind. Pagenaud now leads Wirth by nine points and Rahal by 17 in the Atlantic standings.
Alex Barron (#21 The RoomStore of Phoenix), the 1997 Atlantic champion, scored his best result of the season with a fifth-place finish for Polestar Racing Group. The only Canadian driver in the field, Toronto's own James Hinchcliffe (#3 Emexis/INDECK) of Forsythe Racing, improved from a ninth-place starting spot to come home in sixth place.
Newman Wachs Racing rookie Joe D'Agostino (#34 Newman Wachs Racing) secured his fourth top-10 finish of the year as he crossed the line seventh. Mexico's David Martinez (#4 Mexico/US Racetronics) scored his sixth top-10 of '06 in eighth-place result while Matos recovered from his first-lap struggles to claim ninth. Leonardo Maia (#7 Layer 7/INDECK) of Forsythe Racing remained the only driver this season to earn a top-10 finish in every event as he finished 10th.
The Atlantic cars continue their Canadian tour with the next round of action to take place at the Champ Car Grand Prix of Edmonton in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, July 21-23. To learn more and to watch all of this season's races on demand, visit www.champcaratlantic.com.
ATLANTIC RACE NOTES
· Graham Rahal earned a bonus championship point for turning the fastest lap in Sunday's race. He clocked a time 1:05.487 (96.477 mph) and established a new track record, surpassing AJ Allmendinger's old record of 1:05.829 from 2003.
· Sunday's race was completed in 45:08.363 and established a new record for a 38-lap Atlantic event at Toronto.
· For the second time this season, Pagenaud's #15 Team Australia entry won the Sherwin-Williams Atlantic Design Award. Representatives of Sherwin-Williams, the Official Automotive Finish of Atlantics, along with select Toronto race fans, judged Pagenaud's car to have the best finish design this weekend. The team was awarded $4,000 for the honor. At the conclusion of the season, Sherwin-Williams will present the 2006 Atlantic Design Award to the car deemed to have the top season-long livery design. The winning entry will also be awarded a $10,000 bonus.
· Sunday's event marked the first time in 16 Atlantic events at Toronto that a Canadian driver has not been among the top three finishers in the race.
· Pecorari's win kept alive the streak of American and Canadian success at Toronto. Either an American or Canadian driver has won all 16 Atlantic races at Exhibition Place. Americans have now won eight times, equaling the Canadian output at Toronto.
Quotes from the top three finishers in Sunday's race, plus top Canadian James Hinchcliffe, follow:
Robbie Pecorari (#28 Western Union/USA Today/Gelles Racing) of Gelles Racing: "First off, the Western Union Gelles Racing car was perfect, in the top five all weekend, so we definitely had a shot at the podium. I had a decent start. I got by whoever was in third (Andreas Wirth). I felt a car hit me in the rear (Steve Ott). Going in to Turn 3, I took advantage of the leaders getting together. (On what damage might have occurred during the his contact) I could see the flaps on the rear wing were bent. When the yellow came out, I told the team to take a look at it and they said it was fine. So, I didn't worry about it. (On keeping the lead) With ten laps to go, I had a three-second lead but I could see Bomarito's car getting closer. I just told myself, no more mistakes."
Jonathan Bomarito (#23 Miracle Sealants/Dynacor) of PR1 Motorsports: "First of all, I want to thank the team and everybody for giving me the opportunity to do this. The start was a lot better for me than Cleveland. That was my first time doing the standing starts and I really struggled with them. Today I got all the way up almost past Graham Rahal in to Turn 1. He had the line from there. He and Raphael Matos went in really deep into Turn 3 and they got together. I thought it was going to work out great. Once they hit, I was stuck on that side and was going for the gap and they collected me. I was stalled there and had to restart the engine and I still ended up in fourth after that incident. The start was exciting. It was unfortunate that those guys had to go out like that, but we'll take the points and it was a good race for us."
Ryan Lewis (#30 Insport) of Mi-Jack Conquest Racing: (On the start) Right from the standing start, that helped me, with the experience I've had in Europe. I think I jumped about four or five people on the start straightaway. A lot of people got together at the first corner. I managed to see a gap on the inside and sneak through. The same thing happened at Turn 3. It gave me an opportunity. It's a bit of a nightmare, in one respect, after I stuffed the car into the wall this morning, the guys at Mi-Jack Conquest did a great job putting it back together, but it definitely wasn't right. It had no rear roll bar on the car, so it had a lot of push. Jonathan Bomarito was really quick and it was hard to keep pace with him. I dropped back into the hands of Simon Pagenaud. There must have been someone looking out for me this weekend, because I was seriously unhappy with myself when I got in the car this morning. It's been frustrating with Graham, my teammate, on the pole a lot and we have the same equipment. This was my first time on a street course and it wasn't as intimidating as I though it would be. It's taught me that I make lots of little mistakes and there's a very small margin for error here. I've learned a lot."
James Hinchcliffe (#3 Emexis/INDECK) of Forsythe Championship Racing started in ninth and finished in sixth : "It's been a bittersweet weekend for me. I walked away with a pretty decent finish. Any time you finish better than you started, it's a plus. But, we really have to work on qualifying, because that hurt us more than anything."