CHAMPCAR/CART: Teams test in Fontana prior to LBGP

With just a month to go before the Champ Car World Series begins its 2005 season in the 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, several teams have come to California Speedway to test. Among those on hand for three days using the infield road ...

CHAMPCAR/CART: Teams test in Fontana prior to LBGP

With just a month to go before the Champ Car World Series begins its 2005 season in the 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, several teams have come to California Speedway to test.

Among those on hand for three days using the infield road course at this track -- which does not utilize any part of the two-mile oval -- there are three champions who are eager to get back to work and other drivers aiming to remove rust from a long winter layoff.

Jimmy Vasser, the 1996 CART titleholder and co-owner of PKV Racing is making his second test session of 2005 after practicing at Sebring International Raceway early in February. The veteran has enhanced the PKV team over the winter, hiring Jim McGee as overall leader of his two-car squad and snatching Cristiano da Matta - the 2002 titlist as his driving teammate.

Vasser practiced Monday, da Matta is testing his two cars today and both will get time on this infield track tomorrow. "We get the focus we need using both crews this way," Vasser explained during a lunch break. I'm really grateful to have Cristiano as my teammate this year; we're good friends and I think the results will come.

"The two of us are on the same [competitive] level instead of the situation we had last year, when my teammate wasn't as accomplished. Roberto [Gonzalez] did a good job but it just didn't work out for us,' Vasser recalled.

Vasser thinks the elimination of pit windows will be good for racing and for the fans in 2005. "It's going to make the racing more strategic and it'll be like it was before," he said.

The off-season for the Champ Cars has been longer than normal "and I'm getting antsy for sure," Vasser laughed. "I've been working through it with some karting and fitness stuff, but mostly I've been visiting family and working on business things."

The Rocketsports team used the lunch hour media conference to announce that Ryan Hunter-Reay has joined the team, signing his contract today. "I'm just getting used to it," the Milwaukee Mile flag-to-flag winner said of the uncertainty between seasons, " but I was pretty secure I'd be in a Champ car this year. I just didn't know where."

Hunter-Reay is "pretty optimistic about what we can do" with the #31 Lola/Ford-Cosworth/Bridgestone machine. While he knows there's a sponsor lined up the announcement could not be made today. "I'm pretty optimistic for the season."

Like Vasser (and da Matta), Hunter-Reay did a shakedown at Sebring in February. His team will have Phil Howard as team manager once again, while Robin Hill is the overall team crew chief and Skip Faul is the #31 car's lead mechanic. "I hope to have more good news soon (on the sponsorship front). We've got some great opportunities here."

The status of a second - or third car - for Rocketsports is still undecided, as Alex Tagliani has not yet signed with the team. Formula One veteran Timo Glock is on hand to test for Rocketsports and he indicated, "This type of racing is good fun. I've got a great first impression and we're making good grounds in improving the car."

After securing Roshfrans Rookie of the Year honors in 2004, sophomore RuSPORT driver A.J. Allmendinger has the championship as his goal this season. He'll be marking his third year with the squad after winning the Toyota Atlantic Championship with them in 2003, but A.J. will have a new teammate for 2005 in Rookie of the Year runner-up Justin Wilson.

The tall Briton moved over from Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing this season and both drivers believe they'll be pushing one another to succeed on a higher level in 2005. Allmendinger tested Monday, Wilson tests today and both go out tomorrow, with a similar program to the one adopted by PKV for this test.

"It's gone fairly smoothly so far," Allmendinger noted. "I'm getting comfortable with the car and it's a lot better than it was at the end of last year. There's a lot left in the car to work on though." Allmendinger has bought a home in Brighton, Colorado, about half an hour from the current RuSPORT shops but very close to the new facility the team will soon occupy.

"It seems like forever when you're waiting for the season to start. I just sat around, worked out and did some video games on the computer to prepare," Allmendinger said. He also noted he's really excited to have engineer Todd Malloy, who worked with his mentor Paul Tracy on-board for the season.

Wilson believes his morning test went "very well so far. There are lots of little things we're working on that add up to make me comfortable with the car. The Champ Car World Series," Wilson continued, "is very laid-back compared to Formula One," where he worked with Minardi and Jaguar Racing in 2003.

"I can control my destiny here and the series is so much fun. There are so many different venues and RuSPORT gives me the best opportunity to succeed here. I'm very excited by our potential and the fact this team does a consistently good job," Wilson declared.

The 2003 Champ Car titleholder, Paul Tracy used this year's Rolex 24 at Daytona as a tune-up for the 2005 Champ Car season. "I shared six days of testing and I was having fun in that race. There was no pressure to perform and I had the chance to battle Cristiano during the Rolex race, which was cool."

Las Vegas resident Tracy had his first test in the Forsythe/Indeck Lola today and the veteran "ran 53.6, which equaled the best Monday speed. I've only been out of a car for three weeks so it's not so bad. I think the car will be better this afternoon with the changes we're making," he said.

"We are making little changes we didn't try last year. We're open to any shocks this year after working with Ohlin last year. The car right now is better than it was in 2004 for our first race at Long Beach," which Tracy won. "I think Sebastien [champion Bourdais] and Bruno [Junqueira] should be our biggest threats in Long Beach but RuSPORT looks like they'll be a factor too."

Returning to the Champ Car World Series after a year and a half with Panasonic Toyota F1, Cristiano da Matta certainly looks more relaxed than since he left the Champ cars after the end of his title-winning 2002 season.

"Jimmy's [Vasser] going to be a fair teammate for me. He's very competitive and there are no games. Jimmy knows how to help the team progress and I think the same way. I'm expecting a very good season," da Matta pronounced.

"I'm proud to drive the Champ cars. These are very good teams and drivers and, at the end of the day I think this is one of the top series in the world. I think Champ Car hit rock bottom in 2003 but last year was a big improvement. I'm very happy here; I have zero desire to go back to F1."

There are nine drivers testing here at California Speedway: Vasser, da Matta for PKV Racing, Tracy for Forsythe/Indeck, the two RuSPORT entries for Allmendinger and Wilson, dual Rocketsports cars for Hunter-Reay and Glock, a single Walker Racing Lola (first time out in that chassis for this team) for Mario Haberfeld and Atlantic star Andrew Ranger in a Mi- Jack/Conquest Lola.

Testing will continue through tomorrow afternoon and the 2005 season kicks off April 8-10 with the 31st Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Champ Cars' 22nd visit to The Beach.

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