The sunshine returned to California after a wet start to the Toyota Atlantic Championship, and it shone down on Scotland's Ryan Dalziel as he piloted the #28 ProWorks Sierra Sierra Enterprises entry to a dominant victory on the streets of Long Beach.

The 22-year old started from pole and proved that he merited his title favourite status by leading every lap of 31 around the tough street course. To make things even better for the Sierra Sierra team, Dalziel was trailed home by team-mate Andrew Ranger, the young duo delivering Sierra Sierra's first ever 1-2 finish.

The Scot immediately stamped his authority on a race that was littered with no fewer than four full-course yellows. As the green flag fell, he put pedal to metal and sprinted to turn one ahead of 2002 champion Jon Fogarty. From there, Dalziel focused on pulling away from the ensuing pack, all eager to gun for glory in the opening round.

With five laps down, Dalziel's advantage over Fogarty was pushing three seconds, and that margin increased to five seconds with a third of the race completed.

The first full-course yellow came on lap 14, with Ranger now shadowing his team-mate thanks to the demise of Fogarty. At the green flag, Dalziel again sprinted away, only to have his latest charge cut short with the second full-course yellow on the same lap.

The following re-start, on lap 21, was similarly short-lived as again another incident forced the safety car out, and once more Dalziel would have to defend his lead from Ranger. This he duly did on lap 25 but, incredibly, a fourth full-course caution almost immediately meant the Scot would have to watch his mirrors yet again.

Dalziel's maturity behind the wheel was showcased beautifully on lap 28 as the pack was finally unleashed to an incident-free three-lap dash to the flag. The lengthy delays eventually meant that the race distance would be settled by time rather than laps completed, with the chequered flag waved after 50 minutes and a total of 31 laps, one short of the 32 originally scheduled.

Dalziel punched the air with delight as he crossed the line, comfortably ahead of Ranger in second to take his third career Atlantic victory and his best ever finish at Long Beach.

Dalziel's pole, fastest race lap and dominant victory place him firmly at the top of the championship points table - a position he fully intends to maintain throughout 2004 having finished runner-up last year!

"It's been a mega weekend!" the Scot bubbled, "Last season was awesome, but we all knew there was room for improvement. There was a lot of hard work over the winter, with the team emerging even stronger. Together with Andrew, as proved by today's result, Sierra Sierra Enterprises now has two competitive cars capable of running at the front in every session.

"My car was fantastic all weekend - we found some things to fine tune for today's race and it really helped in pushing for the win. It wasn't quite the race we were expecting, especially with the all the caution periods, and the re-starts were the key to victory. It was frustrating to see my advantage wiped out following an excellent first third of the race, but I did a good job of controlling the proceedings and the car handled well at the starts despite cold tyres.

"I was running out of ideas by the time of the fourth start, but I managed to keep Andrew behind me by pulling just enough space to get a good run onto the main straight to take each green flag. I knew Andrew would be quick, so I had to keep pushing all the way to the finish. Overall, I think my result and the team's first 1-2 finish is a reflection on the amount of work put in over the winter to ensure we fight for the championship from the very start. Roll on Mexico!"

The race was slowed four times for 14 laps due to full-course caution flags, the first of which came on lap 13 to retrieve Fogarty's mechanically-troubled car. The former champion's DNF was just the third time in 15 career starts in which he didn't finish inside the top-five, but benefited Ranger as he battled from fifth on the starting grid to third place on the opening lap. The caution allowed Ranger to close up on Dalziel's gearbox, but the Scottish veteran got the better of his rookie team-mate on the ensuing restart, pulling out to a huge advantage.

Behind the two Sierra Sierra cars, another pre-season favourite, Bryan Sellers, completed the podium.

"The Sierra Sierra cars were running a lot more 'trimmed out' aerodynamically that we were, so they were pretty loose in the corners and faster down the straights," the American revealed, "I just couldn't get enough of a run to get by.

"Nevertheless, the Lynx team gave me a great car for my debut, and a podium result in a race this prestigious event, in a field so full of driving talent, is an excellent start to the season. We were in the top three all weekend, and I'm confident that we'll be challenging for wins all season long."

Danish rookie Ronnie Bremer capped a fine weekend with a fourth place showing for Brooks Associates Racing. With Ranger in second and Bremer in fourth, it was the best performance for two rookies in their first series start since Fogarty won and Dalziel finished second at Monterrey in 2002.

Team Rahal's Danica Patrick endured early race troubles but finished strongly to take fifth after starting sixth. The American leady racer was caught in a scrum of cars on the start and fell to eighth before patiently working her way back into the top five.

"When we had a full fuel load and the extra weight in the rear, the Argent car was pretty good," Patrick reported, "As the race went on, the rear got more and more nervous and I just couldn't carry the speed into the corners."

Patrick, who took two podium finishes among the class of 2003, admitted that she had been hoping for a least another trip to the awards in Long Beach.

"With guys gone from the series like [AJ] Allmendinger and [Michael] Valiante, I expected more today," she sighed, "We need to consistently finish well to be a factor in the championship, but we have to be on the podium if we are going to fight to win it. Fifth is nice, especially after we had problems on the start when I got caught outside and lost a couple of positions, but I was really hoping for a better result to start the year."

Rookie Jonathan Bomarito improved from eleventh at the start to finish sixth, while Rocky Moran Jr finished seventh on his return to the series after a one-year absence.
Finishing eighth was Bomarito's Transnet Racing team-mate, Alex Garcia, with Aussie rookie Josh Hunt in ninth, and another newcomer, David Sterckx, filling out the top ten. Sterckx received the bonus for the greatest improvement between starting and finishing position going from 18th on the grid to 10th at the finish in his first single-seater race since 1999.

Sellers' team-mate at Lynx, Hunt took ninth spot on his Atlantic debut - and his first-ever car race on a street circuit.

"The race was a great learning experience for me because I was able to move up several places and get a feel for both what an Atlantic race and a street race are like," he said, "We struggled a bit in qualifying while I got used to the car, the track and the team, but in the end it all came together and I'm starting to feel very comfortable. The communication is good, the engineering is top-notch, and I'm very confident about my performance in the upcoming races."

Another rookie, Patrick's Team Rahal colleague Chris Festa handled the start without trouble and was holding his starting position of tenth when he lost pressure in his left rear tyre on lap three. As the tyre continued to deflate, the American youngster scrambled for the pits, but the ensuing stop left the 18-year old down a lap and in 19th place. Festa duly stayed the course, keeping his concentration during the various yellow flag incidents and meticulously worked his was back to eleventh.

"We had a decent run going when we lost a tyre and had to pit," he said, "After we stopped, it was all about gaining experience and working my way back up through the field as best I could to pick up some points. We had some good laps and I was able to get back up to eleventh, which isn't too bad considering we were next to last at one point.

"Today was a good experience and it was pretty much an extra test session because we were so far back. All in all, it was a good experience and I learned some things to help me at Monterrey."

Rookie Justin Sofio took the victory in the C2 category and finished 13th overall, ahead of fellow C2 competitors Tom Nastasi and Loniewski, while rookie Al Unser was the first driver out of the race when he and Nastasi tangled in turn six on the opening lap, leaving the fourth-generation racer with terminal damage to his race car.

In all, the yellow flags flew for Fogarty's team-mate, Alex Figge, who stopped on the circuit in turn one, and rookie Tonis Kasemets, who damaged his front wing and came to a stop on the back side of the circuit in a separate incident. Another full-course caution came out when rookie Tony Loniewski made contact with the turn one tyre barrier, and then again on the ensuing restart, when Dan Selznick hit the same barrier on lap 24. Neither driver was injured.