Paul Tracy and his Team Green crew put on a masterful display of tactics and skill to win the Long Beach CART grand prix from 17th on the grid.

The Canadian had admitted after qualifying that he was throwing anything at his car in an attempt to make it driveable and, in the end, something stuck. His crew made the right calls - including a late fuel-only stop - and Tracy found enough inspiration to be in the right place at the right time.

"We were lost this weekend," he said afterwards, "until Steve [Challis] opened Greg [Moore]'s notebook and we put one of Greg's set-ups on our car this morning. It was perfect. Thanks."

His new-found controlled aggression allowed the KOOL-backed car to make up several positions in the opening 30 laps, while the team's strategy took him out of sequence with the rest of the field as early as lap eleven, when Adrian Fernandez and Cristiano da Matta left the fray.

Employing the strategy to overcome his lowly starting position, Tracy's crew eventually made three stops, instead of two as favoured by the majority of the front-runners. The team made its most crucial decision when calling the Canadian in for the final time on lap 54, turning him around in double-quick time with just a new fuel load as the fourth of six race cautions flew.

From there, Tracy was able to slot back into the race in third place, chasing Roberto Moreno and surprise leader Takuya Kurosawa. The Japanese driver led for seven laps before giving way to Tracy, who took over the lead at turn one on lap 62. Moreno, strong throughout, dropped back with gearbox problems, allowing Penske's Helio Castro-Neves to take a run at the new leader. Two more cautions brought the Brazilian within striking distance but, each time, Tracy's Honda engine and perfect set-up allowed him to power away, and leave Castro-Neves defending from third-place Jimmy Vasser.

"It's just huge to win this race," he said, "It was a fantastic run for Team KOOL Green. The pit strategy that the guys came up with was unbelievable. I ran a clean race and we tried to be real conservative on the tyres. Starting 17th, the plan was just to stay alive and not get into a wreck. There was a lot of stuff going on in front of us with traffic. Michael (Andretti) and I ran hard together for a long time, working together and that brought us up through the field. Our strategy just seemed to be right at the end.

"The job that Team KOOL Green does is amazing. Tony Cicale, my whole crew, Barry Green, and I really have to thank Steve Challis for the contribution that he has made to our team this year. It's just phenomenal. We've started at the back twice now and we haven't panicked. We just got the car sorted out. We know that we have a good team and that's what we've concentrated on - being as good as we can be. That drives us to go forward."

Tracy's early race partner Andretti also has a stint at the front, taking the lead on lap 35, and holding it for 13 tours, before eventually having to retire with another engine problem. This time an oil fire broke out in the engine compartment, ending a difficult weekend for the American, who also retired at Homestead.

Pole sitter Gil de Ferran led in the early stages, only losing his advantage when making the first of his scheduled pit-stops. The Brazilian's race went sour, however, when he lost more places after an unscheduled moment at a later restart, and not even fastest lap could lift him back to the front.

"I just miscalculated," he admitted, "I tried to get a good restart, and left some room to get around the guy in front of me but, as I got on the gas, it seemed like everyone stacked up coming out of the hairpin. I lifted off, but the back end came around and I half-spun. That broke the front wing, and the car was never as good after that."

De Ferran was replaced at the front by the impressive Roberto Moreno, the Brazilian looking assuredly at his maiden Champcar victory until gearbox gremlins intervened, dropping him away from the front at the crucial moment.

Returnee Memo Gidley also took a turn at the head of the field, making the most of his Ford's ability to drink slowly, but was forced to retire, allowing Kurosawa his moment of glory as the first Japanese ever to lead a CART event before surrendering to Tracy's charge. The Dale Coyne driver was then involved in the last yellow of the day, tangling with Michel Jourdain Jr, and giving the eventual winner his final challenge.

Behind him, Castro-Neves saw his chances of victory come and go with every caution. On the plus side, the yellows allowed him to close in on the leader, but also, of course, allowed third-placed Vasser to grab hold of the Penske driver's tail once more. The pair enjoyed a frenetic last few laps, Castro-Neves looking alternately between his fuel gauge and his mirrors as Vasser climbed all over the red-and-white Reynard.

The Brazilian had pitted under yellow at the end of lap 42, taking on tyres and fuel, but suffered a pit lane speed penalty in his haste to exit, and had to take a drive-through which dropped him to 15th place. He worked his way back through the order as retirements took their toll and also, in part, from the fuel mileage he was getting from his Honda engine.

In the closing stages, Vasser found he was able to catch his rival on the straights, as Castro-Neves ran with his fuel leaned right off in hope of making the finish, but could not pass as the Brazilian drove a canny line.
Then, having judged it just right, Castro-Neves ran out of fuel on the slowing down lap. Having equalled his highest finishing position to date, after the toughest of battles, the Brazilian could not control the tears. When his car finally stopped, the emotions continued to flow, and they lasted well into the post-race press conference, too.

"Today was really, really tough - a really hard day," he admitted, "The team did a great job on the pit-stops, but I got a penalty. I must have hit a bump or something to get 51 [mph - one over the limit]. After my last stop, I had to really conserve fuel to make it to the finish, and that's what made things so hard. Jimmy was all over me for a long time.

"At the end, I couldn't hold my emotion, really. I wish I could share this happiness with him - with Greg [Moore]."

Vasser's podium finish raised Toyota's best finish from the fourth he had achieved at Homestead, and left the American optimistic for the remainder of the year.

"Every time we show up, Toyota has new advances in the horsepower and reliability," he said, "Every time we hit the track, you guys better watch out.

"The engine made phenomenal mileage today. We were just running along behind Gil. I was really happy with how the engine was running and the race was going, but we got shuffled up in the pit stops.
I thought if I could get by Helio that I could catch Paul. I had a really fast car. I was determined to make that outside pass, but Helio did a great job of holding his ground. When it got down to the last couple of laps, I asked myself 'do you want 14 points [for third place], or risk getting zero to add two more [16 for second]?'"

The top five was completed by a rookie and a returnee, as Forsythe's Alex Tagliani took a strong fourth place at the site of his Atlantic success, and Bryan Herta made his point at the wheel of Derrick Walker's Avex Reynard.

"Derrick and I came up with a fuel strategy that almost worked," Herta revealed afterwards, "We were going great, but I misjudged a little bit under braking and lost five positions. I don't want to make excuses, but my lack of familiarity with the car made a difference. I can't wait to get to Rio, though."

Another rookie, Oriol Servia, took sixth for PPI, backing up Vasser's strong Toyota showing with one of his own, finishing ahead of de Ferran and Britain's Mark Blundell. The PacWest driver had, like Tracy, started from the wrong end of the grid, but made his way through the field thanks to some hard driving an early fuel and tyres stop on lap eleven. Running fourth towards the closing stages, Blundell looked on for a possible podium before being hit and baulked late in the race, dropping to an eventual eighth.

"Andretti pushed me at the hairpin and then, when he was slowing to stop out on the track, he did not get off the racing line," said a frustrated Blundell, "We lost the spots that would have given us a top-five result after losing momentum out of the next turn. We talked about courtesy in the drivers' meeting, but obviously he wasn't listening.

"Despite all that, I am really pleased to bring some points home for the boys in the Motorola team, who did a terrific job on all my stops, and who have been working very hard to turn this around. We got some good performance and fuel mileage from the Mercedes-Benz, which is a very encouraging sign. We just need to get on the pace earlier make sure we qualify closer to the front, and then we can be on the pace from the opening green."

Fellow Briton Dario Franchitti was less fortunate, however, unable to follow in team-mate Tracy's footsteps after retiring on lap 24 after contact with Jourdain Jr.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," he sighed, "I think I screwed up yesterday in qualifying. We didn't have a bad race car, and we were trying to use a different pit strategy in the hopes of picking up track position but, as I passed Michel, he lost it in the fountain section. I gave him a lot of room, but he drove into the back of me at the next corner. It ripped the sidewall out of the tyre and that was that. A disastrous weekend."

Reigning champion, Juan Montoya, was another to retire, as his Toyota again failed to last the distance.

Behind Blundell, the luckless Moreno took ninth as the last man on the lead lap. The second PacWest Reynard of Mauricio Gugelmin was next up, ahead of Jourdain Jr - who survived his brushes with both Franchitti and Kurosawa relatively intact - and final point scorer Luiz Garcia Jr. For the Brazilian, this was vindication for the decision to pull out of Nazareth and concentrate on learning his new car.

For Paul Tracy, however, Long Beach was the chance to prove that he can win from the back, and the chance to take the lead in the FedEx championship table. The Canadian takes over from Homestead winner Max Papis - who failed to finish this time around - and now leads Vasser by eight points. The circus moves back to the ovals, in Rio, in two weeks' time, and it would be foolish to count Tracy out of that - wherever he qualifies.

 

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