|March 21, 1998 - Phoenix International Raceway - Round One (49 Laps)|
Neville Wins In Flag-To-Flag Victory
When local Scottsdale, Ariz., driver Chris Neville was introduced as the polesitter for the Star Mazda Series' season opening race, his fans in the grandstands cheered for what they hoped would be a hometown victory. With an impressive field of 35 Formula Mazdas starting the 50-lap race-including seven returning drivers who finished in the top 10 in last year's final point standings-Neville knew the pressure would be on during the race.
"I think the key to this win was the great car I had," said the 25-year-old Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving instructor. In fact, Neville, whose racer is prepared by the Stacy Suspension Systems team, made it safely through the accident-plagued race without any in-car radio equipment, which in this particular race most would have considered an essential part of the winning equation.
Neville led all 49 laps-shortened from 50 because of time constraints-and was never really challenged for the lead. Behind him, however, the battle for the rest of the top five positions included some of the best racing of the afternoon. Leading the early race charge to the front was second-fast qualifier Sara Senske, the 19-year-old Lynx Racing karting champion who made a name for herself at the season-ending Star Mazda race on Las Vegas Motor Speedway's oval. During pre-race practice sessions, Senske, from Kennewick, Wash., was definitely fast, but hot on her heels was Valley Motor Center's Jim Hall, of Ventura, Calif. Last year's runner-up in the Star Mazda championship; and World Speed's Mike Miller, of Rohnert Park, Calif., who finished third in the 1997 points. New driver Ian Lacy, of Arcata, Calif.,-another Stacy Suspension Systems team member-had actually qualified third behind Neville and Senske, and held that post until lap 14 when Miller, then Hall and finally teammate and series veteran Kevin Jenkins, of Kentfield, Calif. displaced the 23-year-old to sixth.
Unfortunately, the race ran a total of just 28 green flag laps with the first caution coming out on lap six for Alan Benson who had made contact with something that collapsed the left-rear corner of his race car. The 18-year-old Canadian driver limped back to the pits, but was done for the day. On lap 11, the green flew again, and Neville executed his first of what would turn out to be several great re-starts (keep in mind, all without radios!). With the exception of Miller's move up to third and Hall's and Jenkin's rise into the top five, Neville maintained his pace over the persistent and charging Senske.
On lap 18, the yellow came out for a spin by local Tucson driver Geoff Shepard in Turn Four. Luckily, Shepard recovered and got safely back underway, but Russell Gaglio, a native of Bermuda who now resides in Bakersfield, Calif., spun on the front straight and smacked the outside wall, which forced race officials to dispatch safety crews and a tow truck. With the track clear and safe for racing, Neville again caught the green just right, but Senske wasn't as prepared. Wrong gear selection sent her back to fifth on the re-start, which Miller, Hall and Jenkins took full advantage of as they blasted past, eventually displacing Senske to as far back as eighth place.
"I was watching what Chris was doing," said Miller. "I just followed his cue." With Neville in cruise mode up front, it was Jenkins who was making a run-first at Hall and then Miller until the course went under full caution for a three-car incident involving ninth-quick qualifier Kevin Corso, of Chatsworth, Calif., Bill Tichenor, 31, driving in the Star Mazda race as a warm-up for his upcoming Kool/Toyota Atlantic season, and Tom Mabey, of Bountiful, Utah. Tichenor's World Speed car sustained the worst damage, which also resulted in head injuries to the Dallas, Texas, driver. He was airlifted to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix and then transferred to the intensive care unit at the Barron Neurological Institute on the campus of St. Joseph's Hospital, where he remains unconscious, but stable. Tichenor's condition has improved since Saturday evening and doctors report that the signs are encouraging. (For up-to-date information about Tichenor's condition, please log-on to CompuServe's Motorsports "B" Forum under the SCCA Pro Racing section or World Speed Motorsports' website at worldspeed.com.) Thankfully, Corso and Mabey were OK and didn't require medical attention.
It became obvious at this point that the Star Mazda race window was running out of time. With Neville leading Miller, Jenkins, Hall and 18-year-old Michael Potekhen, of Silverthorne, Colo., who had diligently worked his way up from 16th qualifying position, the green flew from the starter's stand on lap 37. The top-five running order stayed intact until lap 43 when Senske moved past Potekhen to claim fifth place. For Senske, who despite setting the fastest race lap on the 45th circuit, getting back up into one of the podium positions was going to be tough. Not only were laps and time running out, but the track went into caution mode on lap 46 for another three-car melee involving series veteran Chris Emanuel, of Huntington Beach, Calif., and rookies Jason Storace, of Melbourne, Australia, who served as Miller's crew chief in the 1997 season and impressing all with his seventh-fast qualifying effort, and Joey Hand, of Elk Grove, Calif.
On lap 49 while still under full-course yellow-and just one short of the scheduled 50-the checker was shown to Neville, who raised his arm from the cockpit in victory. Miller-whose car was set up for longer stretches of green flag racing-crossed the line in the runner-up position and Jenkins did well to hold off Hall and Senske to finish third.
In positions six through 10, Potekhen led World Speed's Jeff Bucknum, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz.; Lacy; Valley Motor Center's Nick Steele, of Los Angeles; and Dick Downs, of St. James, Minn.-the dad half of the Dick and Matt Downs father/son Team Pluck Racing to the finish line.
After the first race, Miller actually leads the point standings by virtue of series participation rules. Neville, who is not a regular Star Mazda Series competitor, gets the win, but not series points. Therefore, Miller is awarded all 34 first-in-series points and is followed in the top five by Jenkins, Hall, Senske and Potekhen.
|4th||Jim Hall II|
|Time of Race: 48m6.943s;
Race Average Speed: 61.103mph
Lap Leaders: Neville 1-49
Fastest Lap: Senske, 28.589 (125.884mph)
Margin of Victory: 1.493sec