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A chance to prove their mettle

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003


Jeff Simmons has been around the world, driven against some of the best drivers in racing and been successful almost everywhere he has raced. Back-to-back championships in the Barber Dodge Series are a testament to that.

Despite his success, Simmons can't find a sponsor to fund his racing aspirations, a common occurrence since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

That was what led him to the Fran-Am Series.

"I was looking to try and find some sponsorship, funding. Anywhere I could drive for the last couple years," Simmons said. "Then this Fran-Am Winter Series came up and it looked like a good way to get back into it. A way to get sharp again. Plus, there's kind of a good payoff in the end."

That payoff is a prize fund of $100,000 and the chance for the top three finishers on the circuit to receive a free test in a new, 360-horsepower Formula Renault V6 in Europe. It's not a guaranteed ride by any means but the chance to drive is the chance to drive.

"It's a good chance to get over there," he said. "If you do well in testing and the right people are watching it could be a good chance to get a break. This is a tough time in history to try and find money for racing."

Those final three spots will be decided Sunday when the Fran-Am Series runs its fifth and final race of the season in St. Petersburg as one of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg's support races. This season, 37 drivers from around the world have raced twice in Sebring and twice in Homestead.

Simmons, 26, by virtue of second- and eighth-place finishes at Sebring in Rounds 1 and 2, was second in points but fell to eighth after races Saturday and Sunday at Homestead, where he finished 17th and 31st, respectively.

"It obviously depends a lot on what the other guys do," Simmons said. "The first couple of races some guys were too aggressive and pushing each other off the track. I have to stay away from that and make sure to collect points. I really need to make up some points on the leader in the championship."

He didn't have much luck in Round 4 of the series; he was eliminated on the first lap after contact. While championships are something Simmons is used to winning -- he won the 1998 Barber Dodge title as a rookie then another in 1999 before moving up to Indy Lights in 2000 -- that's not easy considering the tight budget Simmons is on.

During practice his team has been using slightly worn tires rather than spend money on new ones and Simmons said that has held him back a little.

"We've been using relatively old tires in practice and that's kept me from knowing the car as well as I'd like to," Simmons said. "We've got to really make use of our time when we do get to do some testing."

FRAN-AM WINTER SERIES

SO FAR: This is the fifth and final race in the series. The first two were Jan. 24 and 26 in Sebring before two last weekend at Homestead. . . .In the first race at Sebring, apparent winner Alex Lloyd was disqualified for a rules violation and Robert Bell was declared the winner. Robert Scott was fined $5,000 and not allowed to qualify or race in Round 2 after his wreck took race leader Juan Martin Ponte out, clearing the way for Scott's teammate Lloyd. . . . In the second Sebring race, Ponte, 17, won with Lloyd second and Bell third. . . . At Homestead, Ponte won Round 3, beating Giorgio Mondini. Lloyd was third. . . . In the second Homestead race, decided on a last-lap dash after a caution, Charles Hall won, followed by Mondini, James Murphy and Ponte. Ponte leads the standings with 236 points, followed by Bell with 206 and Mondini with 204.

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