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Groomed to be a champion

By MIKE READLING, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2003


Leonardo Maia is what the Barber Dodge Pro Series is all about.

As a teenager he persuaded his parents to let him attend the Skip Barber Driving School in California. After the three-day session he moved up through the regional series to the national series to the Pro Series, which he joined last year and finished sixth in points.

Along the way he has been schooled in interviewing well and driving consistently and tested on his abilities in the cockpit. Now Maia, 22, is one of the favorites to win the Barber Dodge title.

"I'm a product of the whole Skip Barber system," said Maia, a native of Brazil who had never raced before enrolling in 1999 at Barber. "They teach you pretty much every aspect of being a driver and try to get you to see you have to be the total package. It's not just driving. You have to be marketable and presentable to sponsors. I think I'll be someone to contend with."

Like most drivers in the Barber Dodge Series, which is the entry-level rung on the Champ Car ladder, Maia has aspirations to someday drive in CART. He understands he still has work to do.

His plan is to run one more season of Barber Dodge, hoping to win the title, then move up to the Toyota Atlantic Series for a year or two and then Champ Cars. That's a long way from watching soccer and racing on television in Brazil as he did until he was 4 before he moved the United States, but Maia seems to be on the right track.

"He's definitely one of the more heads-up drivers," fellow competitor Davy Cook said. "He's not immature, doesn't get emotional. He's not flustered. You can't mess with him. It's going to be real tough to beat him this season."

Maia was in St. Petersburg last week and drove half a lap on the 1.806-mile course. From what he saw, he thinks it's a course that sets up pretty well for him.

"It's going to be really cool," Maia said. "This is a really challenging track. There are walls everywhere, it's not like a regular street course. Here there isn't much room for mistakes, but it's a wide-open racetrack with really fast corners."

BARBER DODGE SERIES

SCHEDULE: Saturday -- St. Petersburg; March 22 -- Fundidora Park, Monterrey, Mexico; June 15 -- Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif.; June 21 -- Portland International Raceway, Portland, Ore.; July 5 -- Burke Lakefront Airport, Cleveland; July 13 -- Molson Indy Toronto; July 27 -- Molson Indy Vancouver; Aug. 3 -- Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis.; Aug. 9-10 -- Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington; Aug. 23-24 -- Circuit Gilles Villenueve, Montreal.

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