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ST. PETERSBURG -- When qualifying ended Saturday for today's Trans-Am race, 2002 series champion Boris Said was fourth behind the three-car team owned by Paul Gentilozzi, who runs the series.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]Fans aren't the only ones who need earplugs. CART drivers react to the sound of a nearby jet engine machine that blows debris off the track.
By sundown, Said was at the rear of the starting grid, penalized after an inspection determined the right front end of his Menard team Mustang was riding too low.
"A piece of carbon fiber up there broke during qualifying," he said. "The right front got a little loose, dropping down like half an inch. Actually, that's a disadvantage. It's not like we did it to gain an advantage." Ground clearance is supposed to be a minimum 2 1/2 inches.
"In past Trans-Am series there were no height violations like this," Said said. "It wouldn't have mattered."
Stu Hayner, in a Corvette, moved up to fourth.
Rocketsports Jaguar drivers Scott Pruett, a two-time Trans-Am champion, Gentilozzi and Johnny Miller were 1-2-3.
"Imagine that," Said said.
Pruett won the series in 1987 and 1994. With a fast lap of 1 minute, 14.545 seconds (85.961 mph), he was .015 of a second ahead of Gentilozzi.
"He got me right at the end," Gentilozzi said. "That's okay. Scott and I beat everybody else by about half a second or more.
Pruett won the 1987 St. Petersburg Grand Prix. It is the first time in nine years he is running a full Trans-Am schedule. "Finding my way around at first, I was like an old rusty nail," Pruett said. "But it all came back to me (Friday) afternoon. ... I was feeling a little intimidated by Paul. Fortunately he went a little easy on me in qualifying."
It hasn't been a great start to the season for Said. Last week he was fined $5,000 -- with the option of having his license lifted -- for making unspecified critical comments. His appeal to the Sports Car Club of America, Trans-Am's sanctioning body, will be heard March25.
MORE BAD NEWS: Paul Menard, Said's teammate, also was penalized after qualifying ninth. He was sent to the back of the pack, Trans-Am said, for changing four tires late in qualifying after he spun out, causing a flat spot on each. Cars must start the race with three of the qualifying tires.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY: Pruett won the first Pole Award. One will be awarded at each Trans-Am race. The 1-2-3 qualifying by Jaguar is the first time since 1991 a team has taken the top three spots. Darren Brassfield, Gentilozzi and Irv Hoerr did it in Oldsmobiles. "Second then," Gentilozzi said, "second now."
DEVELOPMENT, DIDIER STYLE: Former racer Didier Theys was named the director of the new Fran-Am Development Program.
Theys, who began racing in 1977, won championships in the U.S. Super Vee and Indy Lights and has competed in the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans. His primary job will be to help improve driving skills, physical and psychological preparation, technical knowledge and media savvy among the series' budding drivers.
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY: Tampa-based McNichols Co. has teamed with Ruman Racing, sponsoring the No.23 Corvette in the Trans-Am series for the third consecutive year.
The deal keeps Ruman Racing one of the strongest family-run operations in the paddock.
Bob Ruman and McNichols Co. president Gene McNichols are brothers-in-law and Ruman's son-in-law is his crew chief. The McNichols Co. manufactures metal products and Ruman's other sponsor, Cenweld, uses those products to make racing parts.
But McNichols and Ruman said the best part about the relationship is that the sponsor gets to attend what amounts to a home race.
"It's really neat to be in our back yard," McNichols said. "It's great to have a race here. It's great for the city of St. Petersburg and the fans, who really seem like they're getting behind this."
Added Ruman, who qualified ninth for today's race: "It's a great venue for racing and a great time of the year.."
EVEL IN THE HOUSE: Legendary motorcycle stuntman Evel Kneivel is scheduled to give the "Gentlemen start your engines" command before today's Trans-Am race. That will start at about 4 p.m., after the Champ Car main event.
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