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British driver's victory earns him championship

Charles Hall secures series title with Fran-Am 2000 win and Juan Martin Ponte's 13th-place finish.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- It was just an offhanded remark by Charles Hall. Still, it was a concise, British-accented explanation of why he won not only Sunday's Fran-Am 2000 but also the first-year series championship.

Hall began the day fourth in points, 40 behind leader Juan Martin Ponte. And with Hall leading the race, all the Argentine had to do was cross the finish line 12th or higher to clinch the title.

With one lap remaining, Ponte was ninth. But he grazed another car. His spin left him 13th in the race and second in the series, seven points behind Hall.

Luck? Divine intervention?

"No," Hall replied without smiling. "If he spun, he didn't do as well as I did. I didn't spin. I kept it on the track."

Hall started on the outside pole and was still trailing pole-sitter Jeff Simmons during the second full-course yellow flag, on the ninth of the race's 21 laps.

But Hall wasn't second for long. As the leader when the caution ended, Simmons said, "I'm not allowed to accelerate until we get to the cones (on the main straightaway). I hadn't quite gotten to them when they started throwing the green (flag). Everybody went; I hadn't even gotten there yet, so I lost I don't know how many spots, five or six, in that first corner."

Hall said he was right behind Simmons during the caution and, at first, couldn't see the flags in the distance. He took off as soon as he saw the green "and I saw everybody going with me. Jeff was slightly slower away.

"Once I got the lead I just didn't want to look in the mirrors as much. I just tried to keep my head down, keep my concentration and do the lap times (Hall needed to win)."

Hall finished 1.212 seconds ahead of fellow Briton Mike Conway and won the Fran-Am's five-race winter series with 276 points to Ponte's 269.

Britian's Alex Lloyd was fourth across the finish line, behind Simmons. After the race, Simmons was disqualified and dropped to 28th, last place. Lloyd was third but did not get to stand on the podium and hold aloft a trophy and the Union Jack, as Hall and Conway did.

Fran-Am public relations director Kelly Duran said Simmons was penalized for "technical infringements." She would not elaborate.

The first full-course yellow came before all 28 cars crossed the starting line as drivers fanned out from their two-line starting grid and began jockeying for position.

Kyle Piepenbrok of Plano, Texas, 19th on the grid, was in the middle of the maelstrom. He suddenly swerved to his right, starting a chain reaction. He and four others failed to complete a lap.

The two full-course yellows, and several other cautions in corners when cars grazed walls or clipped the tire barriers, dropped the average speed to 65.393 mph.

"There are a few cars out there that aren't run very well," Conway said, "and maybe they're not the best of drivers."

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