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Puerto Rico Holding Trans-Am Tour Event

October 24, 2003 GMT

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ With their right foot pressed to the metal and engines roaring down the road, some Puerto Ricans treat every day as if it were a Grand Prix.

That will become a reality Sunday.

Cashing in on racing’s growing popularity across the Caribbean and Latin America, promoters of the Trans-Am Tour season series are holding their first Grand Prix finale outside North America.

The race has attracted 23 world-class drivers from the United States and the Caribbean.

Unlike the open-wheel cars that race in the Indianapolis 500 or on the Formula One circuit, these are V-8 powered sedans _ Jaguars, Corvettes and Mustangs. They cost as much as $500,000 and can reach speeds of 180 mph.

``There’s the romance of fast cars with the reality of crashes,″ said veteran driver Scott Pruett. ``In Puerto Rico, it’s going to be big.″

The series title isn’t at stake in Sunday’s race _ Pruett wrapped that up earlier this month for his third championship. The only other drivers to win as many titles in the venerable series are Mark Donohue, Tommy Kendall and Paul Gentilozzi, who owns the cars Pruett is racing.

First place will be worth about $20,000, drivers say, although organizers would not confirm that.

Six competitors from the Caribbean _ five Puerto Ricans and one Dominican _ are entering the race with a distinct advantage: a tolerance for the Caribbean’s searing temperatures.

Drivers have to withstand 140-degree heat for nearly 1 1/2 hours. Unlike other race cars, the sedans’ exhaust pipes run along the passenger side and the transmission sits next to the drivers, who wear helmets, gloves and three-layer fire suits.

The specially built track _ much like the Grand Prix course at Cleveland’s Burke Lakefront Airport _ is 1.6 miles long. Drivers make 61 laps at average speeds of 105 mph around the oceanfront course.

``In Puerto Rico, the culture has always been into racing one way or the other,″ said Wally Castro, a 35-year-old Puerto Rican driver. ``Once you start the engine of these cars, everything stops.″

The growing interest isn’t surprising in Puerto Rico, where each licensed driver has an average of 1.7 vehicles and men sink substantial sums into customizing their cars.

Jorge Diaz Jr., one of the best-known Puerto Rican drivers, said his countrymen are crazy about racing, but it’s been difficult to hold world class events on the island because there are only two circuit racing tracks.

Another barrier is the cost of shipping cars. Most cars in Sunday’s race spent days on a cargo ship from Jacksonville, Fla.

Most tickets _ ranging from $35 to $50 _ have been sold, including some to spectators coming from South America.

Diaz, 26, has crashed twice during races, including once at 150 mph when his tire blew.

``I like the thought of danger,″ he said. ``It’s a privilege. But there’s also a lot of admiration.″

Pruett, a 43-year-old native of Roseville, Calif., who has won each of his championships in a different make of car, is favored to win Sunday.

He has had 22 victories and 39 top three finishes in only 57 Trans-Am starts. He won the 1987 title in a Merkur XR4Ti, took the 1994 championship in a Chevrolet Camaro and won it this year in a Jaguar XKR.

Pruett returned to Trans-Am this year after an eight-year hiatus, during which he competed in other circuits, including NASCAR’s Winston Cup series.

He said the Grand Prix will put Puerto Rico on the motorsports map.

Describing his Jaguar as ``fast, slick, sleek and ready to cut your heart out if needed,″ he was confident of victory.

``It’s just a matter of getting the recipe right,″ Pruett said.