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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / SHAV GLICK

$1 Million of Extra Pep Is IRL Winner's Reward

January 23, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Manny, Moe & Jack are going racing.

Starting Saturday with the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Fla., drivers of the open-wheel Indy-style cars will be running for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League championship. A $1-million bonus awaits the winner.

The 11-race series, beginning only its third year as Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George's pet project, includes the Indianapolis 500, which has a rich heritage dating to 1911. Pep Boys goes back to 1921.

"This is a landmark day for the IRL," said George on Tuesday when the auto parts chain's involvement was announced. "Last year we started out with all new cars and engines with 19 entries at Orlando. This year we have a new series sponsorship and more than 30 entries. We're making progress on all fronts."

The cast for Saturday's race, which in a way is the first look at what to expect at Indianapolis in May, is much the same as last year's, with the notable addition of Brazilian Raul Boesel, a 12-year veteran of Indy cars who switched from CART to the IRL after being dropped by Pat Patrick. He has joined a new team formed by Dennis McCormick, with the National Hockey League Players Assn. as an associate sponsor.

"I have some unfinished business at Indianapolis," said Boesel, who missed the last two races there while racing with CART, which boycotted Indy after George introduced his IRL concept. "Sure, I missed [Indy]. I'm sure the drivers who say they don't aren't speaking from the heart.

"In 1993, I definitely had the fastest car. I had a stop-and-go penalty and then got another one near the end of the race when I came into the pits and they said they weren't open."

Boesel started in the front row in that race, alongside pole-sitter Arie Luyendyk and Michael Andretti. Boesel led the first lap and the next 16 before the penalties dropped him back. He finished fourth, behind winner Emerson Fittipaldi, Luyendyk and Nigel Mansell.

"That's in the past," Boesel added. "I'm coming [to the IRL] with an open mind."

Another IRL change is in the engines. Last year at this time, the power plants were divided among Nissan Infiniti and Olds Aurora, but this year everyone except Jack Miller will be using the Aurora.

Otherwise, the favorites remain the same: defending champion Tony Stewart and Robbie Buhl of Team Menard, two-time Indy 500 winner Luyendyk of Treadway Racing and 1996 Indy winner Buddy Lazier of Hemelgarn Racing.

Although the drivers are familiar, there have been several team switches. Scott Sharp and Davey Hamilton, who drove for A.J. Foyt last year, have moved, Sharp to Kelley Racing and Hamilton to Nienhouse Motorsports, a team that Bob Nienhouse recently bought from Rick Galles.

Foyt's drivers will be Billy Boat, three-time Turkey Night midget champion; and Kenny Brack, who drove last year for Galles. Old-timers, who know of Foyt's superstition about the color green, will be surprised when they see Boat's car. It is hunter green, the corporate color of sponsor Conseco.

Scott Goodyear, runner-up in the Indy 500 last year for the second time, is the driver for a new Pennzoil Panther team co-owned by Indianapolis Colt quarterback Jim Harbaugh.

The defending Disney World champion is Eddie Cheever, now running his own team. Cheever was declared the winner last year after the race was stopped because of heavy rain after 149 of the 200 scheduled laps.

"As a professional driver for 22 years . . . I look on the safety issue with extreme interest," Cheever said of the new season. "And I've never been with a sanctioning body that had such a positive relationship with drivers as the IRL."

Criticism about last year's Dallara and G Force cars was focused on a rash of head injuries that sidelined several drivers. Improvements have been made in the 1998 chassis, in the transmission, bell housing and driver cockpit areas. Most were designed to absorb more impact and dissipate more force during accidents, thus giving drivers more protection.

"I think we've made significant technical changes for '98," said Leo Mehl, IRL executive director. "We had a lot of head injuries because the rear end of the cars was too heavy and too rigid and didn't dissipate enough of the G-forces. We've softened the rear end a lot, and we're constantly working to improve the seat padding and the head protection padding around the top of the cockpit."

One new chassis manufacturer, Riley & Scott, is making its IRL debut with two cars, one driven by Eliseo Salazar, winner of the season-ending race in Las Vegas last October. The other will be driven by Stan Wattles, whose career was interrupted when he hit the wall during the inaugural 1996 race at Orlando. After sitting out most of last season, Wattles prepared for this race by logging 2,320 miles in only 20 days, testing his new car.

They will be the only all-American cars in the race. Riley & Scott has headquarters in Indianapolis. The Dallaras are from Italy and the G Forces from England.

DRAG RACING

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