The Indy Racing League opens its 2001 season Sunday in Phoenix and the two things that make it interesting have little to do with the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.
Making the race special are the entry of Roger Penske's CART team, in preparation for the Indianapolis 500, and the combining of the IRL race with what once was the Copper World Classic.
It's a sorry state of affairs when having CART champion Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves in the field is the most exciting thing about the Pennzoil Indy 200, first of a record 13 races in the Indy car season. Penske bought a pair of Olds-powered Dallaras to take on the IRL's best over Phoenix International Raceway's mile oval in what is little more than a pre-Indy test run.
Juan Montoya, the 1999 CART champion, won the Indy 500 last year for CART owner Chip Ganassi without the benefit of a preliminary race, but Penske chose to give his Brazilian drivers more experience in the IRL cars before heading for the Speedway.
One thing will be different. Instead of the Marlboro sponsorship the team has in CART, de Ferran and Castroneves will be in Penske Auto Center Specials.
The Copper World Classic has been an early season staple in Phoenix since 1977, but when IRL attendance fell off to fewer than 18,000 the last several years, track promoters combined the two events. Besides Sunday's 200-lap IRL main event, there will be 25-lap races Saturday for U.S. Auto Club midgets and Supermodified Racing League cars, and a 100-mile Coors Light Silver Crown race Sunday.
Davey Hamilton, the only driver to have started in every IRL race since its inception in 1996, has entered all four races. The Las Vegas driver, who tested his Silver Crown and supermodified cars at Irwindale Speedway this week, won Copper World supermodified races in 1989, 1991, '93 and '95. He missed last year, while recovering from a broken back suffered in an accident at Walt Disney World Speedway in January.
"I think I've got a realistic chance to win all four of them," Hamilton said.
He will drive a Dallara-Olds for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in the IRL series opener. Schmidt, a former Las Vegas IRL driver who is paralyzed from the chest down after an accident while preparing for the 2000 season, chose Hamilton, 38, over Billy Boat and Jacques Lazier to drive the full IRL season. Ilmor Engineering, which built Chevrolet engines that won the Indy 500 from 1988 to 1993, is returning to Indy car racing, building Oldsmobile engines for Schmidt and Kelley Racing drivers Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore.
Buddy Lazier, driving Hemelgarn Racing's Dallara-Olds, is defending series champion and won last year's Phoenix race after starting last.
Among the changes this year are the addition of rookie drivers Casey Mears and Didier Andre to a Galles Racing team that had only Al Unser Jr. last year, the downsizing of A.J. Foyt's Harrah's team to one driver, Chilean veteran Eliseo Salazar, and the loss of sponsor Mexmil for Dick Simon Racing, which added French driver Stephan Gregoire. Gregoire was fastest during winter testing at Phoenix, running a lap at 176.808 mph, faster than last year's pole speed.
MESA MARIN RACEWAY
NASCAR Craftsman Truck driver Bryan Reffner can relate to the bittersweet experience of Michael Waltrip when Waltrip ended a winless streak at the Daytona 500 on the same day that his close friend, Dale Earnhardt, was killed.
Reffner had gone 111 races without a victory in the truck series before breaking through last October at Texas Motor Speedway--the same day that Tony Roper was killed in a head-on crash into the retaining wall.
"Tony was one of my closest friends, we had both raced for under-funded teams struggling to get the right opportunity," said Reffner, 37, of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. "Tony and I had raced together in trucks and in the ASA [American Speed Assn.], his dad and my dad had raced against one another, his wife and my wife were really close.
"Like the way Michael [Waltrip] felt, it was a tremendous thrill to win my first truck race, then to have the thrill taken away when you find out later you've lost a good friend."
Waltrip had gone 462 races without winning before Daytona.
"The best thing I can say about it is that all of us in the racing business may have learned something from the tragedy," Reffner said. "If Tony had been wearing the HANS [head and neck support] device, I believe it would have saved him. A lot of us started wearing one from that day on. I don't know if it's the perfect answer, but it will help."
Earnhardt's death, in a similar accident, also led to a number of NASCAR drivers, Waltrip among them, using the HANS or similar head restraints.
Reffner will be at Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield on Saturday for the 4 p.m. OSH 250, third race of the 24-race Craftsman Truck series. He will be in a Chevrolet owned by John Menard, who will also have a car for 1999 champion Greg Ray at the IRL race in Phoenix.