When IRL opportunity knocks, drivers answer.
INDIANAPOLIS, Monday, Feb. 2, 2004 -- John Barnes was a longtime mechanic and crew chief when a unique opportunity came along in 1997.
"I was approached by Pennzoil to start a team," Barnes recalled. "The best thing I could do is have good people around."
He put together an Indy Racing League ownership group with Gary Pedigo, Doug Boles, Mike Griffin and former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Harbaugh. Pennzoil Panther Racing's birth underscores the fourth IRL founding principle.
Panther not only showed up, but excelled. Scott Goodyear started as the team's driver and won three races. Then Sam Hornish Jr. posted eight wins over the 2001 and 2002 seasons and took home back-to-back IRL championships.
"Being in racing for so many years, I've had the pleasure of working with great people and not-so-great people," Barnes said. "You try to take the best you've learned and also learn from the other. We've really surrounded ourselves with the right people. There's no secret to this thing. It takes a tremendous amount of dedication and focus and the Lord steps in from there. I learned a long time ago not to keep score because you can be on the floor the next day."
When the team was formed, the IRL was in its infancy.
"I would not have had an interest in doing it if the IRL had not evolved," Barnes said. "What it really stood for was cost containment, rules stability and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to provide the foundation. None of this could've happened without (IRL President) Tony (George) and his family. We could never thank him enough for the opportunity he's given us."
Seven years later, the ownership group is still together. The No. 4 is still on the team's car because that was Harbaugh's number when he was a Colt. "That'll never change," Barnes said.
Tomas Scheckter enters his first season as driver of the No. 4 car, and Mark Taylor, winner of the Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro Series^Ù title in 2003, has moved up for a second entry in the Menards/Johns Manville Panther Racing car.
"Our goal is to win every race we go to," Barnes said. "That's what we get up for every morning. That car still has the number four, it's still yellow and it'll still run up front."
Since the IRL's inaugural race in 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway, opportunity has presented itself in many ways for drivers of all disciplines. Short-track standouts who have become Indianapolis 500 veterans since the IRL's founding include Paul Durant, Joe Gosek, Davey Hamilton, Tony Stewart, Billy Boat, Tyce Carlson, Donnie Beechler, Jimmy Kite, Jack Hewitt, Steve Kinser, Andy Michner, J.J. Yeley, Andy Hillenburg, Sarah Fisher and Jason Leffler.
From the American road racing and formula-car ranks have come Robbie Buhl, Buzz Calkins, Mark Dismore, Scott Harrington, Sam Hornish, Sam Schmidt, Greg Ray, Jaques Lazier, Richie Hearn, Johnny O'Connell, Robby McGehee, Alex Barron, Tony Renna, Jack Miller, Cory Witherill, Stan Wattles and Jeret Schroeder.
From the international side over the past eight years, drivers who now have Indianapolis 500 competitor on their resumes include Michele Alboreto, Michel Jourdain Jr., Vincenzo Sospiri, Airton Dare, Juan Montoya, Kenny Brack, Helio Castroneves, Bruno Junqueira, Felipe Giaffone, Wim Eyckmans, Claude Bourbonnais, Fermin Velez, Max Papis, Tomas Scheckter, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Tora Takagi.
There's also Johnny Unser from a variety of motoring backgrounds and Jeff Ward from motorcycles.
At the Copper World Classic in 1997 at Phoenix, Jimmy Kite was running a close second to leader Chuck Gurney going into the final corner of the USAC Silver Crown feature. Suddenly, the unheralded Kite darted to the bottom off the fourth turn and outgunned Gurney to the line to win his first major USAC event.
Kite was so excited that after parking his car at the pit entrance he ran down the front straightaway looking for Victory Lane to the cheersof the crowd.
A month later, at the IRL race at Phoenix, he met car owner Andy Evans. In June, Kite ran a Silver Crown race at Pikes Peak. A short while later Evans hired Kite to the run an IRL car at Pikes Peak.
"I remember being scared to death," Kite said. "I'd never driven a race car with a transmission so I fumbled a little on restarts. I remember the driver's meeting and seeing Eddie Cheever and Arie Luyendyk there, my idols. And here I am in a driver's meeting with these guys. Early in the race, I passed Luyendyk on the backstretch and I remember bouncing up and down and yelling 'I passed Arie Luyendyk, I passed Arie Luyendyk.' That was so cool."
Then it was on to the Indianapolis 500 in 1998.
"Growing up and seeing the place, I'd always dreamed about driving an Indy car," Kite said. "I remember Jeff Gordon went to NASCAR saying there were no opportunities in Indy cars. Then here's Tony George saying, 'Let's get opportunities for the USAC guys to come here and do ovals.' It was a great opportunity I wouldn't have had without the IRL.
"Now, with the Infiniti Pro Series, some of the guys are getting a chance. That was a lot to ask somebody to drop out of a Silver Crown car and go 230. But all it takes is one driver to come out of USAC and spank everybody's tail. If one of us can do it, the floodgates will open."
Jack Hewitt grew up in motorsports through the sprint and Silver Crown ranks and was a feared competitor throughout the Midwest's dirt bullrings.
In his illustrious short-track career, he had always wanted to find his way to Indianapolis, but the opportunity had escaped him. In 1998, fortune smiled and he was in Gasoline Alley with a seat in the PDM Racing entry for his first-ever try at qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.
Hewitt had a rough road, crashing on the second day of practice and being down for the car's repairs for several days. Hewitt came back and qualified 22nd with a four-lap average of 216.450 mph.
"Everybody just stuck behind me," Hewitt said before the race. "My team believed in me. Johnny Rutherford, Tony George, Gary Bettenhausen, Big Al (Unser), they all helped me out. For instance, Al took me out and showed me where I was missing the line. There are 400,000 people here and I have enough emotion for every one of them now."
On race morning, a bed sheet hung from a railing near Turn 1 that expressed the message that had come to be the trademark of his fans: "Do it, Hewitt!"
He did it, running all day and finishing 12th. Hewitt had gotten his chance and made the most of it.
In 2000, the first U.S. Grand Prix was held on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's new road course.
A Formula One driver said during a TV interview that his series shouldn't run at Indy because drivers would be going so fast and there were walls around part of the course that he didn't like. The comment raised eyebrows.
Four months earlier, a 19-year-old American woman roared around the 2½-mile oval in an attempt to qualify for her first Indianapolis 500. She posted a four-lap average of 220.237 mph to move solidly into the show.
It was a crowning moment for Sarah Fisher, who came up through the midget and sprint car ranks. Since her 500-Mile Race debut, Fisher scored a career-best of second at Homestead-Miami in 2001 and won the pole in 2002 at Kentucky. She's led races and battled for wins but the first victory is still in the making.
"That's where I wanted to be," Fisher said of the Indianapolis 500. "Every driver from north to south, everyone wants to race at Indy. To have the opportunity so early in life is unbelievable. It's greatly affected my life. Indy means so much to me. Since I drove at Indy, I moved to Indy (from Ohio)."
Fisher said she was prepared when Team Pelfrey gave her the chance in 1999 at Texas Motor Speedway and Walker Racing signed her for a full season in 2000.
"In the sprint cars, there's nothing like driving an 800-horsepower, 1,200-pound car on dirt," Fisher said. "Sprint cars taught me a lot about control. Midgets on pavement taught me a lot about smoothness. I'd never driven a rear-engine car before, but everything I've driven has taught me something."
Timing made up part of her ascent to the IRL.
"At that time, the IRL was made up of a lot of short-track drivers," Fisher said. "It's changed a little bit. Without that time frame, I don't think I would've made it. The IRL provides the atmosphere to make that happen but that team owners hire the drivers."
The Indianapolis 500 will always remain special.
"There's nothing like walking down Gasoline Alley on race day, seeing all the people cheering, all the colors," Sarah said. "It's unbelievable. It's something all its own."
The 2004 IRL IndyCar Series season begins with the Toyota Indy 300 at 2 p.m. (EST) on Feb. 29, 2004, at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be broadcast live on ESPN and the IMS Radio Network.