INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 14, 2004 -- You can spot them every May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- a group of drivers without a ride for the Indianapolis 500 wandering the garage area hoping to put together a last-minute deal to compete in...
INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, May 14, 2004 -- You can spot them every May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- a group of drivers without a ride for the Indianapolis 500 wandering the garage area hoping to put together a last-minute deal to compete in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."
Some are veteran racers with many stories to tell about the famed 2.5-mile oval. Others are young up-and-comers hoping some team owner will be willing to take a chance on them.
Jeff Simmons falls into the latter category. However, although he is young, he doesn't believe he has anything to prove to a potential employer.
The 27-year-old finished second in the Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro Series point standings in 2003, and passed three phases of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie Orientation Program on April 26.
"It's really frustrating," Simmons said. "Especially after last year coming into the Pro Series, I hadn't been in a car for over two years. We came with a team that had very little oval experience. It was their first year with the Pro Series cars, as well. We finished second in the championship, and had two wins. We had more points than anybody in the second half of the season. It was really disappointing that I wasn't able to at least be back in that car or have a full-time ride in the Pro Series."
Simmons, the only two-time winner of the Barber Dodge Pro Series, teamed up with Keith Duesenberg Racing for the 2003 Menards Infiniti Pro Series. After five top-five finishes in his first seven races, Simmons put together back-to-back victories at Gateway International Raceway and Kentucky Speedway to move into second place in the point standings.
He finished the campaign with two more podium finishes in the final three races, but was unable to secure a full-time ride for 2004.
"I really thought after last year that I would have that," Simmons said. "It's difficult coming to the track every day, just trying to talk to people and see if there's any possibility."
After a near-deal fell through before the season's opening race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Simmons was forced to sit out the first two races.
Enter legendary driver and team owner A.J. Foyt. The four-time Indianapolis 500 winner fielded the championship car in the inaugural Menards Infiniti Pro Series season in 2002, and returned in 2003 to win the inaugural Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although Foyt is not running a full-season effort in 2004, he did want to defend his title at the Brickyard on May 22.
"I wanted to try to defend our title at Indy and Jeff was available so it seemed like a great opportunity," Foyt said. "Last year he was one of the ones we always had to try to beat in the Pro Series so I know how good a driver he is."
For Simmons, the long wait to find a ride in 2004 was very much worth it.
"I grew up watching and reading about A.J. Foyt," Simmons said. "A.J. has been a hero of mine ever since I started watching races. It is truly an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to drive for him--and at Indy nonetheless."
Simmons' relationship with Foyt returned almost immediate dividends. After completing the Menards Infiniti Pro Series test on April 23, Foyt allowed Simmons to climb into an IRL IndyCar® Series car for the Rookie Orientation Program.
"It took a lot of people, a lot of things to come together to get me in the car that day," Simmons said. "I have one team that allowed me to take one of their cars that they weren't using and make a seat, figure out all of the pedal measurements and belt measurements and all that sort of stuff.
"Then (IRL senior director of racing operations) Brian Barnhart was working real hard to try and help me get a team that would allow me to do the ROP. It finally came together with A.J. Foyt, who allowed me to do it in the afternoon after he had gotten his son Larry through. It took a lot of things to get that together. It was great once I finally got out there. It was probably the best day of my life."
Once Simmons was in the car he got the car up to 212 mph within 19 laps.
"I was quite surprised when I saw that speed that quickly," Simmons said of his first IndyCar Series experience. "A.J. told me before I went out that the car was going to react in this sort of way because that's how it was set up. I asked him what the wind was going to do, because it was pretty breezy that day. You know, I just went out there and tried to get up to speed as quick as possible because we have limited laps. When I came across the line on the third lap, I wouldn't have been able to tell you it was 211 or so. I was still comfortable. I was still building up speed. Once I went that quick, that's as quick as you have to go."
Unlike some other unemployed drivers in Gasoline Alley, Simmons does have a race to prepare for. He will try and defend Foyt's title in the Futaba Freedom 100 on May 22.
He hopes, though, that a deal will develop that will get him into the Indianapolis 500.
"Being in the Pro Series last year, a lot of the owners have seen me drive before and know that I can take care of the car," Simmons said. "I'm just kind of keeping my fingers crossed right now."
For now, you can spot Simmons, helmet in hand, wandering the garages and pits of Indianapolis Motor Speedway looking for a ride.
The Futaba Freedom 100 will be broadcast live on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. EDT on May 22. The 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 will be broadcast live on ABC at Noon on May 30.