IRL: 2000 season in review

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2000 -- Reflecting on the 2000 Indy Racing Northern Light Series season, Brian Barnhart could sense something special was evolving as the series moved into the meat of its season. "I think it...

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2000 -- Reflecting on the 2000 Indy Racing Northern Light Series season, Brian Barnhart could sense something special was evolving as the series moved into the meat of its season. "I think it started with Indianapolis," said Barnhart, who was promoted to vice president, operations, for the Indy Racing League on Aug. 21 by President Tony George. "The performance of the teams and the quality of the race that the Indianapolis 500 provided in May opened the door, and it really capped off with the June race at Texas, making it a very defining moment or a defining season for the Indy Racing League. "I think there was a lot of coming of age for our league this year, an acceptance of our competition and product and the quality of the show that we put on." First, the return of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr. to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a Northern Light Series regular and the arrival of Chip Ganassi Racing brought added interest in the Indianapolis 500 worldwide. Indy Racing defending champion Greg Ray snatched the PPG Pole away from Ganassi's defending CART champion Juan Montoya, and then Buddy Lazier, eventually to be crowned the 2000 Northern Light Cup winner, pushed Montoya hard all the way to the checkered flag. He finished second behind Montoya, who is moving to Formula One in 2001. Two weeks later at Texas Motor Speedway, after a day of rain that forced a postponement of the race from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon, the Indy Racing Northern Light Series put on an incredible race that saw unbelievable side-by-side racing in packs of 12 at 215 mph from start to finish. Veteran Scott Sharp dueled young Robby McGehee wheel-to-wheel through the final few laps to edge McGehee at the finish line by .059 of a second, the closest finish in series history. Unser, Buzz Calkins, Scott Goodyear and Mark Dismore charged across the line only seconds later. There were 31 passes for the lead, not a single accident and the average speed was 169.182 mph. It was a race that sent the crowd, which was on its feet much of the time, home buzzing about what they had seen. The same could be said for the ESPN2 television viewers, who were mesmerized by the tight, intense racing and scintillating finish. "Every week out that we ran a race, the fans knew what they were going to get into," Barnhart said. "It's impossible to run the greatest race ever run every time you drop a green flag, but our product for the majority of the 2000 season was extremely consistent, very entertaining and competitive on track." The racing was so competitive that it wasn't until Lazier outran Goodyear at the new Kentucky Speedway in the season's eighth race that a driver had two victories. There were eight different winners in nine races. Another indication of the strength of teams is that of the 10 fastest race-winning speeds in the five-year history of the Northern Light Series, the top four occurred during the 2000 season. The top four: Goodyear, 175.276 mph at the season-ending Excite 500 in October at Texas; Sharp, 169.182 at the Casino Magic 500 in June at Texas; Montoya, 167.607 in May at the Indianapolis 500; and Lazier, 164.601 at The Belterra Resort Indy 300 in August at Kentucky. And Greg Ray's 153.403-mph winning speed in the Midas 500 Classic in July at Atlanta ranks seventh. The 2000 season opened with the Delphi Indy 200 on the 1-mile oval at Walt Disney World, site of the league's launching pad in 1996. This year's race provided fans with an exciting finish despite a pole day rainout, as Robbie Buhl passed Lazier and Cheever with less than two laps remaining for the win. But two off-track happenings on Race Day at Disney World were pivotal, helping assure a bright future for the series. Series president George and David Seuss, CEO for Northern Light Technology, Inc., an Internet search technology company, announced a five-year, $50 million association as series sponsor. The series became the Indy Racing Northern Light Series and the champion would receive the Northern Light Cup and a check for $1 million. "Today's announcement is a major step forward for our series," George said. Said Seuss, "Northern Light is excited - no, make that thrilled - to work with an organization that has the tradition, brand strength, marketing platform, public appeal and vision of the future that the Indy Racing League brings to its sponsors." The second announcement in Orlando unveiled 19-year-old Sarah Fisher as driver for Derrick Walker's new Indy Racing team, with Cummins as primary sponsor. In the 200-mile race, Buhl darted by leaders Lazier and Eddie Cheever, who were slowed by traffic, and grabbed the lead on Lap 199, then outraced them to the checkered flag. Buhl's team - Team Purex Dreyer & Reinbold Racing - was assembled only a month before the race. It was Buhl's second career Indy Racing victory and first for the new 3.5-liter engine introduced for the 2000 season. "We had a car capable of winning and put ourselves in a good position," said Buhl, who averaged 102.292 mph. "We don't think we had anything handed to us today." At the next race, the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, Ray won the MBNA Pole on the track, the first of five he would acquire during the season to give him a league record nine for his career. But the story at the 1-mile desert oval was Lazier. His primary car handled so poorly that after qualifying, owner Ron Hemelgarn withdrew it from the field and put in a Riley & Scott backup Delta Faucet/Coors Light/Tae-Bo machine to replace it, moving Lazier to the rear of the 26-car field. Three-quarters through the race, Lazier had blasted through traffic in a car he had never driven to take the lead away from Unser and then led the final 40 laps to score a remarkable victory. It was his first win since triumphing in July 1997 at Charlotte, N.C. "We couldn't do anything with the backup car," Lazier said. "My guys did a great job. Ron made the decision to roll out the backup car, and the guys worked through the night. We started last. I can't believe we can come through the field like that last to first." Next came the Vegas Indy 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where Unser ended a five-year losing streak by methodically moving up from his 21st starting position to win by 12 seconds over pole sitter Dismore. Unser led only the last 12 laps in his Galles ECR Racing Tickets.com Starz Encore Superpak G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone, but those were the laps that mattered. The victory was sweet for Unser, especially since he reunited with team owner Rick Galles before the start of the 2000 season. Unser won the 1990 CART title and the 1992 Indianapolis 500 while driving for Galles. Unser and CART team owner Roger Penske parted company after the 1999 season, paving the way for Unser to move to the Northern Light Series. "When Roger made the announcement in Detroit about his two drivers, Rick Galles called me the next day," Unser said. "There are people in this world that never give up on you, and Rick Galles is one of those people." It was on to Indy. Montoya, the young Colombian, was impressive in practice. He appeared to have the PPG Pole won until Ray turned on the afterburners and snatched it away with a four-lap average speed of 223.471 mph. Ray then led the first 26 laps until an ill-handling car caused him to back off, hitting the wall twice before retiring on Lap 67. From that point on, Montoya, making terrifically swift pit stops, allowed Jimmy Vasser and McGehee to lead only seven of the last 174 laps. Lazier dogged the driver of the Target G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone but faded to 7.184 seconds behind at the finish. "It was a lot of fun, to be honest," Montoya said. "The car was perfect. We didn't risk anything." Next came the Casino Magic 500 and the Indy Racing magic. Eight drivers - Sharp, McGehee, Lazier, Goodyear, Cheever, Dismore, Eliseo Salazar and Unser - led at various times. In fact, Lazier led 11 different times and Unser nine. But at the end it came down to who led the final lap, and that was Sharp in his Delphi Automotive Systems/WorldCom Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. "It was awesome," said Sharp, when he had caught his breath. "That was a great race. I was all out every time, the whole (final) lap. When you're out there wide open, there's not much you can do." What he did do was mash his brake foot on his throttle foot for the final 1.5-mile lap around the high-banked Texas oval to score his series-best fifth career victory. History also was made at this race when Dr. Jim Logan became the first African-American sole team owner to qualify a driver (Billy Roe) in an Indy-style race. It was on to Pikes Peak International Raceway for the Radisson Indy 200. Cheever threatened to earn the first Indy Racing victory for the Infiniti engine for a year. And at the rarified atmosphere of 5,357 feet, he finally accomplished the deed, ending a 33-race drought for Infiniti. Cheever took the checkered flag in his No. 51 Excite@Home Indy Race Car Dallara under caution but led the final 28 laps and was not seriously challenged by runner-up Airton Dare when the yellow came out. Cheever took the Northern Light Cup points lead from Lazier. "Today I had an advantage, and that advantage was the powerplant in the back of my car," Cheever said. From the Rocky Mountains, the Northern Light Series moved to the Deep South and the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the Midas 500 Classic night race in mid-July. Ray was enjoying a great season in qualifying with his Conseco/Quaker State/Menards Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone but a miserable year finishing races. In Atlanta, it all came together for one race. Ray easily captured the MBNA Pole and then dominated the race. He led five times for 182 of 208 laps and won by 3.054 seconds over Lazier, who regained a permanent grasp on the points lead. "I'll tell you, Team Menard has been working so hard all year long," Ray said. "These guys deserve this result." There was a six-week break before the inaugural The Belterra Resort Indy 300 in late August at the new Kentucky Speedway. In between, Goodyear tested at Richmond (Va.) Speedway, a new venue for the 13-race 2001 Northern Light Series season, and Fisher was fastest in two days of open testing at Kentucky. Fisher, driving close to her Ohio hometown, proved her practice speeds were not a fluke. She became the first woman ever to lead an Indy-style race (nine laps), and her third place finish was best by any female driver in Indy-style racing. But at the end of the race, it boiled down to a battle between Lazier and Goodyear, who earned his first career MBNA Pole at this event. The determined Lazier held off Goodyear by 1.879 seconds at the end, leading the final 30 laps. Fisher was only seven seconds behind in third. Lazier widened his Northern Light Cup advantage to 38 points over Goodyear and 41 over Cheever, the only two contenders remaining. "I'm just thrilled, this was just what I needed," Lazier said. At the season-ending Excite 500 at Texas, Ray stole some thunder from the title contenders by winning the MBNA Pole and stealing away three needed points from Goodyear and Cheever. Goodyear and Cheever did all they could by running to the checkered flag in first and second, respectively. But Lazier also took care of business. Foregoing any coasting strategy, he battled for the victory, too, and roared home fourth behind the front two and a fast-closing Billy Boat. Goodyear got his first win of the season in his final race for the Pennzoil Panther Racing team, while Lazier collected his first Indy Racing Northern Light Series championship. "What a hair-raising way to win a racing championship, in a pack of cars going wheel-to-wheel," Lazier said. Said Goodyear: "It was a great battle. I also congratulate Buddy. He's a great champion." Dare won a tight battle for the RaceSearch.com Rookie of the Year Award, edging Jeret Schroeder, Fisher and Sam Hornish Jr. for the coveted title. Lazier will defend the Northern Light Cup in an expanded 13-race schedule in 2001 that will take place in a tighter time frame of March through September, eliminating long gaps between races. New markets for the series in 2001 include Miami, Richmond, Va., Kansas City, Kan., Nashville, Tenn., St. Louis and Chicago.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Buzz Calkins , Robby McGehee , Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Eliseo Salazar , Scott Sharp , Billy Boat , Airton Daré , Scott Goodyear , Jimmy Vasser , Jeret Schroeder , Billy Roe , David Seuss , Chip Ganassi , Tony George , Roger Penske , Brian Barnhart , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing , Dreyer & Reinbold Racing