IRL: Casual chat with drivers

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway decided to give media a chance for one-on-one interviews with all 33 qualified drivers for Sunday's 89th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race today. It was a great opportunity to talk with drivers who might otherwise not be around for casual conversation.

Tomas Enge.
Photo by Dana Garrett - IRL.
Tomas Enge, driver of the #2 RockStar Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone racer is a rookie this season, having raced only three events in 2004 with the short- lived Patrick Racing Team. This year the Czech star landed with Panther Racing and is enjoying his first trip to the Brickyard oval.

"This place is strange but lovely," Enge explained. "It's been nice to be here the whole month; I've gotten used to the place, the people, the track and been able to improve the car a lot with all the practices. There have been a lot of weather changes so that everybody is prepared for all different kinds of situations.

"The luxury of all this practice time helps me go much more relaxed into it," Enge said with a slight smile. "For instance at Phoenix International Raceway it was very, very stressing. We had two days only and by the time the race was over I had to wonder whether I'd even been here. This is much better."

While Enge has seen the Greatest Spectacle in Racing only the television, "It's a big difference from watching the camera, the television to this reality. I don't know that I'm prepared for what happens before the race on Sunday morning, but I do think that if I finish the race it will be a victory for me personally. That's been the target since the beginning of the year and for this race."

Enge might be pleasantly surprised by his success in qualifying on May 15th. At first he was hoping to qualify during the first round on the rained out MBNA Pole Day, then set his sights to making the top 15. To start inside row four with the 10th best speed in a crowded field of 33 drivers has Enge's spirits up.

He credits some of that success to his talks with veteran Buddy Lazier, who joined Byrd Brothers Panther Racing for this race only. "I spoke with him several times and he gave me some good tips. Buddy is very experienced, very friendly. It's very nice to have him here, to try different things within the team.

"Four on a team (like Andretti Green Racing) might be a bit too much but I'd love to have Buddy with me and Tomas [Scheckter] for the rest of the year. Probably the best advice he gave me," Enge professed, "is not to drink too much before the race because you can't go to the toilet!"

Jeff Bucknum.
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
Another rookie, Jeff Bucknum starts his second Indy Racing League IndyCar Series race on Sunday after crashing out of the Twin Ring Motegi round and injuring his right leg in the #44 Investment Properties of America Dallara/Honda.

Bucknum, son of Honda driver Ronnie Bucknum never knew much about his father's exploits at Indy, but "I've worked toward this my whole career. "At first I approached this race thinking of the family history, but now that I'm in the show I can approach it [the race] from a racing standpoint. My goals are to make it to the checkered flags, stay on the lead lap and then I might actually be in the race."

Because he had other obligations last weekend, Bucknum hasn't run very much in traffic but intends to utilize as much of Carburetion Day's hour-long practice session as possible to run with a pack. "We'll maximize our time on Carb Day and try some different shock settings too," he revealed.

Bucknum raced in the American Le Mans Series contest at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last weekend in the LMP2 class. "That was the best sports car race I've done in my career," he crowed. His Miracle Motorsports Courage C-65 AER was leading its class but the team owner left Jeff in the car over two hours (against the rules) and they were disqualified.

"I didn't know how long I was in the car," he shrugged. "It's not like I was wearing a watch or something, but that's the way it goes. It was a load off to qualify the first week at Indy because there's so much pressure here to make the show. Television and everyone is watching. If I hadn't made it, it would have been a hard call to make to the team at Mid-Ohio," Bucknum noted.

"It's great to have this chance, to know I'm racing in the biggest race in the world. My very first lap around this place was in the race car (in Rookie Orientation). I didn't do the bus ride or anything else. It was so exciting. There are so many hurdles to get here and there's no other race like it. It's taken four times as long as I expected to reach this point.

"I know I'll sleep well the night before because I always do but I bet those butterflies will hit my stomach in the morning. I don't think I'll grasp it until I walk or ride the golf cart out to the grid and see that sea of people. Mentally," Jeff revealed, "I'd prefer to be on the track."

Darren Manning.
Photo by Jim Haines - IRL.
A quick visit with Darren Manning found the driver of the #10 Target Panoz/Toyota comparing golf games with A.J. Foyt IV and Kosuke Matsuura. He talked about the team's try-out of the Dallara chassis at Twin Ring Motegi and earlier this month and revealed, "There just wasn't enough time to try the Dallara. We need more testing and didn't have a chance to make it comfortable. When we've got a low pressure test opportunity, maybe Scott [teammate Dixon] will try it again."

In the meantime the 3-car Target team will stick with the Panoz chassis they've used since entering IndyCar Series competition in the 2000 Indy 500 and winning with Juan Pablo Montoya. "The Panoz is so well sorted that it was safer to go back."

Saddled with the Toyota engine the team has used since its 2003 championship season, Manning thinks things are getting better in the power mill department. "We're always getting new engines and have a new one for the race. Everybody's always trying something new at Toyota, Honda and Chevrolet too. We catch them up a little bit and then they come back and do it again.

"It is taking a bit longer than I thought to get the Toyota competitive but that's how close lap times are. The engines develop in 2, 3 different specifications these days. Our new race engines came in Wednesday or this morning and we'll see how they are tomorrow, right?" Manning asked.

Jeff Ward is no stranger to he Indianapolis 500, but he hasn't been here since 2002 when he raced with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. This year Ward, an eight-time motocross champion returned to the Speedway with Vision Racing as teammate to Ed Carpenter in a brace of Dallara/Toyota machines. Ward drives the #22; Carpenter's in his regular #20.

It hasn't been the easiest return for the Scot, as start-up Vision is a bit short of engineering staff and didn't come together until mid-February as it was.

Ed Carpenter and Jeff Ward.
Photo by Dana Garrett - IRL.
Still Ward is soldiering on with the effort and, if previous experience counts (which of course it does at this track) Ward could easily have an opportunity to succeed on Sunday. "In 1999 when we finished second (after starting 14th), we went two laps down to the leaders and still came back.

"I know we've got a great-handling car and anything can happen here. It would be optimal to stay on the lead lap and, even though we haven't been with the fast guys or even the middle guys, if I can keep up with the guys in front of me we can all work together to keep some momentum going," Ward confirmed.

"It's all about track position. This place can throw curves at everyone and we've got some plans in place." If there's a yellow within the first ten laps, Ward believes "the guys at the back will get fuel and tires and work on it from a strategy point."

To enhance Ward's experience this May, Vision Racing hired veteran engineer/crew chief/team manager Owen Snyder III to work on his car. Snyder's presence has been a boost to Ward's confidence, he admitted. "Owen's great. It helped me out to have another engineer on the team because he found stuff that's working for us. Owen knows how to play this game but it's hard to predict this race.

"There's no pressure on me at all. It's not like I'm looking to get a ride or keep a ride here. Next weekend I'll be riding in the [AMA] Red Bull Supermoto championship," where he secured his eighth series AMA title in 2004. Ward could easily be a sleeper in the Memorial Day Classic.

You would think the MBNA polesitter and reigning IndyCar Series champion wouldn't be flying under the radar this May but with the crush of media around Danica Patrick, it was easy to grab a couple of minutes with Tony Kanaan, driver of the #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda from Andretti Green Racing.

"I think my chances are pretty high," Kanaan declared, "but a lot of things need to happen for me to win this race. I've had to wait for so many things in my life that these two weeks (after claiming pole) are really nothing. And I've had pressure all my life; nobody puts the pressure on me more than I do."

Kanaan later posed for pictures with Champ Car World Series titleholder Sebastien Bourdais and the two playfully exchanged autographs. "I charge for mine," Kanaan boasted. "When I win on Sunday I'll pay you," Bourdais countered.

Patrick Carpentier was surrounded by French Canadian media and spent a good deal of time speaking with them in his native tongue. He did admit, "I'm having so much more fun here this month. We had a lot of meetings and I think Eddie [team owner Cheever] is changing. He's more calm than I've seen him, but since we're going faster, that's got to be part of it, right?"

Cheever, who won the 1998 Indy 500 had some mindful advice for Carpentier, making his first start on the historic Indianapolis oval. "Just be careful." To Carpentier, who won his first CART/Champ Car race on the 2- mile Michigan International Speedway oval in that series' final 2002 race date, "Driving on an oval is like having breakfast, not a problem."

Of course he wishes "my program was ahead of where it is right now but Eddie is trying so hard to put the right people in place. It's definitely more organized than when I came here and it's fun, actually." Carpentier isn't sure what to expect when he makes his way from Gasoline Alley to the grid on Sunday morning, but he's sure "it's going to be great to see so many people there cheering for all of us."