IRL drivers welcome competition
(Nov. 18, 1999) -- Eddie Cheever knows top CART teams might run next year in the Indianapolis 500, making it more difficult for him to win the race a second time.
THAT WINNING FEELING: Eddie Cheever celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the 1998 Indianapolis 500, Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speadway in Indianapolis. Some of the top CART teams are considering a return to the Indy 500 next year.
But the 1998 champion welcomes their inclusion in what has been for the last four years an Indy Racing League event. And he's confident the IRL will hold its own.
"The whiners are coming, but that's good because the best drivers in the world should be in the Indy 500, whether they're from the IRL, NASCAR, Formula One or that other series," he said, referring to CART. "They've got very good teams, but we have a lot of data on these cars."
Yes, and if CART stars do return for the Memorial Day weekend classic, they'll have to use IRL equipment.
But Buddy Lazier, winner in 1996 of the first post-CART Indy 500, thinks the differences between CART's turbocharged cars and the more traditionally powered IRL cars might not be an insurmountable obstacle. CART driver Jimmy Vasser agrees, saying his side could win given the same access to the cars and speedway as the IRL regulars.
"The cars are not the same, but they're close, and probably a lot more alike than they are different," Vasser said. "I think we might have an excellent chance to win if we go."
Lazier also sees a CART victory as a possibility.
"A good driver is good no matter what you put him in," he said. "Given time, they will adjust to these cars."
But will a few weeks be enough?
FINISHING FIRST: Buddy Lazier signals No. 1 after winning the 1996 Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Some of the top CART teams are considering a return to the Indy 500 next year.
Cheever concedes that CART regular Robby Gordon, who came within two laps of winning before running out of fuel last year at Indy, is a top driver. But Gordon needed help from the IRL side to be competitive.
"Robby couldn't make the race in his own car, so he had to get one from John Menard," Cheever said, referring to the owner of the team that won the IRL title this year. "It won't be easy for them."
Cheever and Lazier are among a handful of drivers who have raced at Indy in CART and IRL cars. To them, teamwork and ability overshadow the cars. "The philosophy of the IRL puts so much of the weight on the drivers and crews, while that other series is sort of a hybrid of technology somewhere between us and Formula One," Cheever explained.
He says the cars will hurt CART teams far less than putting the wrong racing package in them, and recalled the problems for CART owner Roger Penske. In 1994, three Penske cars swept the front row in qualifying at Indy, and Al Unser Jr. won, giving the team a record 10 victories in the race.
"The next year, he couldn't qualify either of his cars with drivers like Emerson Fittipaldi and Al Unser Jr.," Cheever said. "That had nothing to do with making adjustments to a strange car."
No one from CART has said they are going to Indy, but the sanctioning body has no races scheduled for late May. And several CART teams are known to have made inquiries about acquiring equipment for the race.
Cheever, who enjoys needling CART, laughs at the new Indy scenario.
COMING OUT AHEAD: Jimmy Vasser holds up the trophy after winning the 1996 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Calif. Some of the top CART teams are considering a return to the Indy 500 next year.
"Everybody over there kept saying the race was of no consequence," he said. "But now they need to use it for marketing purposes, and they just can't wait to come hurrying back."
Among those most likely to show up is 1996 CART champion Vasser, one of just a few drivers remaining on that circuit who competed at Indy. If car owner Chip Ganassi decides to run, Vasser will enjoy the competition, perhaps even the banter of Cheever.
"Cheever's nuts, almost certifiably so," Vasser said with a laugh. "Sometimes, I wonder if he believes a lot of the stuff that comes out of his mouth.
"But he's having fun with it, and that's fine. I just don't think we'll have a lot of time for yuk yuks."
Neither will Lazier, who during his CART career had bad luck in underfunded rides. But there is so much standardized equipment in the IRL that spending has far less to do with success.
"I'll be able to see how we stack up against them in equal equipment," he said. "I won't be on a shoestring this time." Vasser also looks at the race as a challenge.
And as the driver who gave Ganassi the first of his four consecutive CART titles, he has considerable pride. But Vasser says a victory by an IRL team would not embarrass him.
"I have respect for the drivers and teams that I know over there, and it could be difficult going back the first year and running up front," he said. "But I believe that we can do that."
Scott Goodyear will continue driving for Pennzoil Panther Racing for another season. Goodyear, who has driven for the team since its inception in 1998, this week signed an agreement through the 2000 IRL season...
Michael Jourdain has signed to driver the Herdz Lola/Mercedes/Firestone for Bettenhausen Motorsports next year in CART.