IRL: Cheever Racing steps up

IRL: Cheever Racing steps up

Last week's two-day Indy Racing League IndyCar Series test at the reconfigured Homestead-Miami Speedway was revealing in many ways, not the least the quantum leap made by Red Bull Cheever Racing in terms of its preparation and driver ...

Last week's two-day Indy Racing League IndyCar Series test at the reconfigured Homestead-Miami Speedway was revealing in many ways, not the least the quantum leap made by Red Bull Cheever Racing in terms of its preparation and driver lineup.

Alex Barron.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Hiring the cagey Alex Barron to pilot his #51 Dallara/Chevrolet, team owner Eddie Cheever was rewarded with the fastest time of the four sessions, just over 218mph. While open tests carry little weight in the true scheme of things, the balance of the IndyCar Series field now understands the seriousness with which this group is approaching the 16 races scheduled in 2004.

Barron competed in the final three 2003 races for Cheever's team in a single- car effort. It was his third affiliation of the season. Alex drove at Twin Ring Motegi in place of the injured Gil de Ferran at Marlboro Team Penske, for Mo Nunn Racing in relief of newly retired Arie Luyendyk at the 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in a Meijer-sponsored car, for Nunn's outfit in five races - from Nashville through Nazareth - substituting for injured Felipe Giaffone.

By the end of the year, Barron had notched one victory, two top-5 finishes and five top-10 results, leading a total of 29 laps along the way. His punishing victory over Sam Hornish Jr. at Michigan in July was one of the highlights of the 16-race campaign, after setting up the master of the last- lap lunge and vanquishing him.

This year, for the first time in a long while, Barron has a viable teammate in Menards Infiniti Pro Series graduate Ed Carpenter, who joined the IndyCar Series ranks last year in the final three races of the year, competing with PDM Racing, even as he continued to run the IPS series, taking third in the standings.

Carpenter learned a great deal in those three races, particularly how to get a poorly gridded car to the front of the pack by using his racing wiles and good strategy. It's helped prepare him for a full season of IndyCar Series action.

Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
While pleased with their performance at the Homestead-Miami Speedway test, both Barron and Carpenter well understand the results mean little once the season gets underway. "The track is quite different from last year," Barron admitted. "The speeds were certainly higher because of the banking and I think you'll see more two-by-two or even three-abreast competition when we go back to race later this month."

Even so, Barron believes there's a lot of work to do for the Red Bull Cheever Racing team, to allow them to be up front once the season begins in earnest. The changes at the track, where the bottom of the 1.5-mile oval is still flat, yet rises in variable banking to the upper fence has made the place "pretty quick. I think we'll see much closer racing as cars from the back of the pack will be able to move forward.

"Wind will be a factor," as it usually is at this South Florida circuit. "Heat makes the track change a lot, as well," Barron revealed.

Carpenter is nearly giddy with his good fortune. After driving the last two years in Menards Infiniti Pro Series competition for A.J. Foyt Enterprises, he believes Red Bull Cheever Racing is easily, "the most organized team I've worked with. I've got a lot to learn but the structured environment provided by the team helps us make [good] changes to the cars.

"I think the people at Homestead did a nice job with the changes" from last year to this. "I thought it would be like Chicago or Kansas," Carpenter said, "but it's quite challenging and not at all like most other circuits."

In his first test with the #52 Red Bull Dallara/Chevrolet, Carpenter was working as much to build chemistry with his crew as to find speed, but still managed to get the car going quickly. He started out by posting a lap quick enough for second in the morning - despite electrical problems that limited him to 34 laps in three hours, and then went out in the afternoon session, turning 78 laps and earning the third-fastest lap.

The following day, Carpenter was bit farther down the speed charts in 14th place, but acknowledged the team was working on various programs during the two test sessions. He also noted, "The intensity bubble has really gone up a lot this second day of testing. The team was working hard all day to give me a fast car." After talking with his teammate who "helped guide me along and fix some issues I was having," they gathered useful information to work with.

Ed Carpenter.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
"The guys did a good job sorting things out over time," Ed said. He thought chassis maker Dallara did "a great job with the new rules, but of course we'll have to re-evaluate that when we get to Indy and everything changes." The IndyCar Series has decreed a change to 3-liter engines for the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, making whatever occurs in the first three events of the year ancient history by the time the 2004 season ends.

"Nothing fully prepares you for the speeds of the IndyCar Series cars," Carpenter noted, "but my two years experience in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series has been valuable. I learned a lot there. While there weren't a lot of IPS cars in Homestead," he continued, "I'm confident they'll have 10- 12 cars when the season begins. It's a great training ground.

Barron is pleased the Cheever Racing group has stepped up its hierarchy during the off-season. With two cars for the third time in its history, Cheever's team has also installed more engineering capability. "We've got some good key players in engineering, in data acquisition and new mechanics.

'We've still got a ways to go," Barron admitted, "but we can go back and concentrate on the car." This was the team's first test with the three- race package they'll be using up to Indy and Barron thought the group "operated fairly well."

Comfortable with the chemistry in this team, "We'll be working to build the relationships all year. It is difficult, Barron noted, "to build relationships when you go from team to team during a season (as he did last year) so we'll be able to start the year strong and go forward, week to week.

"Two cars are better than one because you get better references and better data between sessions," Barron continued. "Ed and I seem to like similar car setups so testing has gone well so far. We work well together. Ed's learning and he's going about it the right way. The IRL is so competitive now that we have to be strong every single race weekend," and that is what Red Bull Cheever Racing is trying to achieve.

Barron never strayed from the top five during this initial open test but realizes things can and probably will change once the League's drivers and crews reconvene next Wednesday and Thursday at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway, also reconfigured since the Indy cars raced there last March.

There is a different aerodynamics package for Phoenix and "we'll try to adjust the cars so that we can be quick there," just as they were in Homestead. That's the dilemma facing everyone, though.

Eddie Cheever.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Team owner Eddie Cheever is particularly gratified by the "performance and reliability" of the 3.5-liter Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 his team worked with at Homestead. During two-day IndyCar Series events in 2004, teams must use the same engine for practice, qualifying and racing, while they can do engine swaps between practice and qualifying during three-day race meetings.

"This was the first time we'd had the Dallara update kit fitted to our cars and we went through the series of programs we'd planned in Homestead," Cheever said. "It's quite a heavier workload with a two-car team but we have more information with which to study trends on the car. We had to take advantage of that technical opportunity because there is a finite amount of time available in which to gather info."

He was generally pleased with the results of the Homestead test but, "With this series changing so quickly, we won't know what we really need until the first race" there later this month. "We can focus on speeds run at this test and isn't that what the public wants to see? That's why we all get in the car during the final minutes each day at Indy, to get those speeds up on the chart."

Engine maker Chevrolet has already approached Cheever regarding his plans for the Indy 500 this May. "Chevy asked if we'd be running a third car at Indy and I told them it was a definite consideration." Could Cheever be the driver of that third possible entry? "I'm happy with the drivers I have and my driving career is no longer a priority."

Yet he could suit up once Indy practice gets underway. Cheever is quite the fitness buff and has trained with his drivers prior to the start of each IRL season. "The team is a small family and we need to get that good chemistry together. I also like to make sure my drivers are in proper condition to race. We spend a lot of grueling hours together" prior to the start of the racing season.

When asked if he would permit Carpenter to return to his roots of racing sprint or Silver Crown cars, Cheever was a bit coy, stating Ed would have to talk with team manager Max Jones about that. But Carpenter was adamant when he declared, "Indy cars have been my whole life and I aim to keep focused on that." There isn't time to do anything else, quite frankly.

Red Bull Cheever Racing and its two drivers have a set of goals for the coming year. Carpenter intends to run for Rookie of the Year honors both in the IndyCar Series and at the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, with the hopes of running at the front of the field. Barron intends to add to his two wins and challenge for the championship. Lofty goals, to be sure, but the way this group appears to be settling in to their new "family" life, the goals could be met by Texas next October.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Felipe Giaffone , Eddie Cheever , Arie Luyendyk , Gil de Ferran , Alex Barron , Eric Gilbert , Max Jones , A.J. Foyt , Sam Hornish Jr. , Ed Carpenter , Mo Nunn