IRL: Chicago, Miami testing for Sharp, Ray

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2000 -- New tracks, new schedule, renewed enthusiasm. Greg Ray and Scott Sharp expressed these feelings this week after being the first Indy Racing Northern Light Series drivers to venture onto three...

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2000 -- New tracks, new schedule, renewed enthusiasm. Greg Ray and Scott Sharp expressed these feelings this week after being the first Indy Racing Northern Light Series drivers to venture onto three of six new tracks included as part of the 2001 season. 1999 series champion Ray made preliminary runs at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 27-28 in his Conseco/Quaker State/Menards Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. 1996 series co-champion Sharp, whose five career victories are the most of any Northern Light Series driver, turned initial laps on the Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., on Oct. 26 in his Delphi Automotive Systems/WorldCom Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. On Sept. 9, Sharp also only the second to drive an Indy Racing car on the ¾-mile Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, another new venue for the 2001 season. The Indy Racing Northern Light Series makes its first appearance in south Florida on April 8, 2001, on the nearly flat, 1.5-mile track near Miami. Chicagoland is a newly built 1.5-mile track where Indy Racing will debut Sept. 2 next year. Richmond is a venerable facility that started as a dirt track in 1953. Indy Racing will make its debut at Richmond on June 30. Other new tracks for 2001 are the newly constructed 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., the new 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway in Nashville, Tenn., and the 1.25-mile Gateway International Raceway across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. In all, there are 13 races on the 2001 schedule, compared to nine in 2000. And the 2001 races will be compacted into a six-month period between the opener on March 18 at Phoenix and the finale Sept. 16 at Texas. Ray and Sharp find the enlarged and tightened schedule particularly attractive. "I'm very excited for a variety of reasons," Sharp said. "One is, obviously, we had way too long of stretches (between races in 2000). I applaud the series for the way they've reorganized the schedule. It 's going to be a busy time for us there for about six months. I think that's wonderful. Basically, on average, being able to run every couple of weeks will really keep us in front of the people along with the great TV package we have (with ABC and ESPN)." Both Ray and Sharp won a race during the 2000 season, but both struggled with various woes in other races that prevented them from seriously challenging for the Northern Light Cup. Ray finished 13th in the point standings, while Sharp was seventh. But both drivers agreed that the enlarged 2001 schedule will provide teams the opportunity to recover from a poor race performance. "It sort of gives everybody the chance to have a failure or two in a race, to drop out of a race, and still give you some races to catch back up," Sharp said. "I think you will see the points championship much tighter in future years." Ray, who sees the Northern Light Series and its drivers getting much more attention from the national media next season, said the chance to race virtually every other weekend will help the competitors. "It keeps the drivers a lot crisper," he said, "and the teams doing pit stops and engineers. Everybody gets to get a schedule. It's very difficult to have a two- or three-race stretch and then not have a race for six or seven weeks. It's very difficult to find your momentum. "As they continue to add races from 13 next year to maybe 15 or 18 the year following, I think that does show the true test of a team, because you may have an accident, may have a motor blow or something like that. In effect, that was our downfall this year. We had a lot of problems, and with a few more races we might have found ourselves back in the hunt." The new Chicagoland track, under direction of former Indy Racing League Manager of Administration Joie Chitwood III, is a beautiful facility, Sharp said. The track has some unique characteristics and is impeccably smooth, Sharp said. "They've done a great job paving it," he said. "The back straight is really just one long curve, and really in some ways the front straightaway, as well. I think it's going to be a track that provides for some great racing, easy for us to be side-by-side." That smooth surface will allow drivers to race on the upper part of the banking and then easily make the transition to a lower line, Sharp said. But the high speeds expected at Chicagoland, combined with the lack of a true straightaway, will give a driver little time to relax, Sharp said. "With the minimum times we'll be running per lap, it's going to be a really busy track," Sharp said. Ray previously raced at Miami-Homestead in 1996 in an Indy Lights car. The track has changed dramatically since then, Ray said. Originally, the circuit was a four-corner track that was almost a 1½-mile version of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now the track has been altered to two long straightaways (1,760 feet) with, he said, very flat constant radius corners with only 6 degrees of banking. Top racing speeds will range from 185 to 195 mph at Miami, Ray said. "Of all the tracks we go to, it is the flattest," Ray said, "so it's really going to put a big emphasis on the drivers and the engineers and the combination of the whole team to get the car right. The car is going to be of huge importance there." Ray compared it most closely to the 1-mile track at Milwaukee. Sharp noted that there is no advantage for a driver who makes an inaugural run on the new tracks. Sharp made two visits to Chicagoland, the first to provide the paving crews with information on bumps and the transitions before they placed the third and final layer of asphalt. He said he actually went faster that time than he did in his most recent runs. "It was a little bit wet on the track and still had some dirt on it," he said of his most-recent laps. "We didn't push it or try too hard. When you' re not trying to run hard all the way around, you're not going to learn much." At Richmond, Sharp turned about 20 laps before the start of a NASCAR Winston Cup race. "That's going to be an exciting track for us," he said.

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Greg Ray , Scott Sharp