2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has an affinity for smaller tracks. He took his first victory on the tiny Nazareth oval in 2001, becoming the youngest driver to win any major open wheel race at 20 years, nine months and...
2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has an affinity for smaller tracks. He took his first victory on the tiny Nazareth oval in 2001, becoming the youngest driver to win any major open wheel race at 20 years, nine months and 14 days.
In his title season, Dixon led every one of 206 laps in a rain-shortened SunTrust Indy Challenge on the 3/4-mile Richmond International Raceway oval and appeared nonplussed by that accomplishment.
Dixon was eighth last year at RIR and he'll try to win it all over again Saturday night in his #9 Target Panoz/Toyota/Firestone challenger.
On the other hand, Danica Patrick comes into Richmond with no knowledge of the track, very little experience on short ovals and more media attention than that given to current series champ Tony Kanaan or 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon combined.
Patrick, who has three top-five starts and two fourth place finishes in her first six starts as a Bombardier Rookie of the Year contender this season, has no idea what to expect when she gets to Richmond.
Dixon, the 24-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand could probably teach her a few things about getting around this tiny oval, but he won't. She's going to have to find out for herself, which could be tough for a driver who isn't keen on video games like Patrick.
Having a bit of an edge after Toyota held a manufacturers' test on the Richmond oval last Friday, "it definitely helps with familiarity and to gain some data," Dixon explained. "We did a lot of laps and made some changes to see what they'd produce. We were very strong out of the truck and we should be strong on Saturday," he said.
"We came out of Friday's test with some good data from all three cars," for Dixon, teammates Darren Manning and rookie Ryan Briscoe. The Panoz/Toyota package hasn't really shown itself on small tracks like Richmond but because of the shortness of the circuit, Toyota's lack of power this season (and last) isn't quite the factor it can be on longer ovals and road courses.
"Richmond is a difficult track. It presents a good chance, though as you never think you can be flat at a place like this but you can. It's more like a road course." Remembering his initial try on the RIR track Dixon recalled, "I thought it was so different from anything else because you're very busy.
"You are buzzing around there so fast and a lap in the 16-second range can be very weird," he commented. "You can't really think; you just have to push as hard as the car will permit you to."
Dixon thinks his teammate Ryan Briscoe, who formerly tested for the Panasonic Toyota Formula One team is "handling it all pretty well. There's a similar background for all three of us; our racing backgrounds are roughly the same."
While his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team did evaluation runs with a Dallara chassis early in the season, intending to race at Twin Ring Motegi, an accident removed Dixon from competition. In fact he's had three accidents in the six events run thus far.
"I'm not sure about the [Dallara] project," Dixon related. "I think we still have one. It's a shame we didn't run in Japan but we had to get back up to speed at Indy and shifted back. It's so hard to catch up there. Hey," he reminded, "even Roger Penske knows it's tough to change chassis."
The past year and a half hasn't been what the doctor ordered for Dixon or his team. "The team hasn't been in this situation before but they're handling it pretty well. Chip [team owner Ganassi] hasn't been hammering us lately over our results. I don't think you can place all the blame on Toyota; the Penske guys are still pretty quick," he acknowledged. "We haven't been able to get it right" in the aerodynamics department.
Lying tenth in the point standings, Patrick is expecting a tough race this weekend, "probably the toughest of this year." She has adjusted her routine to do more weight training in preparation but "I don't know what different I can do. I just have to make sure I keep it consistent," she said.
Even so, Patrick is "really not looking forward to Richmond. I asked Gil [de Ferran, 2003 Indy 500 champ and current competition director for BAR-Honda's F1 team] for advice and his response was, 'I'd like to say it's okay but it's hard' so I guess that says it all," Patrick revealed.
Patrick's IndyCar Series experience comes from a different -- but similar -- package level. She uses the same chassis as Dixon but has a Honda engine behind her in the #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda/Firestone entry. A Honda won at Richmond last year, but it was Dan Wheldon who took victory with a Dallara chassis.
"I have a feeling both the G forces and the 16-second laps -- both of those things all at once -- will be difficult for me this weekend," Patrick said. "The shortest oval tracks I've ever raced on up to now were Phoenix earlier this year (she started 18th and finished 15th) and the Milwaukee Mile in Toyota Atlantics.
"I'm not into video games so I have not done that," Patrick remarked on her preparation, "because knowing how a car feels is simply not possible with control buttons."
Patrick thinks Richmond "can be fun if the car is set up but I have nothing to start from and all I can do is ask questions like 'what's it like and what can I expect' "of her more experienced teammates, Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira, both of whom are helping Danica adjust to the IRL's style of oval racing.
Just as Dixon has the benefit of former driver Ganassi as team owner, Patrick can go to 1985 Indy 500 champ and Rahal Letterman Racing team co-owner Bobby Rahal. "He's very supportive and there when times are tough. He gives advice and encouragement," she revealed.
As a member of the Honda family Patrick spent some time at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week prior to the United States Grand Prix. She spoke with the BAR-Honda team and drivers and took media for tours of the track, getting some seat time in an Acura NSX.
Patrick met with Bernie Ecclestone, who effectively rules F1 in the same manner Big Bill and Bill France Jr. once did with NASCAR. After complimenting her on the outstanding job she did on the oval in the Indianapolis 500, Mr. Ecclestone then proceeded to advise that she be dressed in white like any other appliance, causing yet another maelstrom of content.
"I'm a bit confused. Some parts of our conversation were good and then this? I think he spoke of all females in motor sport and it doesn't matter anyway, because I race in the Indy Racing League, not Formula One." She's glad to be back home amongst family and friends. "I love my team and this series but yeah, once upon a time I wanted to do F1."
At one time she might have wanted to go to F1 -- in particular when living and racing in England as a teenager -- but Danica Patrick is quite happy to be an IndyCar Series driver. "I hope IndyCar racing stays in the headlines and I want others to get recognition. I just hope people don't stray away because (or if) I'm not winning."
The rabid Richmond fans will be out in full force on Saturday night to watch Patrick, Dixon, Kanaan, Wheldon et al battle in the mixing bowl of Richmond International Raceway. The SunTrust Indy Challenge gets underway at 7:45PM EDT and airs live on ESPN2.