IRL: Hornish fast, Scheckter moves to Panther in 2004

It's been a casual day for the Indy Racing League at Texas Motor Speedway, with the field already set for the season-closing Chevy 500K race tomorrow afternoon. At the same time, the drivers utilized two practice sessions to prepare their cars and selves for the 200-lap, 300-mile contest yet to come.

Roger Yasukawa.
Photo by Michael Kim.
With the season-long championship fight hinging on the outcome of tomorrow's 16th and final race, drivers worked primarily to see how their racers handled in the draft, looking for dancing partners in tomorrow's race.

Utilizing two half-hour sessions in the morning, Bombardier Rookie of the Year leader Roger Yasukawa posted the fastest time in the first group of 23.3944 seconds (223.900mph) in the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Dallara/Honda and Plano resident Greg Ray was second in the #13 TrimSpa Panoz G Force/Honda at 23.6863 seconds (221.140mph).

This was quite a change from last night's qualifying session, where Toyota nabbed the first five spots. Felipe Giaffone was third for the #21 Hollywood Panoz G Force/Toyota team and Vitor Meira was fourth in the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet.

Of the title contenders, Scott Dixon practiced both his primary and spare #9 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota Indy cars and was sixth in the T car and only 20th in the primary. Polesitter Gil de Ferran took 10th in the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota, Tony Kanaan was 12th in the #11 Team 7- Eleven Dallara/Honda, followed by the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota of Helio Castroneves.

Sam Hornish Jr. never took to the circuit for the morning session, after his team spent the evening and morning preparing the car for race situations. The defending race and series champion then went out and banked the top spot in final warmup for the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet team with a lap of 23.3563 seconds (224.265mph), which is the fastest lap turned thus far in the weekend.

Sam Hornish Jr..
Photo by Michael C. Johnson.
This afternoon, Castroneves was second at 23.5170 seconds (222.732mph), Tomas Scheckter was third in the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota, Kenny Brack fourth in his #15 Pioneer/Miller Lite Dallara/Honda, followed by Dixon, Yasukawa, Meira, Tora Takagi's #12 Pioneer/Panoz G Force/Toyota, Giaffone and de Ferran. Kanaan was lowest of the title contenders at 13th and the entire field practiced within five/tenths of a second on the banked 1.5-mile oval.

Post-warmup, Pennzoil Panther acknowledged the signing of Tomas Scheckter for pilot the #4 car next season, replacing Hornish who has gone to Marlboro Team Penske to take the seat vacated by the retiring de Ferran. Knowing he had to "beat the yellow car to the finish line" to win an IndyCar Series race, Scheckter figures it's better to be on that side of the fence looking out.

"Tomas has proved to be one of the fastest drivers in the Indy Racing League over the last two seasons," team co-owner John Barnes intoned, "and we believe our driver development program, with its input from engineering staff and our spotter-coach program [with Pancho Carter] will help showcase Tomas' true ability as a prolific race winner."

Barnes likes the South African's propensity to drive for the lead and give all of his capabilities to the team. "There are a lot of talented drivers out there, but in our mind Tomas is the one who best fits what our program has developed into over the last few years - a team that likes to lead, isn't afraid to run side by side and gives 110% every lap of every race."

The Pennzoil Panther Indy Racing League IndyCar Series expects to expand to two cars - and perhaps three - next year, but if the funding to launch a third car does not materialize, Panther hopes to field an IRL Menards Infiniti Pro Series ride for Dane Carter, Pancho's son who is starting sixth in the IPS dreamerscandles.com 100 this afternoon.

When Hornish announced he was leaving Pennzoil Panther, the team heard from at least 40 drivers looking to take the coveted seat. The first choice was always Scheckter, because both he and his new team feel they can work best together to take the one award they've coveted since joining the Indy Racing League: the Borg Warner Trophy symbolic of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner.

"I want to win the Indianapolis 500. It is without a doubt my favorite track. I really appreciate the tradition and history of the facility and, with Panther Racing's ability to build fast cars that make it to the finish, I am hoping the combination will be what we need to drink the milk in Victory Lane."

Tomorrow's Chevy 500 race is set to take the green flags at 2:45PM CDT and is being telecast live by ESPN. By the time the brawl is over, a new champion will be crowned. As with last year's event, it will probably be decided right at the checkered flags. The championship battle has a 30- point spread, with co-leaders Castroneves and Dixon owning 467 points, Kanaan with 460, Hornish has 448 and de Ferran owns 437 points.

Who will win? We'll have to watch to find out.