FONTANA, Calif., Friday, April 26, 2002 -- The True Value International Race of Champions Series will contest Round Two of its four-race season April 27 at California Speedway, with Indy Racing League drivers entering the race on a roll.
IRL drivers captured three of the top five spots in the season opener of racing's "all-star game" on Feb. 15 at Daytona International Speedway. Defending IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. finished second to NASCAR star Tony Stewart, with 1996 IRL co-champion Scott Sharp third and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. fifth.
Now the IRL contingent, which also includes 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier and 2001 Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, will aim for victory on the 2-mile oval at Fontana, Calif. 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. was the last open-wheel driver to win an IROC round, in June 2000 at Michigan International Speedway.
"The record sort of shows who has been ruling the roost," said Sharp, winner of the Firestone Indy 225 on April 21 at Nazareth, Pa. "We can't worry about the open-wheel record. I think all of the drivers in NASCAR are very talented. They race so often, and when you compete against the top five or so, you're racing against some really strong guys.
"If one of us (IRL drivers) could pull off a win in IROC, it would be a huge upset."
The race starts at 3:45 p.m. (PDT) April 27 and will cover 50 laps at California Speedway. The race will be televised at 1 p.m. (EDT) April 28 on ESPN.
The True Value IROC Series matches 12 drivers from different forms of auto racing in equally prepared cars on Goodyear Eagle radial racing tires in a four-race series. The final round of the series takes place Aug. 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Though he finished second in his first True Value IROC race in Daytona, Hornish said he was disappointed after following 1996-97 IRL champion Stewart across the finish line.
"I think I could have probably played my cards differently and had a better finish," Hornish said. "I wasn't sure if I could have made the move or not to pass Stewart. I just sat back and was going to be content with second. Hopefully, this time I will work it out a little better and move up a spot."
IRL points leader Hornish won the Yamaha Indy 400 in a photo finish March 24 at California Speedway, and that victory will provide a mental boost for the IROC race.
"Not sure if it helps in skill, but it does help in the confidence level and it makes you look forward to race out there," Hornish said. "An IRL car and an IROC car are worlds apart."
Sharp thinks California Speedway will favor NASCAR drivers more than at Daytona.
"From my standpoint, Daytona will be the easiest of the four tracks for the non-NASCAR drivers," Sharp said. "Fontana will be more challenging. Fortunately, we (IRL drivers) got a chance to go out there to test and get comfortable with the cars and track.
"It's going to be a race where you're going to have to take care of your car a little more. It's not like Daytona where you run wide open all around the track. At Fontana, you're going to be off the throttle at each end of the track. The NASCAR guys are so experienced with tire wear in these cars, when to pace yourself, when to push and how to adjust your driving style in regards to how the car is handling. These cars are extremely similar to what they (NASCAR) drive all of the time."
But Sharp thinks an IRL driver still can win at Fontana.
"We'll go in there thinking that we can win," Sharp said. "The cars are equal, but for Sam (Hornish) and myself, it's going to be tougher since we're starting in the back.
"It's not like the draft at Daytona where you could hook up with the right group and pass cars. You're going to have to really drive by the guys, and to do that you're probably going to use up the car a bit more. We're going to have to pick our moments and pick the right points to lean on the car."
The starting order for the 12-car field is determined by inverting the finishing order from Daytona. So Castroneves will start second in a powder blue car, Lazier third in a yellow car, Unser eighth in a gold car, Sharp 10th in a dark blue car and Hornish 11th in a silver car. Castroneves drew the car colors for the entire field April 25.
"We (IRL) all have a good shot at it," Sharp said. "Sam adapted to the cars real well in Daytona. Junior (Unser) has won a bunch in IROC, and Buddy did well in the IROC series last year. Helio practiced a lot, and he has an advantage by starting up front (2nd). We'll give it our best and hope we'll have just as much fun as we had in Daytona. That was a blast."
INDY RACING LEAGUE TRUE VALUE IROC QUOTEBOOK:
HELIO CASTRONEVES: "We did have time to test a little bit of the setup. Most of the cars look very equal, some of it no. Especially with the condition of the track changing. Some of these cars really show the different setup. Overall, it is fun. The guy who makes the least mistakes is probably the guy that is going to be the winner. It is totally different (than Daytona) because the banking is much less. Also it is mostly one line. It is not like two or three lines as Daytona. The driver has some input in the driving and the style. That was very interesting. Today I learned a lot gain. Hopefully we are going to be good Saturday."
SAM HORNISH JR.: "It's totally different because where we run our line and what they do. Based on the fact that you know where some of the bumps are and where some of the rubber is put down on the track. Of course, coming off a win makes you a little more comfortable getting in the cars because I'm really excited about the weekend. I feel a little better (than Daytona) mostly because I've had one race. It really comes down to the end. You can run up front at the beginning or not be up front. It's going to be a little rough starting from where I'm at. I've had a lot of fun so far. I'm fairly comfortable with what I can do with the car right now. We will just have to wait and see where some of the guys are running. I know you can get shuffled to the back toward the end of the race or it can work out right. You just have to wait and see." (About the driver that is the biggest challenge): "I think they all are. They are all a champion in their own right. It's just whoever is on on that day."
BUDDY LAZIER: "We know the racetrack a little bit better, but the main thing of course is just feeling comfortable in the stock car. IROC is all about having fun. Hopefully we will all have fun. This is different from Daytona because you are not running around wide open lap after lap. You are on and off the throttle a lot. You are putting input into the steering wheel back and forth. Due to the banking difference -- because it is a little flatter than Daytona -- I think what it takes to be successful at Daytona is a little different that what it takes to be successful here. There is so much difference (from Indy Racing car). The stock car, we are sliding so much more. We don't have the downforce of the tire, whereas the Indy car you are stuck a little more. This (California Speedway) in an Indy car feels a lot like the stock cars do at Daytona in that you are wide open and trying to draft as much as you can. Handling comes maybe just a little bit into it but not a lot. This feels more like a Phoenix for us. It is relaxing. It is great camaraderie between a lot of champion race drivers. It is just great family. The Signore family, the IROC family, takes good care of us. We have a good time. We really do. There are times you learn little intricacies from one series you can take over to another series. I'm not sure this particularly does a lot for Indianapolis because at Indy we are all so close together and so on the edge. It certainly doesn't do any harm. It is a great way to recharge the batteries before a very serious month."
SCOTT SHARP: "It was great to get out there once the sun came out. It was nice to get back into the groove, which takes a little time, just coming from an open-wheel car. Once you get reacclimated to the IROC cars, you start consistently picking up the pace. Running with (IROC test driver) Dave (Marcis) is huge; he has so much experience. He would run in front of me, then behind me, we'd go around each other, then run side by side -- you feel so much better prepared after running with someone like that."
AL UNSER JR.: "This is the first time I've driven and IROC car around Fontana. (Series president) Jay (Signore) and all the boys have done a great job setting the car up. I thought we would use a little bit more throttle than we are using, but that's going to make for a really good race -- the guys having to back off and get back into the throttle again. It will tighten up the field. It's going to be a real interesting race come Saturday. This is a very fun series. The IROC series is something that over the years has had some success. It gives me a chance to get out and race other guys who are the best in their fields. There are a lot of champions out there. They deserve the right to be in IROC. It's a fun way to stay in racing but yet a different type. It makes it interesting."