IRL: IndyCar drivers talk big dreams

IRL: IndyCar drivers talk big dreams

Today was all talk for many competitors in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series, as they await their first opportunities to test skills against one another in Wednesday and Thursday's open test sessions. Target Chip Ganassi Racing ...

Today was all talk for many competitors in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series, as they await their first opportunities to test skills against one another in Wednesday and Thursday's open test sessions.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing transporter.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
After finishing first, third, fourth and fifth in the 2003 campaign, respectively, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Sam Hornish Jr. arrived early at the 1.5-mile reconfigured Homestead-Miami Speedway to discuss their prospects for the coming year.

Dixon just recently returned from New Zealand, where a pacer racing horse named for him captured winners laurels in four of his first seven starts. The pony obviously mirrors his namesake, who earned the IndyCar Series title in his first go-round, notching an astonishing three wins, five MBNA pole positions, nine top-5 finishes and 11 top-10 results in 16 events, driving the #9 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota/Firestone entry.

For his 2004 campaign, Dixon will use the #1 placard reserved for the champion, starting with the Homestead-Miami Speedway opener on February 29th. "It's kind of cool, actually, to run the #1 car," Dixon said. "You don't have that opportunity often."

After running the new early-season configuration during a January 12th Firestone tire test, Dixon noted, "Even the difference it made with the hole on the air box seems to have taken a bit out of the car. We had been estimating it since last year, anyway. Losing all this horsepower (with the different engine coming in May), we are not going to have too much grip and I think that's going to be a big challenge for the series."

Castroneves, who spent his off-season playing tennis with professionals and attending competitor/friend Tony Kanaan's wedding in Brazil, is glad he'll be getting back on the track tomorrow. Having already tested prior to this open session in his #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota, Castroneves believes the "IRL has been trying to make it safe, not only for us but also for the mechanics, for the teams and for the public" with its new regulations.

Photo shoot with IRL Toyota drivers: Helio Castroneves.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
The Brazilian, who won in his first two opportunities at the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (2001-2) and finished second to teammate Gil de Ferran last year thinks that the changes to the cars will bring out the best in some teams. "Good teams, good drivers will make a little difference. It's going to be challenging. Everybody is still going to be looking for the hundredth, thousandth of a second to make sure that you can be on the finish line."

After leading the point standings much of the 2003 campaign, Kanaan had to settle for fourth place in the final tally after contact with Castroneves in the Texas finale. He's back with Andretti Green Racing this year, once again in the #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda.

Kanaan's wedding was held the day before the famous 500 Milas Grand Valaja kart race. "It was a good time. I got to see my old friends, all the guys from Europe they came down for the wedding and then we did the race together too." Paired with Jimmy Vasser and Michel Jourdain Jr., "I think we ran out of luck." Kanaan admitted he was a bit hung-over for the start of the race.

Of these four competitors, only Sam Hornish Jr. has changed teams from 2003 to this year. Driving the #6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota vacated by 2003 Indy 500 winner de Ferran, Hornish's off-season has been one of transition.

He's been "learning new people, learning names. We did a lot of testing so it just seemed like it wasn't much of an off-season at all. I'm really enjoying everything that's been going on. Super excited to get the season underway. So many speculations on what may or may not happen."

Like Dixon, who won his first IRL race here in Homestead, Hornish is "partial to the old track. It was so wide that you could really have your car working at quite a few different places and be able to pass here." Hornish tasted champagne in the League's first two visits to Homestead. "It was a track really suited well to Indy cars and you could have good races here," he noted.

This quartet will have to wait and see what the track holds for them when - if - sunshine appears as expected tomorrow.

Young guns press conference: Tomas Scheckter.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
Four returning drivers to the IndyCar Series also sat down for commentary today. Dan Wheldon, winner of last year's Bombardier Rookie of the Year award, teammate Bryan Herta, Buddy Rice and Tomas Scheckter were on hand.

Amazingly, this will be Wheldon's first time racing with the same team in consecutive years, as he works with Andretti Green Racing driving the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda. "I think that's going to play into my hands a little bit and certainly help, but I think it's going to be a tough season."

Herta substituted for the injured Dario Franchitti in 11 races during 2003, notching one win and six top-5 results and this year will have his own #7 Dallara/Honda to drive for Andretti Green Racing. Sponsorship for the fourth AGR entry has not been announced. The California veteran noted, "We are all very enthusiastic and we have a lot of optimism for the advantages we see in a four-car team, especially with the testing restrictions from the IRL."

While Herta has not raced at this track in an Indy car, he has experience with the previous configuration. "I don't think it's too much like anything," he said of the new banks. "The corners radii are actually tighter even than Chicago. I think the variable banking is going to be interesting because I don't think anybody has really spent a lot of time running up in the higher bank grooves yet to see if that makes it easier or harder to pass." Tomorrow he - and all the others - will find out.

Scheckter is racing for his third IndyCar Series team in three years. He began his American racing career with Red Bull Cheever Racing, moved last year to Team Target and landed the coveted #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet ride for the 2004 season. The South African is hoping "to settle down properly and so far so good. The Pennzoil car has been going great and I've been getting along with the team very well. Hopefully I can have a successful season [with them] and more seasons after that."

His former teammate Buddy Rice is doing the substitute route as the 2004 IndyCar Series season begins, standing in for the injured Kenny Brack in Team Rahal's #15 Pioneer/Argent Mortgage Panoz G Force/Honda.

This will be Rice's first time using that particular package and, he stresses, "The main objective is to make sure we keep the #15 car up front. I am acting as a fill-in to save the seat right now for Kenny. Whenever he is ready and feels he's properly prepared to come back, then he can. This is his seat and he deserves a seat," Rice declared.

Rookies press conference: Mark Taylor.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
There are four rookies in the IndyCar Series in 2004, but only three of them are eligible for the Bombardier Rookie of the Year award. Mark Taylor is driving the #2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet fielded by Panther Racing, with whom he achieved the Menards Infiniti Pro Series title in 2003.

The young Brit thinks, "It's great to stay with Panther, to keep that going through to the next year. And it will help me with my rookie year, a lot to learn, and I'm looking forward to it." Taylor hasn't "gotten into a car since we tested in Phoenix at the end of the year, so it's going to be a whole lot of excitement there," he said, referring to the new Homestead configuration.

Ed Carpenter, who ran the final three races of the 2003 season for PDM Racing has landed the plum ride as teammate to Alex Barron, driving the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevrolet. He'll vie for rookie honors against Taylor, as he did last year and newcomer Kosuke Matsuura, who joins second year Super Aguri Fernandez Racing driving the #55 Panasonic ARTA Panoz G Force/Honda.

Carpenter hasn't been in a car since December and is "looking forward to getting back in the car, especially with this race getting the season started off." His objective here is to get "on a really good note with the team, get our chemistry going and get Alex and I working better together so we can start the season in full stride."

Matsuura had an excellent test with his new team, prompting them to take on the 24-year-old this year, and while he realizes that "everything for this year is different" from what he's accustomed to (road racing), Matsuura is hoping to win some races as well as vie for Rookie of the Year honors.

The fourth rookie who can't take that prize is Darren Manning who joined Team Target to drive the #10 Panoz G Force/Toyota. The fourth UK-based driver to enter the IndyCar Series championship for 2004 (Franchitti, Wheldon, Taylor are the others) came to the IRL from CART last year and is ineligible for the Bombardier award. He can contest for Rookie of the Year honors at Indy, though.

Manning acknowledged, "It's definitely, without a doubt the best ride I've had in my career so far. You know, not putting any of the other rides known, it's my first time in a championship-winning car and engine package with Target/Chip Ganassi and Toyota. They are a proven package."

Tomorrow morning all the words mean nothing as the 18 cars and drivers on hand here at Homestead-Miami Speedway take to the track to find out what they've really got.

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