IRL: Manning on deck at Ganassi

IRL: Manning on deck at Ganassi

Is the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series ready for tea and crumpets? It should be, with three - possibly four if Dario Franchitti returns - British drivers campaigning the 16 races scheduled for the 2004 season. Darren Manning, 28, of ...

Is the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series ready for tea and crumpets? It should be, with three - possibly four if Dario Franchitti returns - British drivers campaigning the 16 races scheduled for the 2004 season.

Darren Manning, 28, of Yorkshire, England joins sophomore Dan Wheldon, who won the Bombardier Rookie of the Year title driving for Andretti Green Racing and Menards/IRL Infiniti Pro Series champion Mark Taylor (who is staying with Panther Racing) in the IRL next year after a stellar season with CART's Derrick Walker Racing. "We're taking over," Manning laughed. "There will be plenty of bacon patties and cups of tea, I am sure."

Darren Manning.
Photo by Dave Dyer.
Manning, who made his CART debut at England's Rockingham Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile oval last year in a one-off drive for Dale Coyne Racing as Team St. George, led 18 laps in his open wheel oval debut and finished ninth, which had the paddock clucking and, most likely, helped the Brit get his ride with Walker this season.

He didn't disappoint. With a sparsely funded team that ran the meagerly developed Reynard chassis, Manning managed to record three top-five finishes, 15 top-10 results and, in what turned out to be the season finale, Darren was second at Surfers Paradise in Australia. On the other two ovals he's driven in CART, Manning has a sixth place finish at EuroSpeedway Lausitz and was fourth in Milwaukee. "My best results have been on ovals, funnily enough."

Thus far, the slim, dark-haired Manning has only driven in three open-wheel oval events, but he's paid his dues since the age of 10, coming through the karting ranks, Formula Vauxhall Junior and Senior and, with proper financing in place, winning the 1999 All Japan Formula 3 Championship.

Honda was impressed by that title and hired Darren to help develop the BAR/Honda Formula One car back in England, where he served as a test driver from 2000 through 2002. In the meantime, he also took some turns at Rockingham in England's answer to NASCAR, the ASCAR stock car series. The latter job honed his oval skills. "That was great, great fun and good experience, as well," he said.

"Ovals suit my style. You have to be very precise and critical of the car," Manning allowed in a break from seat fitting for his new job as driver of the #10 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota. "I turn left better than right!"

Darren Manning has his 2004 job with champions Team Target under the worst circumstances - due to the death of newly signed Tony Renna, but that's something any driver realizes can happen. "Racing is a dangerous sport," he emphasized. "But before Chip [Ganassi, team owner] signed Tony, I was on the short list" to drive the car.

He has "mixed feelings, really. After the unfortunate accident, I knew [the call] was coming from Chip. I felt excitement that I was going to get the drive and a lot of sorrow that, you know, I didn't really know what I was feeling. To be offered the drive in these circumstances" was a first for Manning. "Very few drivers do [come across] this situation' in their careers.

"Everybody's been very supportive and I want to supportive as possible to all Tony's family and friends. Obviously, you know I will be racing in Tony's memory as well." The normally ebullient Manning had to gulp a bit on the thought of racing in a car that was supposed to belong to another.

But that is motorsports and, as he recounted, "It's about time, aye? For the last 18 years I have been working up to this so, trust me, I am going to revel in it and I am going to be on top of the world with it, trust me."

Darren isn't terribly familiar with his new teammate, 2003 IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who is off to race in Juan Pablo Montoya's homeland of Colombia this weekend for charity. They've just had perhaps two words together but Darren is cognizant of the fact that "Scott is a good benchmark. We haven't had a chance to get together yet."

Manning begins his testing of the Panoz G Force/Toyota at the reconfigured Homestead-Miami Speedway next week in Florida. Always a cut-up he remarked, "I have been practicing my seat fittings for the last couple of days, but that's about it really. I have a good selection of videotapes and paperwork that I have requested from the guys to look through before I get out there" to Homestead.

"Me and Scott are going to be out on probably separate days" during the Florida test. "Then, Texas the beginning of December, it looks like I am going to be out. So that's the first time I am going to be in the car and be running in the car," he allowed.

With the rash of accidents, it would be normal if Manning felt some apprehension coming to the League. First Mario Andretti performed his aerobatics at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May while testing for son Michael's team in place of injured Tony Kanaan. Then Kenny Brack had his season-ending incident in the finale at Texas and, finally, Renna met his demise at the Brickyard last month.

"You never want to be flippant about it, but motor sport is dangerous and driving a Formula 1 or Champ Car around street circuits, you are up against walls and bouncing around over, you know, manhole covers and things. I am totally confident in the car's safety. Obviously, Tony's [accident] was mightily unfortunate and hopefully very rare, but the safety of the cars, from my point of view is without question, and I am happy to be jumping in the cars, really."

As he should be. Darren Manning, a guy who's been bouncing around for years just looking and waiting for the right ride has landed - much like Renna - with a team that's among the best in the business, Chip Ganassi's Team Target. He's got veteran team manager Mike Hull at his disposal and has Bill Pappas to engineer his car. If this isn't heaven on earth for a driver knocking on people's doors, what is?

"I have been racing a long time and I think there's only been one time that I have had a fully funded, proper professional drive, when I won the championship in Japan," Manning stated. "Trust me, I have got a very big smile on my face. Inside, I know what I can do when I haven't got all the things available to me that I have got this [coming] year.

"I am just excited to get to grips and get out there testing," Darren laughed. "this is the earliest I have ever been signed for a new season and to be testing before Christmas, to be with these guys, and to be able to pick their brains. It's a lot more unlimited resources than I have ever had before, so I am really looking forward to it."

Coming soon to a race track near you: Briton Darren Manning, a witty, intelligent young driver who, in his own words, "I am personable and have character. I am passionate about racing and I now have the opportunity to shine on the track."

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Series INDYCAR