IRL: Offseason questions to be answered at Phoenix opener

PHOENIX, Monday, March 5, 2001 - Whether an Indy Racing Northern Light Series team has turned thousands of laps of offseason testing or none, there still are many questions. Now it's time for all teams to get some answers. The ...

PHOENIX, Monday, March 5, 2001 - Whether an Indy Racing Northern Light Series team has turned thousands of laps of offseason testing or none, there still are many questions. Now it's time for all teams to get some answers. The Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 on March 18 at Phoenix International Raceway is not only the series' season opener, it also can be considered a race of truth. This will be the first time since last October that Northern Light Series teams will race, the longest offseason in series history. The longer break has given teams more time to prepare for the 13-race season - the largest in series history. But it also has given them more time to stew over many details about their speed and strategy. Here are 10 questions that may be answered at the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200: 1) Can Buddy repeat? Buddy Lazier earned an improbable victory last year at this event after starting last. The win provided a springboard for Lazier as he eventually went on to capture his first Northern Light Cup as series champion. Can Lazier and Hemelgarn Racing repeat again at Phoenix and get a jump on a second consecutive season championship? 2) Can Stephan stay speedy? Stephan Gregoire was the fastest driver during the Test in the West Open Test Feb. 9-10 on the 1-mile oval at PIR, turning a best lap of 20.361 seconds, 176.808 mph in his Dick Simon Racing entry. Gregoire could earn his first career Indy Racing Northern Light Series victory if he shows similar speed, mixed with skill and strategy, at Phoenix. 3) Can Ray rebound? 1999 Indy Racing champion Greg Ray endured a tough 2000 season, finishing 13th in the Northern Light Cup standings. But Phoenix could be a good spot for Ray and Team Menard to return to the top. Ray has won the MBNA Pole for this event the last two seasons and would like to reverse his trend of slow starts the last two years. 4) Is three a crowd for Galles Racing? Galles Racing grew from one to three cars during this offseason, as two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. now has two rookie teammates, Casey Mears and Didier Andr=E9. The addition of these two talented rookies will add more work for the Galles team but also could put this "super team" in good shape to win its first Northern Light Cup. 5) Will Foyt flourish flying solo? A.J. Foyt Racing is fielding just one car this season in the Northern Light Series after entering at least two cars per season since 1996. That increased focus could help Foyt's driver, Eliseo Salazar, return to the winner's circle and win the Northern Light Cup. Foyt's team hasn't won a race since May 1999, and Salazar hasn't won since October 1997. 6) Can Sam Schmidt Motorsports repeat the debut magic? Last year, Robbie Buhl won the season-opening race at Orlando, Fla., with a Team Purex Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team that was formed about a month before the race. This year, former Indy Racing star driver Sam Schmidt recently formed a team for the entire Northern Light Series season. Can Schmidt and driver Davey Hamilton win in their team's debut, like Buhl and his team did last year? 7) Can Ilmor pour on the power? Ilmor Engineering built the Chevrolet Indy V8 engines that won the Indianapolis 500 from 1988-93. Now the company is returning to Indy Racing this year, building Oldsmobile engines for Kelley Racing drivers Mark Dismore and Scott Sharp and Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver Davey Hamilton. Can the glory days return quickly for Ilmor and it become the most feared name again in Indy Racing engine production? 8) Will the sophs be super? This year's group of second-year drivers looks to be among the strongest in Northern Light Series history. 2000 Rookie of the Year Airton Dar=E9 returns with TeamXtreme Racing, 20-year-old Sarah Fisher is back with Walker Racing, Shigeaki Hattori is with Vertex/Cunningham Racing, and Sam Hornish Jr. has moved into one of the most coveted seats in open-wheel racing with Pennzoil Panther Racing. The sophomore jinx may be erased this year from Indy Racing. 9) Can the rookies win right out of the box? Normally it would be silly to predict that a rookie could win in their Northern Light Series debut. But this year's rookie crop is different and special. Three of the four rookies entered in this race - Casey Mears, Didier Andr=E9 and Felipe Giaffone - have plenty of experience and have enjoyed success in Indy Lights in the last few years. All three have tested during the offseason to get comfortable with Indy Racing League cars and could be a threat for victory March 18 at Phoenix. 10) Will qualifying look different? The Indy Racing League will not award qualifying points this year in an effort to discourage teams from building fragile but fast qualifying engines that provide an advantage over those teams lacking the budget to build the costly extra engines. This could bring the middle and rear of the field closer to the front, providing one of the tightest starting fields in Indy Racing history. Practice for the 200-lap, 200-mile race starts at 11 a.m. (MST) March 16. MBNA Pole Qualifying takes place at noon March 17, with the race taking the green flag at 2 p.m. March 18, live on ABC.

PENNZOIL COPPER WORLD INDY 200 NOTEBOOK

Schedule: The Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 starts at 2 p.m. (MST) March 18. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at noon March 17. Practice sessions start at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. March 16, 9 a.m. March 17 and 10 a.m. March 18.

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On the air: The Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 will be televised live on ABC at 4 p.m. (EST) March 18. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised live at 11:30 a.m. March 18 on ESPN2. ESPN2 will televise pole qualifying at 4:30 p.m. (EST) March 17. The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 3:30 p.m. (EST) March 18, followed by the live race broadcast at 4 p.m. The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a qualifying show at 4:30 p.m. March 17. The Phoenix-area affiliate is KMVP-AM 860. The IMS Radio Network race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracing.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.

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Tickets: Tickets for the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 are available by calling (602) 252-2227 or online at www.phoenixinternationalraceway.com.

-IRNLS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Al Unser Jr. , Casey Mears , Robbie Buhl , Shigeaki Hattori , Eliseo Salazar , Buddy Lazier , Stephan Gregoire , Davey Hamilton , Scott Sharp , Mark Dismore , Sam Schmidt , A.J. Foyt , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing , Dreyer & Reinbold Racing