IRL: Orlando Preview

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Wednesday, Dec. 8, 1999 -- Fifty-five days have flown by since Greg Ray celebrated his Indy Racing League championship at the start-finish line and Mark Dismore wept tears of joy in victory circle as the race...

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Wednesday, Dec. 8, 1999 -- Fifty-five days have flown by since Greg Ray celebrated his Indy Racing League championship at the start-finish line and Mark Dismore wept tears of joy in victory circle as the race winner at Texas Motor Speedway. That's history now. It's time to start all over again. It's time to work toward becoming the first major race winner in the new millennium. Twelve teams and at least 14 drivers will launch the 2000 season with the annual Indy Racing League Open Test at Walt Disney World Speedway Dec. 10-11. What the teams learn in this test and a follow-up test Jan. 5-6 on the 1-mile tri-oval at Disney will go a long way in determining who will challenge for victory in the season-opening Delphi Indy 200 on Jan. 29 at the facility. The teams will check out newly designed chassis from Dallara, G Force and Riley & Scott, the Oldsmobile Aurora and Nissan Infiniti 3.5-liter engines - reduced from the 4.0-liter displacement of the past three seasons - and for some teams, Firestone tires for the first time. Firestone is sole tire provider for the coming season after Goodyear withdrew from the Indy Racing League and CART after the 1999 season. Most noteworthy will be the sweeter sound of the new 3.5-liter engines. New crankshafts that change the engine firing order alter the pitch and tone of the new engine significantly. Eddie Cheever Jr., 1998 Indianapolis 500 champion, is the defending race champion. A resident of nearby Orlando, Cheever and his brother Ross already completed a shakedown run at the track. Everything is new for the veteran who spent the first 12 years of his career driving in Formula One. Last season he won at Walt Disney World Speedway driving a Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear but returns this year at the wheel of a Riley & Scott/Infiniti/Firestone. "We just finished a short shake down test with the new Infiniti," Cheever Jr. said. "I was pleased with the power of the engine. "With the newness of both tires and engine package, we'll be focused most on figuring out the handling with the Firestone tires while continuing the endurance development of the engine program." Eddie Cheever has, as usual, lofty goals for the 2000 season: Providing Infiniti with its first Indy Racing victory, becoming a two-time winner at Indy and capturing his first season championship. "Our team sees it as a matter of course," he said. Here's a look at other top teams that will participate this weekend in the Open Test: Ray, whose three victories last season helped propel him to the league title, returns in the Team Menard machine. Next month Ray will make his third try at winning at Walt Disney World Speedway, having only a 25th and 21st to show for his first two attempts. Kelley Racing is back with its steady pair of drivers, Mark Dismore and Scott Sharp. Each won a race last season. Scott Goodyear won twice and begins his third season with Pennzoil Panther Racing. Buddy Lazier won the 1996 Indy 500 with Hemelgarn Racing and continues as the team's driver. Buzz Calkins won the inaugural Indy Racing League event in 1996 at Walt Disney World Speedway. Last year he was running at the finish of every race and completed the most laps while driving in the races between classes at Northwestern University, where he is working on his master's degree in business administration. Sam Schmidt was cleared this week by Dr. Kevin Scheid but will wait until the second Open Test in January to pilot his Treadway Racing machine along with new teammate Robby McGehee. Schmidt suffered severe foot injuries in the season-ending race at Texas. McGehee will shake down Treadway's car at this test, too. Two other veterans taking part in the test are Tyce Carlson and John Hollansworth Jr. Hollansworth made his first Indy Racing appearance at this test last year. The entire team is back, along with Hollansworth's new driving teammate, rookie Airton Dare. Jeret Schroeder drove to 15th place as a rookie at Indy last season and then spent the rest of the racing year running in other series. That persistence paid off as Schroeder was hired by Tri Star Motorsports, jointly owned by Larry Curry, Tony Stewart (1999 NASCAR Winston Cup rookie of the year), Andy Card and Rick Ehrgott. "Our goal is to run for the Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year Award," Schroeder said. "Larry Curry (former Team Menard team manager) certainly has a fine reputation as a team manager, and we all know Tony Stewart's talents. Making the 1999 Indy 500 was a dream come true, and we almost came home with a top-10 finish. We'll all be working hard to do even better in 2000." Tri Star owners chose Schroeder because they wanted a mature but yet still young driver who has shown a talent for the sport, Curry said. Schroeder turned 30 on Nov. 13. Completing the list of Open Test participants is Sam Hornish Jr., another rookie. He passed his Indy Racing League driver's test earlier this week at Walt Disney World Speedway, allowing him to take part in the test program with PDM Racing. Hornish, 20, is a graduate of the KOOL/Toyota Atlantic series where he placed seventh in the standings and won the inaugural race at the Chicago Speedway last summer. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., who recently signed with Galles Racing, will make his Indy Racing League debut at the second Open Test at Walt Disney World Speedway, Jan. 5-6.

-IRL/IMS-

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