IRL: Rookies on the run

Only ten points separate the top two contenders for 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series. Roger Yasukawa, driver of the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Dallara/Honda leads Dan Wheldon, who pilots the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda. Interesting that both drive the same package combination, yet their teams, both new to the IRL this season couldn't be farther delineated.

Roger Yasukawa.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Yasukawa, the Los Angeles-born 25-year-old who spent his first school years in Tokyo before moving back to LA, drives for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing, an international group if there ever was one. Team co-owner Aguri Suzuki is a former Formula One driver from Japan while CART standout Adrian Fernandez hails from Mexico and Tom Anderson is a born-and-bred Californian currently living in Indianapolis. Theirs is a single-car team.

Briton Wheldon wheels for Andretti Green Racing (AGR), co-owned and managed by recently retired Michael Andretti, businessman Kevin Savoree and extraordinary team manager Kim Green, on a three-car squad.

The 26-year-old has been racing in the United States since 1999 and joined AGR in the third race of the 2003 season after serving as test driver leading to an intended Indianapolis 500 Mile Race start to his year. Teammate Dario Franchitti's motorcycle accident brought Wheldon to the League a bit earlier than intended for the Twin Ring Motegi round.

For Yasukawa, this has been a steep learning curve, particularly since he is sole driver for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing. He does have the added benefit of Suzuki's experience in Formula One and Fernandez' CART work ethic, together with the talents of managing director Anderson, race engineer John Dick, chief mechanic Steve Ragan and spotter John Martin.

"My goals for the 2003 season definitely including winning Rookie of the Year," Yasukawa admitted. "That was my main goal coming into the season when I signed my contract." At this point in time, Yasukawa holds 255 11th place points in the overall IndyCar Series standings and notes, "Dan is getting close."

Last weekend at Chicagoland, Yasukawa pitted for the final time at an opportune moment, exiting along with Bryan Herta, who assumed the race lead with just 10 laps to go. He tucked in and got a good start once the race went back to green with only six laps remaining. "I thought I was going to have the win but unfortunately it wasn't my day. Bryan got a big high, we touched and I had to back off." He finished a disappointed eighth while Herta took third.

"I'm gaining a lot more confidence racing up front and next time I hope to parlay that experience into a win." Yasukawa, who had more short oval experience coming into the season, has had his best results on longer, larger tracks this year. "They seem to suit my skills," he said. "We're getting better and better" at all IndyCar Series venues.

The Super Aguri Fernandez team is working harder on their qualifying performance, Yasukawa revealed. "We are working hard to improve our grid position. As a driver, you always want to be up front; you don't gain much confidence when you start 18th. The beauty of the IRL shows in the final 20 laps. You need to have your car in position to get a good finish."

Pitstop for Roger Yasukawa.
Photo by Michael Kim.
With a single car team, "there's not much time to figure out your qualifying setup. With the amount of time allocated during each race weekend, we focus on race setup instead." That's where the payoff comes. Roger's best qualifying effort to date is ninth at Gateway; his best finish is seventh in Kansas, with two consecutive eighth-place finishes at Nazareth and Chicagoland. He's won over $800,000 with two races left.

Roger is spending quite a bit of time in Japan these days, going back whenever there's a week off in the hectic 16-race campaign. "I work with my [physical] trainer, who is based there and discuss future dealings with sponsors. I don't know yet about my 2004 plans and, until everything is signed, I can't be 100% sure. I'm hoping if I perform well in the next two races, I'll be able to stay with this great team."

Developing confidence as a rookie in a League where experience counts, going up against top teams like Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, Panther, Kelley et al has meant a huge learning curve for Yasukawa. "Tom [Anderson] and John Dick have helped a lot because I need to learn so quickly. John Martin is my spotter and he gives me tips that make me more comfortable in the car so I can concentrate on driving.

"I didn't know what to expect and had to learn to race with these guys. I know I'm getting better, but there's always room for improvement. In the IRL," Yasukawa has learned, "pole position doesn't guarantee a win. The way we're structured as a team, it's better strategy for us to work on our race setups. We've proven many times this year that we can move to the front so next year, now that we have data, we can work on qualifying."

While Roger Yasukawa had an advantage of two extra races in his quest for Bombardier Rookie of the Year honors, "Dan is catching up. Basically, we need to finish ahead of him in both races. He's got a good team and he's a good driver."

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
Wheldon, 12th overall in IndyCar Series points with 245 has seven top-10 finishes and three top-5 results in 12 races contested thus far. He was fourth last weekend at Chicagoland, closing the gap to his competitor. It's been a different kind of season for Dan Wheldon, who is accustomed to winning.

"I've always managed wins in every season, but the competition in the IRL IndyCar Series is very, very good and very difficult. I've started to gain confidence," he said after leading his first 32 laps of the season last weekend. "My team has done a great job in the pits every race and we've been very strong the last few races. I've put myself in position to be up front and we're looking to close the season in a strong manner.

Adapting to different tracks, "We've been a little behind compared to others as this is pretty much our first year in the League. We learn so much each race, and I learn so much in the car. I'm really fortunate to be with Andretti Green Racing; they've increased my learning curve."

It's difficult to go home without wins when you're accustomed to victory spoils. "I've got to be patient and not make mistakes," a common mantra for racing drivers. Wheldon is pretty "happy that I put myself in position to move to the front last week. This kind of wheel-to-wheel competition at 220mph is exhilarating, the best feeling. Concentration at these speeds is so important.

"There's sheer excitement and an incredible amount of focus required here. A mistake can cause something big to happen." While running fourth last weekend at Chicagoland, Wheldon gave some thought to going four-wide at the checkered flags. "It wasn't a nice thought. They held their line and there was nothing I could do. It could have been viable to go four-wide at the end but I thought I'd settle for fourth place. If I keep doing that, I can get to the front," he declared.

What does it take to win in the Indy Racing League? "Everything has to go right. You have to have a fast car at the end of the race, one that's handling well. You have to make sure you're 100% focused every lap and that you've got a good car in traffic."

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Michael Kim.
Wheldon will take part in a test at the two-mile California Speedway oval in preparation for next weekend's Toyota Indy 400, a 200-lap contest. "We have to find speed and fine-tune our car for qualifying so we can get a good grid position." Dan will test Wednesday and Thursday while teammate Tony Kanaan gets a workout on Friday.

Within his Andretti Green Racing team, Kanaan is battling for the championship from third in the chase, Bryan Herta (substituting for Franchitti) can win any race and Wheldon vies for Bombardier Rookie of the Year. "This team has done a fantastic job moving to a different series. It's no great shock we're all competitive and we can only get better and better," Wheldon said.

"Everyone at Andretti Green Racing is dedicated to winning, from the owners to the guys who sweep the floor. Michael is well centered, a smart, real, honest guy. He's able to make good decisions and he's been in my pit from the get-go. Michael takes in everything," Wheldon noted, "and reviews what happened after each session. After all, he's won a ton of races. He has that experience of winning and knowing what to do. He's got a great personality too; Michael is a very funny guy. He's 100% committed to winning."

Dan Wheldon's desires for the balance of the season parallel those of his close competitor Roger Yasukawa. "I'd like to take top 10 results in the standings, win a race and earn Bombardier Rookie of the Year. Those are my goals."

Too bad the Indy Racing League can't give the Bombardier award to both of these guys. They've worked hard to earn it.