Certainly, Scott Sharp expected more from his #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota/Firestone team from the Kelley Racing stables when the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series season began at Homestead- Miami Speedway last March.
The start of the year looked good, as everyone on the grid was working with new chassis and engines in the first year of a three-season commitment. Gaining a fifth place start in a race he thought he might have won at Homestead (from sixth on the grid), starting eleventh and finishing seventh at Phoenix International Raceway and then winning the inaugural Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi, Sharp had every reason to be optimistic.
A series of two accidents at Indy and the first Texas night race, won by Unser was compounded by difficulty getting his car qualified toward the front of the pack as the 16-race campaign unfolded, but after Texas 1, Sharp only failed to finish one race - in Kansas, he fell out with a gearbox problem.
Sharp ended up eighth in the final standings and won an IndyCar Series event for the seventh consecutive season, racing all but 76 laps of more than 3250 run over the course of the year. The biggest problem he and Unser faced was qualifying, as they didn't get the test time of their competition and ended up toward the back of grids.
"We knew it was going to be a tremendously competitive season," Sharp acknowledged. "We knew that going in with the big teams that we needed to raise the bar and, for the first part of the year we ran strong. That gave us more optimism than we should have had," he laughed.
Lacking the testing capabilities of his competition, "We'd be sitting on the ninth or tenth row but still the guys never gave up. We were wide out and gave a great effort. We did the best with what we had." His Delphi team lacked the budget to test for the balance of the season after Texas and "others stepped up while we remained the same."
It hurt to go through the bullpen set up for media interviews after a qualifying run and shrug his shoulders, even as Sharp wanted to scream in agony. In a way, "we became more committed and never gave up, even starting 18th, 19th or 20th we'd come through for a fifth or sixth-place finish." It was good for morale on the team.
"The League is going to put in tighter testing rules that will require everyone to go to open tests," Sharp explained. "By restricting teams to five, six or seven days of testing, a three-car team will be able to do 21 days, while we'll have to choose our [tracks] a bit more wisely. I still think we'll be stronger next year; we'll be better able to utilize the tools at our disposal."
One of those tools is engineer Andy Borme, who helped Helio Castroneves earn two Indy 500 crowns (2001-2) while with Marlboro Team Penske. Borme, 38, and Sharp (35) worked for the first time at Phoenix International Raceway for a single day last week just after NASCAR teams departed the reconfigured mile oval.
"Andy's had a long career and, for the first time working together, I think we got along really well," Sharp said. "One day with Andy already made me feel comfortable and I think having him around will pay big dividends in development and strategy. His experience and knowledge will help the team.
"I think the [Phoenix] track has kept its character," with the changes to Turn 2 that eliminated the wall break and the removal of the bridge in Turn 4 to put in an infield-accessible tunnel. "I think situations will remain the same with a tight exit out of Turn 2," Sharp said. "They moved that wall out maybe one car-length or so.
"It was dangerous to have that separated wall but now you'll probably see our cars running side-by-side at Phoenix in traffic. They've put a really nice tunnel in at Turn 4 and the track is very smooth. They really didn't change the track but it feels much wider. The bridge (at Turn 4) is now gone but the track is still the same," Sharp noted.
"I don't think it'll be much faster. You're flat out in qualifying and maybe it might be a bit easier to be flat but you won't pinch the car as much in Turn 2. This is going to make our racing better at Phoenix," he declared.
Addressing the call to make changes to the Indy cars after recent accidents, Sharp understands that "we're flat out at some of these tracks. I've been here since the beginning in 1996 and I believe that nobody works harder on safety than Brian Barnhart and Dr. [Henry] Bock. They don't throw things around and I don't think they'll do anything radical" without careful consideration.
Of the newcomers in the League, Sharp was most impressed by the efforts put out by eventual champions Team Target and driver Scott Dixon. "I looked at their package as a team and driver, and I had to go with Scott. Ganassi put together a great team and they were strong on the big tracks. I can't take anything away from Gil [de Ferran], Tony Kanaan, Helio or Sam Hornish, but Scott really impressed me all year."
"By the time we'd scuff tires and make some adjustments, it was time to go racing. Yeah, we were 3-4 positions back from where we could have been on the grid, but we usually had a good race car. The team made the right decisions. We turned into one two-car team and going that direction made us work better as an integrated group."
Sharp's major partner Delphi Electronics has played a large part in the development of electronics from both a safety and competition standpoint over the years. "They are a very proactive company in electronics and safety. We incorporate new products they've developed into our cars - that is a big part of our relationship. They are very, very involved in crash testing and data and the information they've gotten from different products makes racing safer for all of us."
Scott Sharp's #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota is on its way to Homestead-Miami Speedway to test another reconfigured race track tomorrow and Thursday. NASCAR speeds at the south Florida track jumped tremendously during their series finale this past weekend, but Sharp doesn't think the Indy cars will be impacted quite as heavily.
"I don't think we'll have a huge jump although the new paving will add a lot of grip. We're wide open there anyway in qualifying but in the race, I don't think we'll be flat in traffic and I like it that way. With the increased banking (18-20 degrees in turns), we'll be able to race two-three abreast, I think. We'll have to wait and see, but I can't imagine us gaining more than 6-7mph," he considered.
After the test this week, Sharp is off the track until January, but there's still plenty of promotional work to do. "The off-season goes by too fast," he exclaimed. "I do a lot of sponsor appearances during [this time] because they don't ask a lot during the racing season. Now I take the time to get in the best shape possible, spend time in the gym and go to trade shows and factories for Delphi.
"With the lull over the next month or so, I'm sure I'll feel like a horse in the gate a bit, but I'm already hyped for the new season coming up. I'm sure by the time January comes around I'll be anxious, pumped to get back on the track."