INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, Dec. 4, 2003 -- Some of the top IndyCar(R) Series teams and drivers tested Dec. 3 at Phoenix International Raceway in preparation for the 2004 season.
Drivers Robbie Buhl (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Sam Hornish Jr. (Marlboro Team Penske), Scott Dixon, Darren Manning (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) and Dan Wheldon (Andretti Green Racing) tested on the 1-mile desert oval.
Wheldon won the 2004 Bombardier Rookie of the Year title and finished 11th in points, despite competing in only 14 of 16 races. He did not compete at Phoenix in 2003, but has tested at Phoenix many times for Andretti Green Racing.
The Dec. 3 test was Wheldon's first opportunity to drive on the slightly reconfigured track. Construction crews eliminated the opening in the backstretch wall and widened the exit to Turn 2. In addition, a portion of Turn 4 was torn up to build a tunnel, and a piece of asphalt in that area had to be repaved.
"It really hasn't changed too much, as far as what the driver feels," Wheldon said. "The entry to Turn 1 is still obviously quite tight, so you've still got to get the car through there and through the middle of the corner.
"You do have a bit more road to play with on the exit, so if you're under-steering, it does make it a little bit more comfortable from that standpoint. In (Turns) 3 and 4, the bump on the exit is perhaps not quite as harsh now. There is definitely not a huge difference."
Wheldon feels the biggest change may come during racing conditions.
"It will perhaps make a difference during the race because you will have a little bit more room on the exit," Wheldon said. "But, as far as a qualifying lap, your speed is still dictated by entry and how you get through the middle of the corner."
Reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon tested for Target Chip Ganassi Racing along with his rookie teammate Darren Manning.
"It was great to get back on the track," Dixon said. "I liked the Phoenix track before they made the changes to the layout, and it's definitely better than it was before. I didn't turn too many laps out there, but I was able to get a pretty good feel for the new design.
"It should allow for more side-by side racing coming out of Turn 2, and that will be great for both the drivers and the fans. It's kind of hard to believe that we're already getting ready for another season, but I'm excited about the 2004 season and defending the championship for Team Target."
The test marked Manning's first test in an IndyCar Series car at Phoenix.
"I was pleasantly surprised," Manning said. "The cars are powerful and have great throttle response. Phoenix is one of the more difficult tracks that we'll race on next year, so it was good to get out there and get some laps under my belt.
"It's quite a feeling, really, to be with such a great team like Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The cars are strong right off the trucks, and you can see why they've been so successful. These guys have one focus and that is being the best. I'm looking forward to having a full off-season worth of testing, which is something that I haven't had before. It's going to be a fun season."
A late afternoon accident in Turn 2 brought a premature end to Manning's day. He was uninjured.
"The damage wasn't too severe, but it wasn't the way I wanted to wrap up the day," Manning said. "I would have loved to have been able to put in another 60 to 70 laps."
Two-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. was involved in a separate accident in the morning. He also was not injured.
Drivers and teams expected to test Dec. 4 at Phoenix include Wheldon (Andretti Green Racing), Alex Barron and Ed Carpenter (Red Bull Cheever Racing), and Tomas Scheckter and Mark Taylor (Panther Racing).