IRL: Two for the title

INDIANAPOLIS, September 16, 2003 - The final two races of the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series mean a lot to everyone involved. There are 41 points separating the top five contenders for the $1 million prize that goes with the title Champion, and there's a lot of pressure to perform.

Helio Castroneves leads the standings with 439 points, shadowed by Scott Dixon, holding 427. Former leader Tony Kanaan lies third now (425), followed by Gil de Ferran (422) and two-time IRL titleholder Sam Hornish Jr. owns 398 fifth-place points. Now that's a traffic jam.

Helio Castroneves.
Photo by Greg Gage.
Castroneves, who had gone since the 2002 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race before winning again at Gateway last month, followed that victory with a fine first at Nazareth, but fell out of the last race in Joliet, IL when the gearbox packed up on his #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota. It's a situation Scott Dixon can understand, having had the same type of problem on his #9 Panoz G Force/Toyota earlier in the season.

"I wanted to be on top of the standings going into the final two races," Castroneves admitted. "But it would be nice to have more of a gap. We were unlucky in Chicago but we've been fighting all season to be in position for the Championship. Sometimes you're the windshield," he noted, "and sometimes the bug. We were a big bug at Chicagoland and we're trying to not have that type of problem again" in this stretch run.

Helio has this reputation as a bridesmaid despite his wonderful two-win record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He finished second to new-for-2004 teammate Hornish for the IRL title last year; he finished second to Kanaan for Indy Lights laurels in 1997.

To win the 2003 IndyCar Series title, then, "Would mean a lot. Wow, that's not winning one race, that's about being consistent, aggressive and managing myself well. There are so many variables to it and, yes, winning this title is a long-time dream for me."

Helio Castroneves.
Photo by Michael Kim.
The title chase over the next two races will be "nervous, exciting and challenging. I have the desire to make it happen and I truly enjoy this type of competition. I've been in this situation before and like last year, I'm happy we're competitive. I'll just have to accept what goes." Castroneves' goal at 2-mile California Speedway this weekend and on the 1.5- mile high banks at Texas Motor Speedway is the same: "I have to finish ahead of those four or five guys but not take too many chances."

After four years with Marlboro Team Penske, Helio Castroneves has seen many changes: Tim Cindric came on board as president, the group changed from the CART to IRL series full-time last year and, at the end of the season, Castroneves will lose the only teammate he's had while working with Team Penske.

The announcement that Gil de Ferran will retire at the end of the year was "a big surprise, especially coming right after Nazareth. We just talking, hanging around and Tim [Cindric] said, 'your buddy's going to retire.' Gil had mentioned it after [winning] Indy but I didn't expect this now. He's in good shape to keep going and he's going out at the peak of his career. I support him completely and he's one of my best friends. I hope to keep in touch and party a lot!" he laughed.

Knowing that ownership changes are in the works for the CART Champ Car series where he once competed, Castroneves would "love to see" a sole series for single-seaters again. "Absolutely," he declared. "The subject is out of my control but I know it would benefit drivers, sponsors, teams and, mostly benefit fans. We (drivers) talk about racing together again and know, as more CART teams come in, the fields will get stronger and stronger."

At the start of the year, Helio thought it would be a 4- or 5-man battle for the IRL IndyCar Series title "and that's what happened." The way things have gone so far, Castroneves said, "you may want to make a bet, but you don't know who will win. To take the title would be a big accomplishment against these drivers."

The weather could be a big factor when the IRL Indy cars arrive in California. While they tested last week under near perfect conditions, temperatures are expected to hover in the mid- to high-90s this weekend in the middle of the desert where Fontana lies. For Scott Dixon, that wouldn't be a problem, even as the Kiwi tries to overcome a 12-point deficit to Castroneves and leave space between himself and the three guys nipping at his heels.

Scott Dixon.
Photo by Michael Kim.
While this is Dixon's first year in the IndyCar Series, it's his second with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon won his first race at the age of 20 years, 9 months and 14 days on the Nazareth "roval", becoming the youngest winner in any major open wheel series until Fernando Alonso eclipsed the mark earlier this month in the Hungarian Grand Prix. Dixon has matured as a driver this season, and familiarity with his team could have a lot to do with it.

That, and the fact that he's "having a lot of fun." With three wins and seven top-5 finishes, though, the 14-race season to date has been a roller coaster ride for Dixon and his Team Target. "We've had very fast cars all year and we stand a chance to win everywhere. But we've had some mechanical problems, when things that could happen to anyone happened to us."

Looking for his second title within the last five years - Dixon was the 2000 Indy Lights champ - Scott knows consistency over the last two rounds could put him in position for the victories he needs. "The championship would mean a lot because I've had great drivers to compete against. I never thought I'd be in an all-oval series but, from my point of view, the challenge has been a lot of fun."

Pitstop for Scott Dixon.
Photo by Robert Kurtycz.
Dixon's goals for the year were "hard to gauge, coming from another series. We've struggled at some tracks but we've always had a great car for the races. We knew we'd be competitive but I never thought we'd have this much fun. The preconception was that I'd struggled on ovals before but the racing is much more fun than I'd thought."

He intends to "keep an open mind" about the championship this weekend and at TMS next month. "If things go great, then fine. If not, we regroup. As drivers, we're all very confident in our abilities. A great team helps, as does the support from home and crowd enthusiasm."

The big, wide California Speedway oval lends itself to Indy Racing League competition, with its side-by-side runs throughout each race. "I know I can concentrate on racing this weekend because I know I can start up front with a fast package," Dixon said. "It's key that Chip [Ganassi] decided on the right package. We've led in all but two of the 14 races held thus far and each week we know we have a chance to win or run up front."

Both Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon began their 2003 seasons with teams capable of winning the championship. That this duo are in the thick of the title chase with only two races left on the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series schedule should come as no surprise. Nor would it be a shock to see them and their three pursuers take an ever-tighter fight out of California Speedway on Sunday afternoon once the Toyota Indy 400's 200 laps are complete.