IRL: Ward eyes victory this season driving for new team with historic roots

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2001 -- Ward and Rathmann united. And add a Mecom and a Davis. All are part of the new but appropriately named Heritage Motorsports team that will make its Indy Racing Northern Light Series debut in ...

INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2001 -- Ward and Rathmann united. And add a Mecom and a Davis. All are part of the new but appropriately named Heritage Motorsports team that will make its Indy Racing Northern Light Series debut in the season-opening Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 on March 18 at Phoenix International Raceway. The last names of the principals in the team are a blast from the Indy Racing past. This quartet - two owners, a driver and team manager - all carry last names of people who were in Victory Lane at an Indianapolis 500. Two - co-owners John Mecom III and Jim Rathmann Jr. -- are direct descendants of John Mecom, who owned the car Graham Hill drove to victory in 1966, and Jim Rathmann, who outdueled Rodger Ward to win the race in 1960. Driver Jeff Ward is no relation to two-time Indy winner and fellow Californian Rodger Ward, and team manager Mitch Davis is no relation to 1941 co-winner Floyd Davis. Still, there is one definite comparison between the new and the old. The foursome of 2001 has that same determination to succeed that was part of their namesakes of yesteryear. "We won't settle for second," Davis said. In fact, Davis said the team already has set its sights on going to Phoenix not to learn but to win. "Our goal is to go out there and sit on the pole and win the race," Davis said. "We're going to work hard to do that." Ward, who spent nearly three seasons with Davis at two teams before driving for A.J. Foyt last year, feels the same way. Though he has been a strong performer since he joined the Indy Racing League in 1997, the former motocross great still seeks his first open-wheel victory. "I feel like this is my best position I've been in to win races," Ward said. The idea of forming a team involving Davis and John Mecom Jr. was discussed about 10 times over the last 10 years, Davis said. "We wanted to wait until the opportunity was right," Davis said. "Right now with the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, as competitive as it is, and the chance for this team to grow in the future to be a premier team in the racing industry, that's what the Mecom family was looking for." The Rathmann family became involved with a car dealership the Mecom family owned in Texas. Jim Jr. attended the Casino Magic 500 last year at Texas Motor Speedway and said he would like to be a part of the new Heritage team, too. Actually, it wasn't until last November that things began to fall into place, and the team was formed. Ward and Foyt parted company. Davis, who assembled a last-minute Dreyer & Reinbold team a year ago and saw driver Robbie Buhl win the opening race at Walt Disney World Speedway, spent the second half of the 2000 season trying to get Team Menard and driver Greg Ray on track. When Davis started the Heritage team, Menard agreed to build the engines. The team was born. Heritage put a car on track for the first time during the Indy Racing Open Test Feb. 23-24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. "It felt great," Ward said. "It definitely felt like I never left the team. I've been with Mitch in '97, '98 and '99. Everything went like clockwork. The guys were still working at 12 o'clock before the practice the next day. There wasn't one glitch the whole weekend, and we got everything we needed to get done to be prepared when we go back there." Ward admits he was disappointed in his season driving the No. 14 car for four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Foyt. He earned six top-six qualifying spots but had only three top-10 finishes. One of those was a fourth in the Indianapolis 500. "I went into an environment I wasn't used to, and being new in the car racing career, I just didn't catch on probably as quickly as I needed to in that situation," Ward said. "Now that I'm back with Mitch, just jumping in the car last week I felt like two or three years ago when I was driving. I just feel really excited about being a part of this new team going into this year." Davis insists the key to success is assembling and maintaining a strong support crew. Len Paskus is the team engineer, having worked with Davis since 1998. Veteran Indy Racing chief mechanic Tim Whiting takes on that role with Heritage this season. "His experience is a big asset to our team," Davis said of Whiting. "He's a guy we haven't worked with, but at the test everything went flawless. So I couldn't be more excited to have him on board." Winning was something Ward became very accustomed to when he was the greatest American motocross rider of his day. He won 74 races and seven national championships. Ward compares his current position with his early days in motocross. "I won my first race in probably my third or fourth year racing motocross professionally," Ward said. "Once the first one came, they just came rolling in, and the championships came after that. "Maybe I'm a slow learner. I feel I'm on par with my motorcycle career, and I really feel comfortable going into this year as my best year for winning races. I've been close (second four times, including the 1999 Indianapolis 500) in the past, and being reunited with Mitch and everybody and the package we have, I feel extremely confident this is going to be the year for me."

-IRNLS/IMS-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Greg Ray , Robbie Buhl , Jeff Ward , Rodger Ward , Graham Hill , A.J. Foyt