DETROIT (December 29) - At least one new team and nearly a dozen confirmed drivers are part of a rapidly growing 2000 Dayton Indy Lights Championship field that is gearing up as the year winds down.
Veterans Casey Mears, Jonny Kane, Tony Renna and Geoff Boss top the strong lineup as early favorites for the 2000.
Mears, 21, will run his fourth full-time Indy Lights season and second consecutive with Dorricott-Mears Racing. The second-generation driver - son of Roger Mears and nephew of Rick Mears - battled teammate and eventual series champion Oriol Servia all the way to the season-ending race at California Speedway this year enroute to second-place in the standings. He will be the only returning driver on the Dorricott squad where he is expected to be joined by fellow Californian Townsend Bell, 24, and Formula Ford 2000 veteran Jason Bright, of Australia. Indy Lights rookies, Bell is a veteran Barber Dodge Pro Series competitor while Bright, 25, tested with PacWest Lights before landing a spot at Dorricott. Exiting Dorricott drivers Servia and Philipp Peter are exploring various FedEx Championship Series options, and each met with Champ Car team owner Cal Wells earlier this month.
Kane, the 1999 Rookie of the Year, returns for a second season with Team KOOL Green after ending the year on a high note with his first series win at California. The 26-year-old from Northern Ireland swept the pole positions at both superspeedway events, and his win in the season finale enabled him to edge 19-year-old Scott Dixon by a single point for the rookie title and fourth place in the championship.
Dixon has been linked to the second seat at PacWest but only Renna has been confirmed for the Bruce McCaw-owned team. Renna, 22, ran five races with PacWest last season and the team signed the Floridian to a long-term contract that will see him race in Indy Lights and test the group's Champ Cars. Renna, who won at Michigan in 1998 with the now disbanded Mattco Raceworks team, finished third at Milwaukee last June in his first race with PacWest.
Boss, 30, is back with owner Chris Lucas and the renamed Lucas Motorsports Ltd. team where he will once again team with his younger brother Andy Boss, 27. Geoff Boss, who won at Toronto in 1999, will contest his fourth Indy Lights season while his brother is set for his third full-time effort. They will be teammates for the second consecutive season on the Lucas team.
Cory Witherill, 28, has also confirmed his participation in the 1999 Datyon Indy Lights Championship and is reportedly reviewing team options. He recently completed a productive test with Genoa Racing, his team of the last two years, but no official announcements have been made.
Bell and Bright will be part of a strong rookie entry that includes a second Team KOOL Green driver and no less than two young competitors from Mexico.
Jeff Simmons, winner of the last two Barber Dodge Pro Series championships, steps up to Indy Lights as a teammate to Kane on the KOOL team. It's the fist time since 1997 that the Barry Green-led group will field a full-time, multi-car team after running Kane exclusively this past season and fielding a solo effort for Naoki Hattori in 1998. Former team driver Chris Simmons, Jeff's older brother, returns to the KOOL camp as the engineer on his sibling's team. Jeff Simmons, 23, and Kane will drive identical KOOL Lolas.
Rolando Quintanilla, 19, made a solid debut at Fontana with team owner Eric Bachelart and Conquest Racing and retains his rookie status for the 2000 season. He and his father Roberto Quintanilla, a former series driver, have sponsorship in place and are presently reviewing team options. Possibilities include the full season with Conquest or moving up to Lights with the same Mexican-based team with which he raced in Formula Ford 2000 competition.
The Quintanilla's Mexican countryman Gustavo del Campo, former manager of Team Mexico Quaker Herdez, is now handling the new MexPro Racing Team that debuts in 2000. Team owner Rodolfo Junco, Sr. has purchased a pair of Indy Lights Lola T97/20s and the related team equipment from Forsythe Racing (see below) and will field one entry for his 20-year-old son Rodolfo Junco, Jr. A second Mexican driver will be added to the lineup in the near future. Junco Jr. is a veteran of the Mexican-based Pan-American Indy Lights series that uses older Indy Lights Lola T93/20s.
FAREWELL FORSYTHE... FOR NOW
For just the second time in seven years, the 2000 Indy Lights season will not see an entry from Forsythe Championship Racing, the team that has won a series-leading four championships and 33 races primarily as Tasman Motorsports Group. Owner Jerry Forsythe, who purchased the Tasman team prior to this past season, has pulled out of Indy Lights to focus on his CART Champ Car and Toyota Atlantic programs which account for no less than five race cars between three teams.
Tasman won its championships with Bryan Herta (1993), Steve Robertson (1994), Tony Kanaan (1997) and Cristiano da Matta (1998) and scored the 33rd win - the only one under the Forsythe Championship banner - last April at Nazareth Speedway with Airton Dare. Despite the significance of the team's departure, however, Tasman founder and current Forsythe Championship Racing President Steve Horne has not ruled out a return to Indy Lights in the future. He and Tasman sat out the 1995 Indy Lights season to launch the team's Champ Car program only to return to the junior series the following year.
"Indy Lights has always been an integral part of my racing plans," Horne said. "I still strongly believe that it is a powerful resource for any Champ Car team. I am disappointed not to be involved in 2000, but the potential exists for us to get back in."
NEW LEADER IN THE CLUBHOUSE
With Forsythe on the sidelines, Brian Stewart Racing will become the new active-team race win leader with 31 Indy Lights victories. Although the team failed to win a race in 1999 for the first time in four years, owner Brian Stewart reports he will get back on track with at least two full-time entries next season as the series' oldest team looks to build on its past success. Stewart won the 1990 and 1991 championships with Paul Tracy and Eric Bachelart, respectively, when the team was known as Landford Racing. The name was switched to the current one prior to the start of the 1993 season. Stewart is close to re-signing fifth-year-veteran Rodolfo Lavin Jr., 22, for a second season and has tested no less than six other drivers including Barber Dodge standout Todd Snyder, American British Formula 3 veteran John Bender, Canadians Billy Asaro and Michael Brooks and New York City-based Formula Ford 2000 driver Guy Cosmo.
Brit Guy Smith and Iowa resident Chris Menninga are two more veterans looking to finalize their 2000 plans. Smith, 25, was in the U.S. earlier this month when he wrapped things up with Forsythe Championship Racing in Ohio and met with several Indianapolis-based teams. Smith ran his second season in Indy Lights with Forsythe this year and hopes to be back in the series next year.
"Things are looking pretty good at the moment," Smith said. "I am working on a deal that would include Indy Lights and the 24 Hours of Daytona and Sebring endurance races. Nothing is done but I am hopeful."
Menninga, another 25-year-old, just completed five days of testing with Conquest Racing, the team that took him through his rookie season this year. The test was split between the Firebird road course and Phoenix International Raceway oval in Arizona. Menninga and team owner Eric Bachelart are close to striking a deal that should be announced in the early weeks of the New Year.
"We both want to continue what we started this year," Menninga said. "I am fairly close to having all of the pieces in place to sign a new deal with Eric."
In addition to wholesale driver signings, several key team personnel moves have been made in the off season. Top engineer Burke Harrison has moved to Dorricott-Mears Racing after spending the last three seasons with the Lucas Motorsports Ltd. team. Brian Berthold, who helped Team Mexico Quaker Herdez and Derek Higgins win three races last season, has filled Harrison's spot at Lucas. Berthold also worked with Team Gordon in Champ Car competition last season.
While the world is prepping for this weekend's Millennium New Year's Eve bash, the Indy Lights community got a head start on celebrating this season with two different parties earlier in December.
A special season-ending celebration was held at Dorricott-Mears Racing, in Bakersfield, California on Saturday, Dec. 4 where the team's outstanding season was given long-overdue recognition. The night was capped by the official presentation of several championship awards to Oriol Servia including the PPG Indy Lights Cup and an original painting by Jim Swintal. The artwork, depicting Servia's pole-winning qualifying lap at Detroit this past August, was presented by Dayton Tire Motorsports Manager Joe Barbieri who represented all Indy Lights sponsors at the event. Other notable attendees included Dayton Tire Engineer Keith Shrieve and Senior Chaplain Hunter Floyd and Indy Lights Chaplain Bob Pirtle of CART Ministries.
Casey Mears was presented with several awards including a trophy for second place in the championship and the $10,000 Bosch Platinum+4 Speedway Challenge for earning the most points in the year's six oval track events. Mears also accepted, on behalf of the United States, the Indy Lights Nation's Cup, which the U.S. captured for the first time. Mears, Geoff Boss, Cory Witherill and Andy Boss all contributed points as the U.S. topped nine other countries to win the prestigious award.
Philipp Peter was onhand to accept his trophy for third place in the championship while Bob Dorricott Sr. was presented with the Champion Team Owner Trophy. Team Crew Chief John Martin Jr. and Servia's Chief Mechanic Andrew Nagy were jointly presented with the Top Team Player Award as the personnel selected by the team that played the most significant role in the championship-winning effort. Servia's group was also acknowledged as the winners of the Fast Crew Award which went to the entry that was able to move its personnel, equipment and race car in and out of the pits the fastest before and after all on-track sessions throughout the season.
While the Dorricott-Mears party was taking place in California, a celebration of another kind was taking place that same night a few hundred miles away in Las Vegas. PacWest Lights Team Manager Paul "Ziggy" Harcus and the former Nicki Dager were being married at the Tropicana Hotel. Several members of the team attended the wedding where the celebration lasted well into the morning.
"Never in my life have I seen so many people spend so much money to go to a free party," Harcus said. "That's my team! A great time was had by all."