DETROIT (Dec. 21, 2000) - With next season's Dayton Indy Lights Championship scheduled for its earliest start in four years, the last few weeks of 2000 have seen several key signings and a flurry of final test sessions as teams and drivers...
DETROIT (Dec. 21, 2000) - With next season's Dayton Indy Lights Championship scheduled for its earliest start in four years, the last few weeks of 2000 have seen several key signings and a flurry of final test sessions as teams and drivers finalize their programs for the 16th season of Indy Lights competition in 2001.
Next year's Dayton Indy Lights Championship series begins at the inaugural Monterrey Grand Prix at Fundidora Park in Monterrey, Mexico, March 11, more than a month ahead of this past season's opener in Long Beach and the earliest start since 1997 when the championship began at Homestead-Miami Speedway, March 5.
Dayton Indy Lights teams Mexpro Racing, Conquest Racing and top 2000 Dayton Indy Lights competitors PacWest Lights and Dorricott Racing tested right up until the Dec. 17 deadline that began a holiday "dark period" which runs through New Year's Day. The teams tested together in Arizona last week for a pair of two-day sessions on the Firebird International Raceway road course and the Phoenix International Raceway one-mile oval.
Participating drivers included 2000 Dayton Indy Lights Rookie of the Year Townsend Bell and his rookie teammates Jon Fogarty and Damien Faulkner, PacWest signee Dan Wheldon, Conquest's new driver and reigning Barber Dodge champion Nilton Rossoni and second-year Mexpro pilot Rudy Junco. Mexpro also gave young Canadian driver Michael Valiante his first opportunity behind the wheel of an Indy Lights Lola T97/20 at Firebird, all under the watchful eye of team coach and driver Derek Higgins.
While former Toyota Atlantic standout Wheldon has been tapped to carry PacWest's championship No. 1 earned this year with Scott Dixon, the Bruce McCaw-owned team conducted a three-driver shootout at Firebird last week for the team's second seat that was filled by Tony Renna last season. The trio of testers included former Team KOOL Green driver Jeff Simmons and would-be rookies Marc Hynes and Ralph Firman Jr., a pair of Brits with winning Formula 3 experience. Each driver had a full day in the same PacWest Lola T97/20 with Hynes driving on Wednesday, Firman on Thursday Simmons taking the wheel Friday.
"Overall, we had a very productive three day's of testing," said PacWest Lights Team Manager Paul "Ziggy" Harcus. "All three driver choices were obviously good ones, and there was really no one driver that stood out heads and shoulders above the rest. We had no contact and no offs, which is pleasing, and all three of these guys put in a good day's work. We ran approximately 140-150 trouble free miles per day and also got some great feedback from each of the participants. I obviously have a tough decision ahead of me to determine the driver of our second seat, and hopefully we can have the decision made by the first of the year so we can concentrate on continuing testing for the upcoming season. I'm confident that with Dan Wheldon and whomever we chose to be his teammate and running partner, we can compete at a very high level in 2001 and enjoy the same success we became accustomed to in 2000 when we captured our first Dayton Indy Lights championship for PacWest Racing."
"WELCOME TO THE U.S."
While Dorricott rookies Fogarty and Faulkner performed well in the Firebird road course test, each learned one of auto racing's hardest lessons on the tricky Phoenix oval. Both drivers walked away uninjured in separate contact incidents on the one-mile oval last Sunday, but their respective Dorricott Racing Lolas will each require extensive repairs. Fogarty spun and hit the Turn Four wall Sunday morning with Faulkner spinning between Turns 1 and 2 that afternoon before ending up in the wall.
"I've been pleased with all of our testing particularly considering we have two new drivers that are on a fast learning curve," Dorricott Racing Team Owner Bob Dorricott said. "Townsend (Bell), Damien (Faulkner), and Jon (Fogarty) all have extensive road racing background so that portion of our off-season quickly progressed. The oval testing is its own science and we've been trying different things for each car. We had some trackside education at PIR with Damien and Jon is that they both hit the wall. The good news is each walked away with a healthy dose of respect for fast ovals. It's good something like this happened now. I'd rather have it early in the year than later. Both rookie drivers learned more about how to be comfortable on the oval and how important it is to avoid problems in a set-up before taking laps around an oval. Jon, however, may have had a shock go down leading to his crash. Townsend has been steady and getting better with each lap."
FaulknYer's incident came in the Irishman's oval track debut and he was met by his Californian teammate Bell when he returned to the pits following the accident, with the friendly greeting, "Welcome to the U.S."
Bell, who dominated this year's race on the similar Gateway oval, had a typically steady run at PIR.
ON HOLDEN FOR NOW
Without a firm 2001 offer from a U.S.-based open-wheel team, Australian Jason Bright has returned to his home country where he will compete for top V8 Supercar team Holden Racing. Although this is not the first time Bright has turned to tin tops in his career, he remains determined to get back to North America.
"Don't think for a second that this will be the end of my U.S. racing ambition," Bright said. "I will still be working hard with several other people to get back to the U.S. for either 2001 or 2002."
Bright won the 2000 Portland Dayton Indy Lights race with Dorricott Racing and finished sixth in the championship with 91 points.
DIXON'S ALL-AMERICA HONORS
Dixon was recently named to the 2000 American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters (AAWRBA) All America First Team, an award that annually honors the top performers in U.S. auto racing. Dixon was elected as an At Large member where he will join Toyota Atlantic champion Buddy Rice in a clean sweep of the category by drivers from CART's pair of Ladder System development series. FedEx Championship Series titleist Gil de Ferran was also elected to the All America team in the Open Wheel category. The 12 First Team members will be honored in the annual AARWBA Banquet on Jan. 13 at the Sheraton Suites Fairplex in Pomona, Calif.
Dixon is the fifth Indy Lights champion to receive the prestigious AAWRBA honor, joining Paul Tracy (1990), Bryan Herta (1993), the late Greg Moore (1995) and Cristiano da Matta (1998).