INDY PRO SERIES SEASON BEGINS WITH SERIES-RECORD 23 DRIVERS ON TRACK AT OPEN TEST Super Aguri Panther Racing, Mutoh top speed chart HOMESTEAD, FLA., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007 -- Absent from the Indy Pro Series for three seasons, it didn't take...
INDY PRO SERIES SEASON BEGINS WITH SERIES-RECORD 23 DRIVERS ON TRACK AT OPEN TEST
Super Aguri Panther Racing, Mutoh top speed chart
HOMESTEAD, FLA., Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007 -- Absent from the Indy Pro Series for three seasons, it didn't take long for Super Aguri Panther Racing to show that it plans to return from Mark Taylor's championship campaign in 2003 as a title contender in 2007.
On a day that saw a record 23 driver/car combinations participate in the season's first Open Test, Panther rookie Hideki Mutoh topped the time chart with a quick lap of 1 minute, 16.1559 seconds, 104.470 mph on the 12-turn, 2.21-mile road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"My grandfather had a great statement, 'Life's a people sport,' " Panther co-owner John Barnes said. "We've got really good people in this program with (engineer) Blair (Perschbacher) and (crew chief) John (Worth). Hideki is a great rising star for open-wheel racing. We attack this thing like we do everything else -- to win. We look forward to this year."
Mutoh, who was atop the chart for most of the afternoon session, saw two-time race winner Alex Lloyd pass him with seven minutes to go. Mutoh went back out for one more lap and clicked off his best of the day.
"It was a good day," said Mutoh, a 24-year-old who won Japan's Formula Dream championship in 2003. "We changed the car from the morning session, and it was really good. I was very comfortable with the car. I'm very happy. I knew Alex had taken the top spot. I knew I only had one chance, just one lap, so I just concentrated for one lap and made it. This is good for the team, good motivation for the first race."
Lloyd, 1:16.1881, 104.426 mph, was second-quick in his Sam Schmidt Motorsports-prepared car. He and Mutoh both bettered Jeff Simmons' quickest lap from last year's Open Test.
Bobby Wilson, a race winner at Watkins Glen last year, was third in his official debut for two-time entrant champion Brian Stewart Racing with a lap of 1:16.7999, 103.594 mph.
Stephen Simpson was fourth in his debut with Kenn Hardley Racing with a lap of 1:16.8138, 103.575 mph, and Ryan Justice, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, was fifth with a time of 1:16.8565, 103.518 mph.
Twenty-three drivers combined to complete 1,603 laps without any major incidents. Indy Pro Series teams will return to action Feb. 22 for testing on Homestead-Miami's 1.5-mile, high-banked oval.
OPEN TEST NOTES:
Indy Pro Series officials announced a change to the Feb. 22 testing schedule. Cars will be on the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway from 9-11:45 a.m. and then from 12:30-3 p.m. Previously, no lunch break had been scheduled. Also, Homestead-Miami Speedway announced that the track will be open to the public from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. on Feb. 21-22.
Indy Pro Series executive director Roger Bailey was getting around the garage area proudly on a Segway Personal Transporter.
"Are these things legal in pit lane?" Bailey asked jokingly.
Indy Racing League founder Tony George gave the Segway to Bailey three years ago, but it came with a caveat -- there had to be at least 20 cars on the grid before Bailey could drive it.
Two years worth of aggressive measures, such as increasing the prize money from $1 million to almost $4 million, introducing four doubleheader race weekends on road courses and adding a bonus testing program for IndyCar Series teams, culminated in 24 cars arriving at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Open Test.
Bobby Wilson, driving the No. 1 entry for back-to-back entrant champion Brian Stewart Racing, was the first driver on the 2.21-mile, 12-turn course when the green flag flew at 10 a.m. (EST). Wilson was followed by a string of four cars under partly cloudy skies and 72 degrees.
2006 Indy Pro Series champion Jay Howard was pounding the pavement in the garages and along pit lane. The Englishman is looking to race at the next level after winning the championship on the strength of two victories and seven podium finishes.
"I don't have anything yet, but there are still a few possibilities," Howard said. "I'm sure I'll be doing something."
Howard has been in Florida for the past 12 days with his karting team, Screaming Talent-Gillard, that will compete in the Stars of Karting presented by the IndyCar Series.
Roberto Moreno, a veteran open-wheel driver who made 75 Formula One starts, spent time in the pits tutoring Playa Del Racing's A.J. Russell. Russell, who most recently has driven Supermodifieds, was driving on a road course for the first time in his career.
"I'd rather be driving, but since I can't do that today it's satisfying to pass along what you know to a younger generation to help them get going sooner," Moreno said. "These days you don't have much testing and people are going from ovals to road courses and it's a big change. A.J. is doing quite well for his first run. He's good in quick corners, though he has some steps to learn with shifting that he's not used to. When he works on that the next time out, he'll quickly figure out what it takes. He just needs to learn about the slow corners -- how you brake into it with the downshifting and light throttle coming out."
ALEX LLOYD (No. 7 Sam Schmidt Motorsports, 2nd quick): "It was a pretty good test day. I think the two of us (Hideki Mutoh) have had a bit of an edge on everybody else all day, which is good. I think in the end, it's only a test day, but you want to be fastest. We had the yellow flag at the end which left us with only one lap on the new tires. I think we could have gone quicker if we had a few more green laps. I'm sure everyone on pit lane is saying the same thing. But really, we had a pretty good day. I'm happy. I think we're very strong, as we thought we would be over the wintertime. I'm looking forward to getting the first race underway."
STEVE SIMPSON (No. 24 Kenn Hardley Racing, 4th quick): "Considering a week ago I was on a beach in South Africa and other top teams on the grid have had some testing, this was a good first day. I thought the car was great to drive with a nice amount of power and good amount of grip. We had a gearbox problem with about 45 minutes left that kept us from using our last set of new tires. Considering that we ended up fourth quickest and we didn't get a last go at it, I'm quite confident and happy. I think we would have been troubling the top one or two had we had another run at it."
BOBBY WILSON (No. 1 Brian Stewart Racing, 3rd quick): "It's pretty exciting. This track is challenging as far as setup goes. We've been working on grip, overall grip, most of the day. It's really hard to put the power down here; you think you can carry a lot more speed into the corners. I'm look forward to all the road course events coming up in the future."
RYAN JUSTICE (No. 38 Sam Schmidt Motorsports, 5th quick): "Having only tested two days on the road course before coming here, and having run those two races at Infineon last year, every time I get in the car I'm improving. We have yet to reach the point where I can say I'm at 150 percent. We made improvements all day long. Once we went to new tires at the end of the day we were in the top five squarely. I'm pretty excited. It will be interesting to see what happens once we reach the point where the learning for me is over. Something that I'm enthusiastic about is that everyone ahead of me in the top five has experience in big-horsepower cars and I don't."
The 2007 IndyCar Series season begins under the lights with the XM Satellite Radio Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 24. The race will be telecast live by ESPN2 at 8 p.m. (EDT) and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. A Spanish-language telecast of the race will be carried by ESPN Deportes. The IMS Radio Network broadcast also is carried on XM Satellite Radio and www.indycar.com. The sixth season of Indy Pro Series competition begins with the Miami 100 on March 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The race will be telecast on at 5 p.m. (EDT) on March 28 by ESPN2.