May 2003 marks the start of yet another new era at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This huge icon of racing was, at one time, only open for competition during the month of May.
The first stab at tradition occurred with NASCAR's inaugural Brickyard 400 in August of 1994. Formula One came to a newly constructed road-racing course within the 2.5-mile IMS oval in September of 2000. Each of these new events has had support races.
Now, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race will have its own companion feature when the fledgling Infiniti Pro Series holds its inaugural Freedom 100 at the Brickyard on May 17th, the day before Bump Day. Is it a travesty of tradition?
It could be one of the smartest moves in the Indy Racing League's eight- year history to have the IRL's step-up series join the IndyCar troops at the Speedway. As the Indy Racing League works to move young drivers through the ranks, where better to gain experience that will serve them but at this Temple of Speed?
"The Freedom 100 is icing on the cake," declared Roger Bailey, executive director and virtual godfather of the Infiniti Pro Series. The former car and engine builder whose illustrious employment history includes successful stints with Formula One, at the Indianapolis 500, in IMSA sports car racing and as the manager of the former Indy Lights series, has always been a proponent of promoting young drivers through the ranks.
"This is a great commitment by Tony George to give opportunities for our Infiniti Pro Series drivers to gain experience they need at the Brickyard before moving up. Why not here?" he asked. Bailey admits there is great interest in this addition to the 12-race series because of the exposure that sponsors, teams and drivers can get by competing at IMS. "The money needed to put on races just isn't here anymore," he noted in lauding George's intent to hold this race.
"The largest challenge is the economy. We're looking to have a 26-car field for the Freedom 100 and, while there is no lack of interest, there's just not a lot of money available." It's a common problem throughout motorsports in 2003, but one that Bailey is trying to overcome with his enthusiasm for the spec series he's put together with the Indy Racing League's help.
"A junior program at this level is absolutely necessary. When we [at Indianapolis] went to rear engine cars, there was no program available to learn how to drive these cars. Some drivers adapted naturally, some worked it in and some never did - or do - in a month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway," Bailey admitted.
"The days of a single event are over. You can't keep people employed for one race per year and this series will help keep tradition alive," as young drivers gain knowledge of the Speedway's long straights, four corners and intimidating walls. The first Infiniti Pro Series test at IMS is set for April 17th.
"This is amazing for all of us," said Infiniti Pro Series racer Paul Dana. "Any driver, from any form of motorsports wants to race here. The opportunity to gain experience at the Brickyard is priceless." Ed Carpenter, who lives down the street from the racetrack is looking forward to driving on the hallowed ground. "Now I can look forward to racing here" before he moves up to the IndyCar Series.
The driver who won both opening rounds of the 2003 Infiniti Pro Series, Briton Mark Taylor hopes "to be in the IndyCar Series next year, so I will need this experience and I'm sure it will benefit" as he auditions for a 2004 Indy car ride. While there is a paucity of oval racing in the UK, Taylor finds the discipline suits his driving style.
"From the British Formula 3 series, this is a whole new experience for me. It's very challenging racing in the Infiniti Pro Series. I pursued oval racing because it's exciting," he explained. "Three in a corner at speed is challenging and it's difficult to have a good race with all the competitors. It's a big change for me."
Expect the Infiniti Pro Series cars to put up speeds in the 188-190mph range at Indy, Bailey stated. He's still working out the rear wing configuration that will be used by the Infiniti Pro Series competitors, but expects it to be different from that employed at California Speedway for Test in the West. That 2-mile oval has banking the Indianapolis Motor Speedway lacks, so Bailey is still working out the details.
"As an American driver with an American sponsor, this is where I want to be," Dana stated. "The direction of the Indy Racing League with this series is instrumental to giving it incredible viability. This is a big step up from Formula Ford 2000," for the St. Louis native, whose emphasis has been in the open wheel arena.
Trying to take "little steps," Dana noted that the Infiniti Pro Series Dallara chassis, with its varied shock packages and spring settings that net big differences in speed - and budget - are truly "a big step up. It's important to be patient in this series and, while we've all found the wall, we're trying to enhance our careers" by being part of the Indy Racing League.
Carpenter has the challenge of working with A.J. Foyt Jr., the Texan who is campaigning his grandson, A.J. Foyt IV in the IndyCar Series this year. Stepping into the same #14 car that won the inaugural Infiniti Pro Series crown, the Butler University senior (he graduates May 10th) recognizes the test of working with the volatile Foyt.
"This is a whole new ballgame. All I can tell is what the car's doing because I'm learning all over again," noted the USAC Silver Crown and Midget veteran. Both Johnny Rutherford and official Infiniti Pro Series mentor Rick Mears have assisted Carpenter, as has Foyt, of course. "The biggest difference, for me, is having all that weight behind, not in front of me."
Carpenter has his plate full right now, finishing his studies before the call to action at Indy. "If I can run two [open wheel] races between now and then, that's more than some of the other" competitors in the Infiniti Pro Series. "A.J.'s not too worried about taking the (IPS) championship yet. After all, there's still 10 races to go."
Yes, there are ten races left in the Infiniti Pro Series, but race #3, the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, well, that's the one the whole world will be watching. May 17th at the Brickyard is the beginning of a new era.
It's an opportunity for the young lion cubs of this sport who want to make their marks in open wheel racing to shine while competing a hair's breath away from one another at nearly 200mph. And, with ticket prices at a nearly free $5, there's no excuse, no reason not to attend.