It doesn't get much better than this for drivers in the Indy Racing League's Infiniti Pro Series. This year - its second in operation - The Infiniti Pro Series has added the skills of Rick Mears, 4-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 mile race...
It doesn't get much better than this for drivers in the Indy Racing League's Infiniti Pro Series. This year - its second in operation - The Infiniti Pro Series has added the skills of Rick Mears, 4-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 mile race (to those of Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford) giving young drivers who aim for the IndyCar Series pinnacle an exemplary coach to talk with as the 2003 season unfolds.
Mears, of course, came to open-wheel racing from a different route than most of his charges. Raised on the vigors of off-road desert racing, Mears has no quarter midget, midget, sprint or Silver Crown experience to help him, but when he was starting out in Indy cars, Rick could call on Parnelli Jones and Bobby Unser, two drivers he'd raced against before hitting the pavement.
"Anytime someone points out things NOT to do, that can be quite a bit of help," notes Mears, who adds Infiniti Pro Series coaching duties to the similar job he performs for Marlboro Team Penske, assisting drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. "I enjoy working with drivers. It's a lot of fun for me. I appreciate the help I got and I'm trying to do the same. I've just added more to the plate."
What Mears intends to do is keep the doors open for any of the 15 or more Infiniti Pro Series drivers to call on him. "As a coach, I'm trying to correct any erratic movement I might see. After all, smooth equals quick in this business. I'm looking for smoothness and consistency. There's no substitute for seat time, of course, but everything helps," he says.
While his heart was in his throat when coaching son Clint, nephew Casey in the [now defunct] Indy Lights series, Mears tried to keep those relationships out of it, being hard when he needed to be and always giving support. It was good training for his current career.
"My job is to help these young drivers learn as quickly as possible." While he'll be keeping notes on all the Infiniti Pro Series drivers during each weekend's practice, qualifying and race sessions, Rick isn't the type of guy who will be on top of them in giving advice.
"I look at coaching as trying to correct things. Smoothness and consistency will help these drivers achieve their goals." It's not rocket science but his brand of enthusiasm can assist drivers in learning as quickly as possible. "I'll be flexible and we'll try different things as we go. I'll be in the mix of everything as it goes to practice, qualifying and each race." At this time, there are 11 events on the docket, with a possible 12th race on the 2003 Infiniti Pro Series schedule.
While he doesn't consider himself a teacher per se, Rick Mears' coaching style employs "whatever works. I'll approach if I see something, but I'll mainly stand back and watch. I want to make sure these drivers are as safe as possible out there and, while there's no substitute for track time, my job is to help teach young drivers how to know the limit and stay off the wall. I can help speed up their learning curve but drivers have to do it on their own and get their own experience."
What Mears emphasizes is that drivers must learn to "take care of each other and you'll take care of yourself. Erratic movement [on these ovals] can catch others off-guard and then you can take yourself out."
The key mantras for Mears are these: "be consistent, get to the end and keep your nose clean. My focus is to ensure they learn with each lap and have the consistency to get to the end. I can help them but they each still have to find their own way."
"The talent pool looks very good thus far," after two days of testing at the 2-mile California Speedway in Fontana and at Phoenix International Raceway's mile oval, "but it's still too early to tell who's best." On a big track like Fontana, horsepower is king, making drafting, turbulence, aerodynamics and positioning more important, Mears emphasizes. At circuits like PIR handling comes more into play. "You have to hustle more and find a pattern around the track. You can pick and choose your places on the track," says Professor Mears.
Two drivers likely to ask for little assistance in the 2003 Infiniti Pro Series have their own coaches on board. Arie Luyendyk Jr., driving for Sinden Racing Services this season was 2nd last year to A.J. Foyt IV in the series' inaugural season. This year, young Arie is focused on putting together some wins along with the consistency he showed in 2002. While he doesn't feel much pressure,
"I just want to win." Working with the same team he employed last year, this second generation driver is hoping to make his first IndyCar Series start at Michigan Speedway in July, "if all goes well." And he can always talk to his father, who regards Mears as a superb teacher. "Rick gets straight to the point. In that way, we're similar," the senior Luyendyk remarks.
Stepping into the tub that took Foyt IV to the title, Ed Carpenter intends to focus primarily on the Infiniti Pro Series in 2003, but will still do some USAC Silver Crown pavement races. Working with Super Tex, A.J. Foyt Jr. is an added benefit for Carpenter, who has "spent a lot of time with him. He's a close family friend and I look up to him. We've taken the same path to the top, going through the ranks."
The Infiniti Pro Series is Carpenter's biggest challenge in his racing career, as the racing cars are so different from the front engine cars in which he's learned to compete. "I'm ready for my first win. I've been ready for a while but it just didn't come my way. I couldn't get past the #14 and now I'm in it," he laughed.
The Infiniti Pro Series kicks off its campaign in just a couple of weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway, its Miami 100 serving as support to the IndyCar Series-opening Toyota 300 on March 2nd.