One month ago, Toyota Atlantic veteran Rocky Moran Jr. endured one of his biggest career disappointments when his car broke while leading with barely two laps remaining at the Long Beach season opener. But that eye-opening performance opened the door for unheralded opportunities in other series, and the first of these takes place over the next two days as he makes his Menards Infiniti Pro Series debut at Indianapolis.
Moran will run Gary Peterson's #27 Automatic Fire Sprinklers Dallara in the Freedom 100, driving the entry series rookie Jay Drake placed fourth in last year. USAC regular Drake had no experience in those cars prior to that effort, and Moran hopes for similar results given that he will not actually drive one for the first time until opening practice kicks off at IMS Thursday morning.
"I looked at the schedule, and it looks like we have adequate track time," he says about this narrow timeframe. "Obviously the more time I get in the car the better, but we have a good car and it has a good history of running pretty quick here. I've had some success on the ovals, so we'll just make the best of it."
Unlike fellow multi-generational Indy driver Cole Carter, whose successful IPS rookie test last week in Kentucky meant he could also join the Freedom 100 entry list as a last minute participant, Moran already had the series' blessing. An IRL test with Vertex-Cunningham in Atlanta in early 2002 (for a planned Indy 500 ride which never materialized) granted him the pass, even though he has never actually raced on a superspeedway before.
That lack of experience does not faze Moran, whose most recent oval race came at the Milwaukee Toyota Atlantic event in June 2004. "The more laps (in the IPS car) the better, but I did get to complete my IRL rookie test in the big car a few years back, so I am a little familiar with the high speeds. Indy will be unique because of the layout and design of the track, but I think all in all, we'll be all right."
While Moran and AFS both missed the Indy open test earlier this month, efforts at putting the two sides together date back a while. "Originally the conversation started a few months ago. We started talking to Gary Peterson -- my father and I knew him from the Toyota Atlantic series days, and through mutual friends we started getting connected with him. He came down to the Long Beach Grand Prix this year, saw the performance we put on there and got excited. Unfortunately for him, he's suffered some pretty big accidents and recently had a big hit in Phoenix and got his fourth concussion. He had some great guys here and a car ready to go for this weekend, and a spot opened up for me. It came together very last minute -- I just found out about it a week ago."
Along with Carter, Marco Andretti and "Just Al" Unser, the Freedom 100 will mark Moran's competitive debut as a second generation participant at the Brickyard. He spent a fair amount of time on the grounds before his teens while his father Rocky Sr. logged three Indy 500 starts from 1988 to 1990. "The one thing I actually remember is hanging out in kid daycare with Arie Luyendyk Jr. and playing around under the grandstands. I was so young, unfortunately I didn't really get to appreciate what was going on, but that's probably it -- and staying at some of our friends' houses nearby."
When you have never turned a lap at speed around IMS before, having hands-on experience within the family helps. "My dad's been talking to me about Indy since I was a little kid. Fortunately for me he's not too much of a Little League dad; he's not overbearing. He gives me feedback normally when we're at the track, and he basically told me to respect the Speedway and all oval tracks. He got me started with my oval racing, and all the techniques have really helped me up to this point. He'll be here this weekend to spot, so I'm looking forward to that.
"He's more of a background player on race weekends, but he's always there. Most of the times we're going to dinner together and rooming together, and he's my set of eyes up in the grandstands. He does all my spotting for me, so he's very actively involved."
The younger Moran does have some idea of what to expect equipment-wise heading into opening practice. "The big differences, just looking at the performance sheets -- instead of 260 horsepower I'll have 450 hp. The car's about 250 pounds heavier and has a mono shock front setup on it. It's actually built more like an Indy Lights, Barber Dodge, Champ Car or IRL car. So it'll be a little bit bigger with a nice, roomy cockpit in it. With oval racing it's high speed drafting wars, So the race strategy will be different than what I'm used to than all the road racing I've come from."
In the two seasons since he last competed full-time in Toyota Atlantic, Moran and his father have kept busy developing their new karting track in Beaumont, CA. Now with his recent adventure at Long Beach and with Indy looming, that has provided the nice but daunting challenge of juggling day-to-day business operations at Moran Raceway with actually racing. "The track's been open for about two years now and has grown a lot. We've been doing a lot of corporate events, racing schools, rentals; all the driving programs are booming. We're bringing on a lot of new employees and been having a lot of racing. So spring's actually the busiest part of the racing season for us, it has been more so because most of the rides and stuff which have been developing have been pretty last minute deals, so I haven't had a lot of time to plan that out. It's just a balancing act, but I think we're going to be all right. Thankfully a lot of the times when I'm gone, my dad can cover it, and we've got a couple good guys at the track to take care of things, so we'll just work on making that deal run smoothly while we're gone."
Haivng his own track at his disposal has also helped in terms of getting physically ready for all these last minute races. "Karting's awesome. Staying in a kart keeps all your reflexes, footwork and handwork right on par with where they have to be; it carries over so well. I really noticed the difference because before we owned the kart track, I wasn't really karting that much, then when the off-season would go by and I'd get back into a race car, it would take me half a day to get acclimated with it. Now it takes me 10-15 laps normally and I'm fully up to speed. It just keeps your mind used to the high speeds and G-forces, and it keeps your physical conditioning in top shape. It's absolutely the best."
So...has Moran gotten over what happened on track at his last race? "It probably took two or three days, or maybe more like a week if I'm more honest about it. It was a heartbreaker, but it's also part of the reason why we're here today, so it really wasn't that big of a deal in the big scheme of things. I think even though it was a disappointing finish, I think it's going to turn around for some good things this year.
"I would say I'm sure (Long Beach) helped (raise his profile) a little bit and that it was pivotal with my deal here at AFS. Gary is a local Southern Californian native and lives in Huntington Beach. I think he believed in me before that race, but seeing that race really sparked his interest."
Moran hopes a good result in the Freedom 100 can keep him in the seat for additional IPS races this season, including the IMS road course race on the U.S. Grand Prix weekend next month. "I'd like to run top five, keep my nose clean, get familiar with these cars and start to develop a relationship with all the people on this team -- that's basically my goal. Just finish the race in the top five. I've got a lot of learning to do with driving these things and race strategy in big packs on superspeedways, and I'm really looking forward to doing some of the road racing too."