Schmidt tests drivers for expanded Infiniti Pro Series team.

LAS VEGAS, Friday, Nov. 15, 2002 -- Six drivers tested Nov. 13 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the Indy Racing Infiniti Pro Series car owned by Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which fields cars in the Indy Racing League and the Infiniti Pro Series.

Team owner Sam Schmidt indicated he intends to field three cars in the Infiniti Pro Series in 2003, with one seat filled by Tom Wood, who completed the speed phase of his IRL rookie test Nov. 13 at LVMS. Wood, 45, from Calgary, Alberta, competed in three Infiniti Pro Series events in 2003 for Schmidt with a best finish of third at Chicagoland.

"All three races he ran last year, he did a good job," Schmidt said. "We're looking forward to him being a regular top-five contender, but we've got these other two seats to fill, and we need to do that. We want all three cars to be in the position to win the championship."

Lloyd Mack, brother of IRL driver George Mack, turned laps, as did Dave Wieringa, who also completed the speed portion of his IRL rookie test Nov. 13. Ross Fonferko, Mishael Abbott, Jeff Groff and Matt Jaskol also drove on the 1.5-mile oval.

Mack, 21, from Inglewood, Calif., and Jaskol, 18, from Las Vegas, both come from the karting ranks. Fonferko, from Wheaton, Ill., also has a karting background and has competed in Toyota Atlantic and captured a win at Mid-Ohio in August 2002 in the Zetec Formula Ford 2000 Championship.

Abbott, 21, from Coral Springs, Fla., became the first woman to drive an Infiniti Pro Series car. She has competed in karting, USAC Midgets, Barber Dodge RT2000, SCCA Mazda Nationals and Star Mazda and World Challenge.

Groff, who hails from Colorado, has competed in SCCA events and Spec Mazda events, while Wieringa 22, from Oak Brook, Ill., raced in Toyota Atlantic in 2002 after two seasons in Skip Barber Formula Dodge competition.

"The main reason for doing so many is we wanted to try to keep the costs down per person and get a feel for the drivers on a few different levels," Schmidt said. "Just where they are from a driving development stage based on what they've driven before. Also, how they approach a new car, learning a new track, consistency and probably just as much, marketability.

"While they were waiting to drive the car, I had my marketing people talking to them and seeing where they were at. Throughout the course of the next week, myself, my team manager, my engineer and my marketing people will grade each driver and see where we're at."

Schmidt gave no timetable for a decision but did indicate that he may conduct a similar test in December at a Florida track.

Many potential drivers have contacted Schmidt, impressing him and indicating there is strong interest in the Infiniti Pro Series as a path for drivers to reach the Indy Racing League and the Indianapolis 500.

"(Drivers) are looking at their opportunities and going the same way that Tony Stewart, and more recently Sam Hornish Jr., did," Schmidt said. "One thing I see that's different from 10 years ago when I was driving this level of stuff, be it karts or Formula 2000 or whatever, is that parents are more knowledgeable. They are all asking the same thing and that is, 'Should my kid move to North Carolina and try to go to Winston Cup or should my kid take this route?'

"And I think all of a sudden it's kind of on equal footing because they see somebody like Sam Hornish, who's been able to, in five years, become a superstar."

And while 1996-97 IRL champion Stewart and 2001-02 IRL champion Hornish have benefited from opportunities the IRL has provided, drivers now have the option of entering the Infiniti Pro Series prior to heading to the IRL.

"The (Pro) series models the IRL series," Schmidt said. "The series really emulates the IRL. I think the people that will excel in this series will excel in the IRL series."