IRL: A cast of characters

One thing the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series won't lack in its tenth anniversary season is a veritable cast of characters, with the emphasis on "characters". From the animal house inhabitants at championship-winning Andretti Green Racing to...

One thing the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series won't lack in its tenth anniversary season is a veritable cast of characters, with the emphasis on "characters".

From the animal house inhabitants at championship-winning Andretti Green Racing to the new crop of rookies, there's no doubt this group will be a fun one to watch, both on and off the 17 tracks where the League will run its 2005 races.

For instance, Thursday evening the drivers at Andretti Green Racing took their crew to dinner; apparently several parties paid a crewmember a total of $300 to send a pie to the face of 2004 IRL champ Tony Kanaan, who will, no doubt reciprocate in kind.

"That guy's gonna have to sleep with one eye open the rest of the year," another crewmate noted at Homestead-Miami Speedway today, where teams are preparing their cars for oval testing on Saturday.

Today, though, was Media Day and allowed writers an inner look at the minds of owners and drivers, rookies and veterans alike.

The Indy Racing League gathered its five newcomers to meet the press and brought out 2004 Bombardier Rookie of the Year Kosuke Matsuura to join them. An unexpected driver showed up as Paul Dana, who ran the Menards Infiniti Pro Series the last two years, finishing second to Thiago Medeiros in 2004 announced he's darn close to having a deal put together.

"It has been the program's intention since late last year to step up," Dana admitted about his workings with IndyCar Series veteran owner Ron Hemelgarn. "It's going to happen and we are going to be at the first race in Homestead."

Dana's sponsorship with Ethanol involves 25 different companies "and some late issues coming together with formalizing the program" made it impossible for the team to formally announce its intentions this week. "We're waiting on pinning down some equipment details and will most likely be at the Phoenix open test."

Czechoslovakian Tomas Enge, whose program with Panther Racing was disclosed earlier this week, was quick out of the box and fastest in initial testing on the Homestead 2.21-mile road circuit Wednesday morning. "I've never done jobs with American teams before," he stated. "I have moved to Indy and am in the shop every day. Already we are family," Enge said.

Another latecomer to the Indy cars, Formula One tester Ryan Briscoe joined the deep Chip Ganassi Racing team last week, after being rumored for the third seat for months. "They're an amazing team," the Australian acknowledged.

Briscoe will also be driving in the Rolex 24 at Daytona with co-champion Scott Pruett and Luis Diaz early next month; it will be only his second time in a closed car (he competed in a support race for the Australian Grand Prix in a Ferrari 360) and his first time competing at night, both of which light the 23-year-old's eyes.

Ineligible for the $50,000 Bombardier Rookie of the Year prize, newcomer Patrick Carpentier joined Red Bull Cheever Racing after several years with Champ Car (nee CART). The Quebec native who currently resides in Las Vegas, Carpentier spent much of the winter in Montreal training for the coming season.

Carpentier's training involved snowcross, a combination of snowmobiling and motocross. "Yeah, the track is about half a mile in length and has around 15-16 turns so it really, really works you hard. You get to work every part of the body this way," Carpentier explained.

He has changed his approach to competition a bit, thanks to the input of former teammate and good friend Paul Tracy. "I used to be too soft," Carpentier said. "Now I am very, very focused; Paul taught me to be stronger so people take me more seriously."

Danica Patrick graduated from the Toyota Atlantic Championship to the Indy cars this year, staying with the Rahal Letterman Racing team that campaigned her in that ladder series. The 22-year-old who has been preparing for this move since she was six is very serious about her work.

"Sometimes I have to step back and realize that it's happening and I'm driving Indy cars. Fourteen years later (after she began to drive) and I'm driving for a great team. It means a lot that they stand behind me and believe in me so it's exciting. I'm ready. Let's begin," Patrick declared.

Matsuura, who returns with Super Aguri Fernandez Racing for a second season expects to do better than he did in 2004. "I couldn't win last year but I have so many good races like Michigan, Kentucky, Motegi and Indy. Last year I was really unlucky and hopefully, if I have some luck I will win one race this year."

Later in the day Dan Wheldon, who took Bombardier Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 and finished second to AGR teammate Tony Kanaan in the points chase last season was asked about the possibility to taking the title in 2005.

"I think there's going to be about 12 people that can win any individual race and it's going to be a lot more difficult" this year, Wheldon noted. "We've just got to keep working hard and keep enjoying it as much as we're doing. Actually," he joked, "I think we're going to try to add a fifth car with a female teammate like Buddy [Rice, who has Danica Patrick on his squad this year]."

Kanaan turned to Rice at that point: "Dan is jealous about that," to guffaws from the room.

Realizing the difficulty of posting back-to-back titles, Kanaan knows "we've got to build everything back because what's happened in the past belongs to the past. So now we need to move forward."

The expectations for Rice, who finished third last season with three wins including the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race are huge. "I think we're looking for a lot right now," the Arizonan said. "I think adding the third car is going to be a benefit and obviously, the other teams have proven that multi-car teams are the way to go right now."

Rice will work again with Vitor Meira, who was his teammate from Twin Ring Motegi to the season closer in Texas. "We're looking for big things and this year it's a little bit different coming into the start of the season. We have a strong testing going on right now but we already have continuity."

Tomas Scheckter, who acquired a new teammate in Tomas Enge at Panther Racing just three days ago is hoping his luck will change during the 2005 season. Without a win since 2002, the South African is part of the sole team running with Chevrolet power.

"Some part of me is a little bit concerned, but it can also play to our advantage," Scheckter explained. "If we get to the first race and all of a sudden we've got a big advantage, it's great for us," he smiled. "I'm hoping they put a big push in and make sure that Chevy goes out with some good results this year."

Scheckter has another problem this season, a teammate with the same name. "We're both called Tomas and every time they call Tomas we both look. It gets a bit confusing," he laughed.

Alex Barron, paired with Carpentier at Red Bull Cheever Racing returns with that team for a second complete season and to Toyota, with whom he won his second IndyCar Series race at Michigan in 2003. The Californian, who raced against Carpentier in CART and worked with the same team as the Canadian in Toyota Atlantic was asked if they got along: "He speaks French!"

Chip Ganassi, who has his hands in the Indy Racing League, Grand American Rolex Series and in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, brought his three drivers (2003 IRL champ Scott Dixon, Darren Manning and Briscoe) and team manager Mike Hull to the meeting rooms.

After winning six titles in ten years, Ganassi should be complacent, but he's not. "I just love the empowerment that goes with winning races and championships. It's what drives me," he declared. Adding Briscoe's third car to his IRL stable for 2005, Ganassi didn't want to add for the sake of addition.

"We had some opportunities but we were looking for the right situation," Ganassi explained. "That is obviously what we're so excited about with Ryan. I'll tell you what, when you have the mechanics on the team excited, you really know you've done something. That's a good thing."

It's Ganassi's enthusiasm that spurs Hull, who manages all three series squads from the Indianapolis headquarters. Adding the third Panoz/Toyota for Briscoe Hull believes "provides an avenue of additional information without hurting the resources we have. That's what it's all about, being able to properly manage our growth."

Dixon had a disappointing 2004 season after copping the title in his first IRL season but has put that behind him. Was it a sophomore jinx or the fact that he used the #1 on his car? "There's no point in looking back; it's pretty much old news," the Kiwi stated. "I think this year everybody's a lot more focused. Toyota is pushing extremely hard and they've had some great products come out already.

"The addition of Ryan and a third car has been huge so far in the testing we've done. We've been able to gain a lot more information out of what we had and maybe what we would have had in the past," Dixon said.

The Pride of North Yorkshire, Manning missed the final two races of last season's campaign after a hard hit at California Speedway, costing him Rookie of the Year honors. In his first season of oval racing Manning had some serious adjustments to make to his driving style. "I had limited oval experience but got up to speed pretty quickly.

"Obviously it wasn't the season Chip or Team Target have been used to so for me it was even tougher. I guess learning everything, learning the new team, new engineers, the new way a team goes about things and a new style of racing, yeah, it was a tough first year in the IRL."

One of the few remaining single car teams in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series and a team that has been with the League since it began, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing made quite a few changes to its squad for the 2005 season.

No longer running a Dallara/Chevrolet, the team moved to Honda power and is delighted with the change. They also acquired the services of Roger Yasukawa, who spent the 2003 season with Super Aguri Fernandez Racing and drove two races for Rahal Letterman Racing in 2004.

Yasukawa, sporting a new reddish cropped hair styling worked hard to put the deal together, but it's taken a while for the team to get its equipment in order and they languished at the bottom of road racing test times the past few days.

"Bear in mind that this was our first time on a road course," reminded co-owner Robbie Buhl, who stepped from the driver's seat nearly a year ago. "We're really happy with what we accomplished our first day; we'd just like some more time."

Heading into the 2005 season, "Everybody on our team is more excited right now than I've ever seen them," admitted co-owner Dennis Reinbold. "We've had a lot of changes. We have a new driver, a new motor; we've never been on a road course before. A lot of challenges ahead of us."

Although DRR is still working out the details of its commercial partnerships - as is Ganassi with his third car for Briscoe - the team seems intent on making its way up the IRL ladder. "We have a plan for growth and so far we're very happy with the progression of that plan. But we're not done."

While Media Day ensued in the paddock, the 19 cars on hand were being prepared for a single day of testing on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway oval track. They'll run from 9-noon and break for lunch, then again from 1-4PM.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Tomas Enge , Darren Manning , Robbie Buhl , Patrick Carpentier , Paul Tracy , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Scott Pruett , Alex Barron , Luis Diaz , Dan Wheldon , Ryan Briscoe , Kosuke Matsuura , Paul Dana , Chip Ganassi , Mike Hull , Danica Patrick , Thiago Medeiros , Vitor Meira
Teams Panther Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing , Dreyer & Reinbold Racing