This weekend will decide it: the race at Texas Motor Speedway will crown the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion and his team. After 15 races - including the fastest event ever run at over 207mph - there are still five drivers ...
This weekend will decide it: the race at Texas Motor Speedway will crown the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion and his team. After 15 races - including the fastest event ever run at over 207mph - there are still five drivers mathematically viable to take the IRL crown and its $1 million prize.
It's no surprise that Pennzoil Panther Racing's Sam Hornish Jr. is part of the equation. After all, this is the team that's taken the title the past two seasons. But the run for laurels hasn't come easily for Panther Racing this year; not only have they had new challengers who defected from CART, but they've had to overcome the Gen III Chevy Indy V8, a power mill that was down 70 horsepower to the Honda and Toyota competition.
Even so, Panther worked on the efficacy of their chassis, knowing since May that a "fix" was on the way in the form of a Cosworth Racing-built Gen IV Chevy Indy V8. "We never give up around here," co-owner John Barnes stated. "We knew what was in the pipeline and we prepared for it.
"Yes, we've had a lot of success the last two-plus years with Sam, but we made runs for the title with Scott Goodyear before then. If we'd had equal power from the start of this season, we would have been in contention earlier," Barnes contended. "We had good runs with the Gen III at Pikes Peak and at Kansas City," as well as leading laps in the Richmond night race.
Barnes has been "amazed by Sam [Hornish]. He's incredibly talented and will be sorely missed around here. I hope we'll continue our friendship of the last three years. But you have to remember that a lot of what Sam does depends on the cars he's been given to drive. The first part of the year he did a great job with what he had, even being down by as much as 70 horsepower to his competitors.
"When we were looking for a new driver in the fall of 2000, we tested probably 12 guys. Sam had incredible hand speed and he had determination. I see the same Sam today that I saw then. He always looks ahead."
Preparing for their final race together, Pennzoil Panther Racing and Sam Hornish Jr. aren't planning to do anything different. "You know Sam owns the real estate on any IRL track from about 15 feet up," Barnes joked. "Our biggest concern is that we do all we can. We've been preparing as best we can and what happens, happens.
"I've got to give credit to our team. Sure," Barnes admitted, "Sam's been good for our team. But I've got to stress the point that our team has been good for Sam Hornish. I've got no crystal ball for the future, but someday I hope he comes back to work with us."
A single-car entity since forming in 1998, Panther Racing expects to have a two-car entry for the 2004 IndyCar Series campaign. One driver will be announced this weekend, along with the team's package; the second will be revealed in mid-November, according to Barnes.
They are only team that has been consistently able to compete with larger squads that came over from CART this year and last, but Panther Racing's Barnes has no idea why. "It's certainly not the money," he laughed. "This is a people sport and we have great people here who work very, very hard and live to win. We continue to have ambitions and expect to win races."
One reason Hornish is leaving Panther to go to Marlboro Team Penske is the latter's record of 13 victories in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. "We had the car to beat twice at Indy. To be in the lead pack with ten laps left last May was a huge accomplishment. Indy is my home and the Speedway is the best track in the whole world. With our 2004 package, I think we can win at Indianapolis."
As one of the early groups involved with the Indy Racing League, Barnes and his cohorts at Panther Racing are satisfied with the direction the League has taken. "I think this is the best racing in the world. I think the fan base is growing and teams are growing and the only [thing missing] is that we need partners willing to help us build this brand. Sponsors need to do a better job of promoting the Indy Racing League," Barnes acknowledged.
A man who knows even more about winning titles - and the Indianapolis 500 - Target Chip Ganassi Racing owner Chip Ganassi has New Zealand driver Scott Dixon primed to win Team Target's first IndyCar Series title. Tied with Team Penske's Helio Castroneves for the points lead at 467, Dixon has taken three victories this year, equaling Hornish's 2003 mark.
Ganassi had "the title in our sights since the start of the year but it's been feast or famine for us. Particularly at the beginning of the year, we had our ups and downs. Indy was a real challenge and we've had little niggling problems that tried to take us out. We've had our breaks here and there but we've left a lot of points on the table," he confirmed.
Chip Ganassi is a former driver who understands the temperament needed to win. Choosing his drivers carefully, Ganassi still admitted, "I've made some mistakes. There are so many young drivers out there, but to [get a second look from me] they have to be hungry. They must show commitment to the sport.
"I question how we handle pro athletes differently than we did 20 years ago. I see some who can handle the pressures today and some who can't. I do like to work with hungry drivers," Chip reiterated. "I like drivers who are students of the sport and don't care too much about the other, perhaps more glamorous side. I like drivers who are into the technical side, into problem solving and who are team players. They have to commit themselves to being great athletes."
Ganassi has already selected his team for the coming 2004 season. Dixon will return and his partner is Tony Renna. They'll be driving Panoz G Force chassis with Toyota power. "So often you see young people with talent like Tony, who haven't necessarily been given the tools. He has a tremendous background in [all aspects of motorsports]. He's driven all kinds of cars, but he's always been a platoon guy without a break." That changes next year.
"I had an option on Tomas [Scheckter] and he's done a great job for us this year, but we couldn't come to an agreement," Ganassi acknowledged. "We knew we had to put something together and Tony was our best option." While Ganassi chose a young American driver this time 'round, he's had a propensity over the years for bringing FIA F3000 graduates into his fold.
In Ganassi's first CART championship year of 1996, he partnered Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi in a pairing that would stay together through 1998. Vasser continued with Ganassi as teammate to Juan Pablo Montoya, but the team went with two F3000 drivers, Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian in 2001. It wasn't Ganassi's best choice, but he stuck with the Brazilian and brought Dixon along through last season before joining the Indy Racing League with a two-car team.
Team Target had a clean start to the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series. Despite running Jeff Ward, who earned Ganassi his first IRL victory in 2002, Ganassi went with "a clean sheet of paper start to the season."
Engine designs were new at the start of 2003 and so were chassis. "We had momentum on our side with Scott and Tomas. Scott had been around and had a lot of building over the previous year with our CART team. He did a good job for us in Denver and Miami and I knew he would do a good job for us here."
Ganassi revealed he "didn't work as hard at it as I should have" when he was driving in CART. "I relied on my natural ability. I never considered myself a top-level driver. I was a B+ or a B- in that regard. Our team," he said, "is an A+ team so I look for A+ drivers."
Like John Barnes, Chip Ganassi can't predict the future, particularly as it pertains to this weekend's Chevy 500 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway track that's known for its breathless finishes. "I don't know what'll happen but let's face it, I've been in other series where the title was decided much earlier and this is a great way to end the season. We certainly want to close it out.
"This is going to be great for the fans. The IRL rules and points have made this a great scenario. If Scott can't finish in the front, he probably doesn't deserve the championship," Ganassi declared. Will that motivate the Kiwi? Only 200 laps will tell.