FORT WORTH, Texas, Thursday, May 31, 2001 - The Indy Racing League's ultimate rush hour is starting at the track where the league's most closely contested race took place. It only seems fitting. The Indy Racing season will shift into a higher...
FORT WORTH, Texas, Thursday, May 31, 2001 - The Indy Racing League's ultimate rush hour is starting at the track where the league's most closely contested race took place.
It only seems fitting.
The Indy Racing season will shift into a higher gear than ever starting with the Casino Magic 500 on June 9 at Texas Motor Speedway. It's the first of three events this month for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series - a first in series history - as races also will take place June 16 at Pikes Peak International Raceway and June 30 at Richmond International Raceway.
Scott Sharp is the defending champion of the Casino Magic 500, as he held off Robby McGehee by .059 of a second for victory in the closest finish in Indy Racing League history.
But those statistics are just part of the story.
There were a series-record 31 lead changes among eight drivers on the 1.5-mile oval, as packs of 10 to 12 cars raced inches apart for more than 300 miles. More impressively, no caution flags were caused by accidents despite drivers racing on the limit for nearly two hours at speeds exceeding 210 mph.
It was a landmark event, and a repeat performance could be possible under the lights June 9 at Texas Motor Speedway.
After all, the competition has been intense this season in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, as 15 drivers have led at least one lap. There have been three winners in the first four races of the season. Northern Light Cup points leader Sam Hornish Jr. is the only driver with two victories.
Another reason pointing toward a Texas thriller is the teams' recent experience with high-speed setups. Every Indy Racing team just finished three weeks of 220-mph-plus competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Indianapolis 500, so teams have their aerodynamic and engine packages - so vital for success on high-banked ovals like Texas - honed and ready.
Those slick aerodynamics and 650-horsepower engines will be put to good use on the 1.5-mile oval at Texas, which has played host to seven Indy Racing League events since 1997, more than any other track.
First, the 24-degree banking in the turns helps cars keep nearly maximum speed all the way around the track. Plus there are two racing grooves in the turns, allowing side-by-side action nearly the entire race.
There are plenty of contenders for victory at this race, but the list should start with Greg Ray.
Texas Motor Speedway is Ray's home track, as he hails from nearby Plano. Plus Ray and Team Menard dominated the first race this season on a 1.5-mile, high-banked oval, the zMAX 500 on April 28 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Ray won the MBNA Pole and race for the second consecutive year at Atlanta, leading 184 of 200 laps in the No. 2 Johns Manville/Menards Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. He will be a threat to repeat that double at Texas.
Hornish also is a top challenger for victory. He won the first two races of the season, the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 on March 19 at Phoenix and the Infiniti Grand Prix of Miami on April 8 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He then finished fourth at Atlanta before slipping to 14th at the Indianapolis 500 in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone.
Still, Hornish holds a 152-131 lead over second-place Eliseo Salazar in the Northern Light Cup point standings. And don't forget that Hornish drives for Panther Racing, which earned two victories at Texas with Scott Goodyear behind the wheel.
Salazar is a solid bet for victory, too, in the No. 14 Harrah's A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. He finished fifth on Texas' sister track at Atlanta and drives for A.J. Foyt Racing, based in Houston. Foyt also has winning experience at Texas, with Billy Boat driving to victory for Foyt's team in June 1998 after a thrilling duel with Ray.
Another team to watch, based on past success, is Kelley Racing. Sharp won for Kelley in Indy Racing's ultimate thriller last June at Texas. Sharp's teammate, Mark Dismore, won in October 2000 at Texas.
Other drivers to watch at Texas are two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., defending series champion Buddy Lazier and Boat. Unser has led 178 laps in just two starts at Texas, while Lazier has led 171 laps in seven starts at Texas since 1997. Boat has led 119 times in seven starts.
Looking at the numbers, Buzz Calkins and Eddie Cheever Jr. also are strong contenders for victory at Texas. Calkins has finished in the top 10 in each of his last four starts at Texas, as Cheever has ended up in the top 10 in his last three starts in the Lone Star state.
CASINO MAGIC 500 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The Casino Magic 500 starts at 7 p.m. (CDT) June 9. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at 8:45 p.m. (CDT) June 7. Practice sessions start at 3 and 5:45 p.m. June 7, and 1:45 and 5:15 p.m. June 8.
A free autograph session with all Indy Racing drivers is scheduled for 6 p.m. June 8 in the concourse behind the grandstands.
On the air: The Casino Magic 500 will be televised live on ESPN at 8 p.m. (EDT) June 9. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised live at 6 p.m. June 9 on ESPN2.
MBNA Pole Qualifying will be televised from 12:30-1:30 a.m. (EDT) June 9 on ESPN2.
The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 7:30 p.m. (EDT) June 9, followed by the live race broadcast at 8 p.m. The Dallas/Fort Worth-area affiliate is KESN-FM, 103.3, Dallas.
The IMS Radio Network race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracing.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.
Tickets: Tickets for the Casino Magic 500 are available by calling (817) 215-8500, at Ticketmaster Ticket Centers or online at www.ticketmaster.com .