IRL: California: Event preview

Teams shifting to top gear heading into fast Fontana FONTANA, Calif., Monday, March 18, 2002 - What a difference a week can make in the Indy Racing League. Teams and drivers will endure one of the greatest contrasts of the season in just one...

Teams shifting to top gear heading into fast Fontana

FONTANA, Calif., Monday, March 18, 2002 - What a difference a week can make in the Indy Racing League.

Teams and drivers will endure one of the greatest contrasts of the season in just one week as they head into the Yamaha Indy 400 on March 24 at California Speedway, the first Indy Racing League event in Southern California. The race starts at 3:30 p.m. (EST) and will be televised live on ESPN.

Marlboro Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran finished first and second, respectively, in the Bombardier ATV Copper World Indy 200 on March 17. That race took place on the asymmetrical 1-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway, where a properly tuned chassis plays a much greater role than pure horsepower due to the tricky track layout.

The Yamaha Indy 400 will be nearly a polar opposite. Handling is important at every track, including the 2-mile California Speedway, but this should be a race of pure horsepower and slippery aerodynamics.

At Phoenix, drivers look for powerful engine acceleration and often want more aerodynamic downforce to the car for stability. At Fontana, drivers look for pure power and try to make the car as slippery as possible, giving them an edge in the wheel-to-wheel drafting battles that are certain to take place on the wide, smooth oval at California Speedway.

There are more contrasts between the two events in the IRL's "Western Swing."

Phoenix is a familiar venue to most Indy Racing teams, as the league has competed there annually since its first season in 1996. California Speedway is a new venue for the Indy Racing League, although many teams tested there during the offseason, including the Test in the West on Feb. 6. Testing experience is one thing; racing experience is another.

The Phoenix event also took place at a familiar distance to IRL teams and drivers, 200 miles. But the Yamaha Indy 400 will be the second-longest race in Indy Racing history at 400 miles. Only the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race is longer.

So many things will be different and new at Fontana except for the growing rivalry between Marlboro Team Penske and Pennzoil Panther Racing.

The two teams have been the class of the league through the first two races of the season and provide all the ingredients for a strong rivalry.

Marlboro Team Penske, the winningest team in the history of Indy-style racing, moved to the Indy Racing League full time this season after winning the last two CART championships with de Ferran and the 2001 Indianapolis 500 with Castroneves. Pennzoil Panther Racing won the Indy Racing League title last year with Sam Hornish Jr. behind the wheel.

Hornish started the season with a dominant victory at the 20th Anniversary Grand Prix of Miami on March 2 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. de Ferran and Castroneves finished second and third, respectively.

Marlboro Team Penske turned the tables March 17 at Phoenix, with Castroneves and de Ferran finishing one-two. Hornish was third.

"There's two of them and only one of me," Hornish said after the Phoenix race. "You know, it's a tough battle. Seeing two cars in front of me is a little discouraging because you're trying to figure out how to get by one, as soon as you do that, you have to go to the next one. No, I'm sure it's going to be a real fun year."

Said Tim Cindric, Penske Racing, Inc. president: "Obviously, they're the defending champions, and everybody wants to knock them off. No different than ourselves. We've had various successes. Everybody's trying to knock us off. I think the rivalry really is whoever is closest to you. It happens to be them."

Other teams and drivers could enter the Penske-Panther fray at Fontana, too.

Red Bull Cheever Racing should be one of the strongest teams at the race. Rookie Tomas Scheckter was the fastest driver during the Test in the West on Feb. 6 with a top lap of 221.952 mph in the No. 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone. Team owner-driver Eddie Cheever Jr. was third during that test at 221.785 in the No. 51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone.

Jaques Lazier, a resident of nearby Alta Loma, Calif., was second fastest during the Test in the West at California with a top lap of 221.852 in the No. 2 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.

Lazier is one of many drivers in this event with a California connection.

1997 Indianapolis 500 Bank One Rookie of the Year Jeff Ward, a San Juan Capistrano resident, drives the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing G Force/Chevrolet/Firestone. Alex Barron, a Menifee resident, drives the No. 44 Blair Racing Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.

Rookie George Mack, an Inglewood resident, is only the second African-American to drive in an Indy Racing event. He drives the No. 31 310 Racing G Force/Chevrolet/Firestone for 310 Racing, an African-American-owned team based in Los Angeles.

John de Vries, the rookie driver of the No. 37 Pit Bull Energy Drink/Rhino Cleaning Products Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone, grew up in Newport Beach. Jimmy Vasser, a native of Canoga Park, is competing in this race for Team Rahal in advance of that team's participation in the Indianapolis 500.

YAMAHA INDY 400 NOTEBOOK

Schedule: The Yamaha Indy 400 starts at 3:30 p.m. (PST) Sunday, March 24. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at 11 a.m. (PST) March 23.

Practice sessions start at 9 and 11 a.m. (PST) March 22, and 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. March 23.

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On the air: The Yamaha Indy 400 will be televised live on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. (EST) Sunday, March 24. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised at 2:30 p.m. (EST) March 24 on ESPN2.

The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a pre-race show at 3 p.m. (EST) March 24, followed by the live race broadcast at 3:30 p.m. An MBNA Pole Qualifying highlights show will be broadcast at 6:30 p.m. (EST) March 23.

The area affiliate is KSPN-AM 1110 in Los Angeles.

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Tickets: Tickets for the Yamaha Indy 400 are available now by calling (800) 944-7223 or at www.californiaspeedway.com.

-irl-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Jeff Ward , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Jimmy Vasser , Jaques Lazier  , Alex Barron , George Mack , John de Vries , Chip Ganassi , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing , Team Penske