Gil de Ferran won his final battle in the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Scott Dixon won the war for the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series championship, but a pall is cast over this fast 1.5-mile banked oval as the racing community waits...
Gil de Ferran won his final battle in the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Scott Dixon won the war for the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series championship, but a pall is cast over this fast 1.5-mile banked oval as the racing community waits to learn the condition of Kenny Brack, severely injured in a devastating crash with Tomas Scheckter on lap 187 of 200 scheduled for the final race of the season.
The Indy Racing League chose to halt the race short of the scheduled distance after debris lined the entire back straight from just beyond the exit of turn 2 into turn 3, flying yellow and checkered flags on lap 195. As such, the order of running at the end of that lap became the order of finish and, for Gil de Ferran, it was an emotional moment - one, in fact, he's having a hard time facing.
"Winning the championship might have made the weekend better," de Ferran slyly noted. "After my four years with Marlboro Team Penske and these eight or nine years racing in America, to close out with this victory is incredible. I feel very fortunate and it is wonderful to finish this way."
By winning the race and with Dixon finishing second after nearly 300 miles of close running, de Ferran - who claimed two points for leading the most laps in his final contest - ended his career as runner-up in the championship. It was his fifth career win in the Indy Racing League, but it wasn't without a few close calls, as the Brazilian fell to 18th after caution was called for contact between Felipe Giaffone and Alex Barron.
"I had a few close calls today," he noted. "One was with Tora [Takagi] when he swerved in front of me and we nearly touched and the other occurred when Scott [Sharp] and Felipe touched. I was trying to avoid him and I think his nose touched my left rear and nearly spun me around. So I was going down the grass at 200mph thinking, 'Okay, this is not much fun'."
Two stops under caution to assess any damage revealed none, and de Ferran was back on his game. "So it all worked out great and I think it was another great strategy by Roger, certainly triggered by the accident." De Ferran's final stop for fuel on lap 167 was a meager 7.9 seconds and enabled him to take a lead he wouldn't relinquish.
For Dixon, whose second place gave him the championship, it was another eventful day of driving to stay ahead of the four other competitors for the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series title. The "iceman", as Team Target owner Chip Ganassi calls him, "knew Gil was very fast. It was hard to pass today on the high line, even with our very good car, which was so very balanced. We saved fuel much of the race, leaned back and waited until the last 20 laps," just as he'd said all along he would.
"We couldn't really keep the car down low and I was running up high, especially on [turn] 2. I think everybody was sort of just saving fuel," as they ran in a pack for nearly all of the race, It was Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. who were on top of this race nearly the whole way, trading positions back and forth as they've done all season, cleanly.
That was, until the final 30 laps came into play. Then the championship swayed. Hornish -- as he has since the Gen IV Chevy Indy V8 became available -- moved through the ranks and would lead as the laps were winding down, trading the point with Dixon. Pitting on lap 152, Hornish came out and began to make his way to the front again, only to have difficulty getting back to speed.
"We just didn't make it to the end," Hornish said. "We had a really good car today and could move in and out of traffic. We're not really sure what happened, but we were spraying a little bit of oil so they made us come in." He would be classified 17th and end up fifth in the standings for the final ride with Pennzoil Panther Racing.
Side by side racing has been the Indy Racing League's calling card, but this type of close running is what brought down title contenders Castroneves and Kanaan, who have battled one another since 1986, when they raced karts. The duo made contact on lap 179 after caution #5 (of 6) for Richie Hearn's clout of the turn 3 wall. Kanaan would pit for a flat left- rear tire on lap 181; Castroneves called at the pits on lap 183 and the duo would finish 13th (Castroneves) and 14th today, giving them third and fourth places, respectively, in the title chase.
"It's a shame our day ended the way it did. When Tony came around to pass me on the outside, we touched wheels," Castroneves said. "Deep inside myself I am satisfied," Kanaan admitted, "because I know we did whatever we could. Unfortunately, things like that can happen."
With this duo's demise, rookie Dan Wheldon, running the #7 and Team 7- Eleven colors of Andretti Green Racing co-owner Michael Andretti, fulfilled his destiny to take Bombardier Rookie of the Year and third place in the final race of the year. Wheldon's closest competitor for rookie honors, Roger Yasukawa finished tenth after running mid-pack much of the day.
Wheldon, whose future with Andretti Green Racing is not definitive for the 2004 season, took his fifth top five finish of the season. "It was a tough race, I have to say. The car in the last four or five races handles very, very well in traffic and when you're on these superspeedway-type tracks, you run in clusters. Fortunately, we were able to run at the front all day. Michael kicked my butt for not winning rookie of the year at Indy, but at least I did get one of the two."
Vitor Meira finished fourth after losing a wheel in the first round of pit stops and allowed, "It turned out to be a pretty good day. The team made a great recovery after we went to the back two or three times, and we were able, thanks to the great work of the crew, to get back to fourth. It's nice to end the season on a high note."
When Bryan Herta first joined Andretti Green Racing's team at the June Texas race, he finished fifth. He did it again today, but felt he could have done better had he not stalled the car on the final pit stop. Scott Sharp took sixth in a gutsy drive from 20th on the grid, while Tora Takagi earned seventh. Greg Ray finished eighth and June victor Al Unser Jr., who was in the mix with the leaders during the middle of the race, finished ninth.
The incident that colored the finish of the race occurred on lap 187 as the leaders were preparing for the final thrust. Kenny Brack had pretty much been nowhere during this event, running as low as 19th from his 7th place starting spot. Team Rahal had helped him get back in with the lead pack, and he and Tomas Scheckter were battling for fourth place after the yellow for Hearn's incident.
They made contact on the back straight and Brack's car literally disintegrated, with the engine flying one direction and the tub going another. Parts of Brack's undertray landed outside the track and the catch- fencing into turn 3 was impacted. After several laps trying to clean up the mess, Indy Racing League officials determined the race should be called.
"I don't know what happened," Scheckter said after he climbed unaided from his car. "the main thing is my teammate looks like he just won the Championship and I'm really proud of him. I'm really happy for the team."
Initially, League officials made no comment concerning Brack's condition, but Dr. Henry Bock, medical services director stated shortly after the race was completed: "Kenny Brack was transported via air to Parkland Hospital in Dallas in serious, but stable condition. He was awake, alert and talking [to wife Anita, who will give birth to their first child at the end of the year] when he left the infield care center."
Despite that unpleasantness, the fact remains that Chip Ganassi's team has now garnered its fifth major open wheel title since 1996. Ganassi credited Jeff Ward, who worked with the team last year in its initial IRL campaign last season and noted, "It's a long difficult season. This was a new challenge for us to understand the competitive nature of the series, what really works week in and week out. My hat is off to all the competitors in the series. It was a good, safe year.
Last season, of course, Kenny Brack was one of Ganassi's drivers in the CART series. "It says a lot for the series" that Brack is alert and awake, he noted. "It's a damn competitive series. You can see out there just today, I think the championship changed leaders during the race four or five times at least. I can tell you my stomach was doing flip flops.
"I feel fortunate Scott came with us when he did a year and a half ago. I'm glad we were able to give him good cars to win with. I'd like to think that any time we need something around the team, we go get it. We've got great management in Indianapolis. We've got great engineers. And to top it all off, we've got great drivers."
Team manager Mike Hull had a few things to say about the team and the title, as well. "We told Scott on the radio a couple of times today, it's real easy. All we have to do is win the race today. We work to run at the front, and that's what I was saying to Scott before we started. The five guys who had a mathematical chance to win the championship raced against each other today.
"I think the point that needs to be emphasized was that they raced fair. That's the way hey raced all year long," Hull emphasized. "If you look at the balance sheet for each driver during the year, they've had good and bad days, but today is what the IRL [season] was all about. It would have been great if Tony and Helio could have been there at the end. It would have made it tougher for us, but it would have been fun to watch."