DETERMINATION BRINGS STEELE TO THE Indianapolis Motor Speedway Panther Racing Rookie Knows He Has A Job To Do Before May 30 By Bones Bourcier Indy500.com INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 1999 - Somehow, it made sense that Dave Steele's first ...
DETERMINATION BRINGS STEELE TO THE Indianapolis Motor Speedway Panther Racing Rookie Knows He Has A Job To Do Before May 30 By Bones Bourcier Indy500.com
INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 1999 - Somehow, it made sense that Dave Steele's first inclination was to look upon the biggest day of his young racing career in practical terms: as just another day at the office. On Thursday, April 8th, the 24-year-old driver from Tampa, Fla., made his first laps around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as part of the track's annual Rookie Orientation Program. American motorsports history abounds with tales of future legends taking their maiden voyages around the fabled Brickyard with lumps in their throats, tears in their eyes, awe in their hearts. But Steele, whose rise from the Sunshine State short tracks through the ranks of the United States Auto Club has been marked less by emotion than by hard-nosed determination, seemed to take the day in stride. Mind you, this had nothing to do with a lack of sentimentality on Steele's part. He says that Indianapolis 500 "is something every race driver wants a shot at" and is thrilled that his shot will likely come in the event's 83rd running on May 30. It was simply his nature to analyze the task at hand, and then work through it. Damn the hoopla, Steele had a job to do. "I was focused on getting ready for my rookie test that I guess I overlooked everything else," he said later. "I had a goal, and I concentrated on that instead of oohing and aahing about getting a chance to run at the Speedway." Steele breezed through his four-phase rookie exam with flying colors, recording a top speed of 212.394 mph in his Pennzoil-backed Panther Racing machine. It was an efficient, workmanlike effort. In other words, it was typical Dave Steele. Consider that in the days leading up to his Indy 500 rookie test, he was consumed not by visions of Indianapolis, but rather by the construction of a brand-new USAC sprint car which he planned to unveil on Sunday, April 11th at Winchester, Ind. "I stayed up late every night working on the sprint car," Steele said, "and I'd be thinking 'man, what am I doing, I've got to be at the Speedway tomorrow morning.' But, you know, short track racing is still my job. I mean, my primary focus is the Indy Racing League, especially since I've gotten this opportunity with Panther Racing, but driving those short-track cars is what I do for a living." More than a living; short track racing has been his life, dating back to the day he jumped from go-karts to three-quarter midgets at age 16. Before long, Steele was in sprint cars, establishing himself as the hottest young gun in the Tampa Bay Area Racing Association. By 1996, the year he turned 22, his reputation had spread; he changed his address to Indianapolis and his racing affiliation to USAC and also took his first Indy car test laps at the Phoenix International Raceway. Lacking a solid Pep Boys Indy Racing League ride, Steele stuck with USAC in '97, winning a series-high six sprint car features and also shining in the Silver Crown class. When Steele made his Pep Boys Indy Race League debut in March of 1998 at Phoenix, the occasion was bittersweet; he finished 22 after being swept into an accident. The ride turned out to be one-off, and Steele returned to the short tracks. He made the most of things, scoring his first career Silver Crown and midget victories and adding to his sprint car win total. He has reflected that his time might better have been spent pursuing an Indy car seat, rather than skipping from bullring to bullring. But the same quiet dedication, which had brought him to the brink of the big-time, temporarily kept him from reaching it. "I probably should have spent more time pounding the concrete and talking to car owners," Steele said. "But that's really not my style." His style was to "work with what I had, the sprint car and the Silver Crown stuff and the midget, and do as well as I could there. And, you know, hopefully that would get me back (in an Indy car)." Which is exactly what happened in the summer of '98, when veteran Indy car mechanic John Barnes - a Panther team owner, as are NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, television producer Terry Lingner and Indianapolis auto dealer Gary Pedigo - took a hard look at Steele's unfolding career. "John called me, and I met with those guys," Steele recalled. "And it kind of went on from there." He attended the '98 Pep Boys Indy Racing League race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he mingled with Panther's mechanics and sponsors. Then came an invitation to compete in the September event at the Texas Motor Speedway alongside the team's primary driver, Scott Goodyear. In a test session, Steele lapped TMS at over 221 miles per hour: on race weekend he upped the ante to over 222 in qualifying. Come race time, he lined up 11th and found his rhythm early, mixing it up with veterans Eddie Cheever, Robbie Buhl, and eventual race winner John Paul Jr. He had moved up to seventh place when, after just 40 laps, his right rear tire burst and he spun into the wall. Steele's only other Pep Boys Indy Racing League outing came in the '98 season finale at Las Vegas, and it ended up being a weekend fraught with handling difficulties. Still, the Panther principals had seen enough in Texas - where Barnes called Steele "a dream to work with" - to keep him on the team's short list of partners for Goodyear in the 1999 Indy 500. And so here was Steele at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a hired hand with a job to do. "It's a real confidence booster to be able to do this with an established team," he said. "You climb into the car, and you know it's good. These guys really know what they're doing, so you know that the car isn't going to do anything strange. "And it's been great to have an experienced driver like Scott Goodyear right there. If I have a question about how the car is acting, he'll suggest that I should try this or that. He'll ask me things: 'What line are you running? At what point are you turning into the corner?' Just having him there has been a big help." Steele welcomed that help, because both the cars and the driving style were still new to him. He joked that compared to his sprint car, "the Indy car feels like a go-kart, because the suspension is so rigid," and spoke of "trying really hard not to scrub off any speed in the corners, because at the Speedway, your momentum is so important." He assimilated all of this, mind you, while putting in those late nights getting ready for that USAC sprint car meet at Winchester. In fact, on the night after he passed his Speedway rookie test, there was no grand celebration, simply more hours in the garage. "There was a lot of work to do," Steele shrugged, "so I just did it." The hard work paid off, by the way. Steele won the Winchester event with a dramatic late-lap move past fellow Pep Boys Indy Racing League hopeful Brian Tyler. And in the hours after his victory, with his work done, he finally allowed himself to reflect on his amazing week and its unquestioned highlight: those first few laps at Indianapolis. "To be able to drive around that place was really special." Steele admitted. "Where I grew up, way down in Florida, the Indy 500 was just something I heard about or saw on TV, and now I was actually out there driving at the Speedway. Once I sat back and thought about it, I said 'Wow, that was pretty cool. That was a big deal.'" Now, the rookie grinned, "And I'm sure it will be an even bigger deal on race day. Those packed grandstands will add a lot to it." Any race fan that appreciates hard work and its rewards would agree that Dave Steele will add something to the 83rd Indianapolis 500.