IRL: Dixon, Kanaan, Hornish set to do battle

There's just a week before the first official Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro and IndyCar Series, and some of the prime contenders for last year's championship are ready for action. The man who achieved the title of IndyCar Series champ...

There's just a week before the first official Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro and IndyCar Series, and some of the prime contenders for last year's championship are ready for action.

The man who achieved the title of IndyCar Series champ in 2003, New Zealander Scott Dixon is back in the States and ready to do it all again. Dixon's three wins and five poles, his nine top-5, and his 11 top-10 finishes were the class of the field.

Does Dixon feel any additional pressure to repeat in the #9 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota? "Well, you always have pressure to do well and I like it that way. It's pushes you, but I don't feel that there's more in 2004 than last year.

"We have the same goals we had in 2003," Dixon revealed. "We want to win the championship and the Indy 500. I think Indy is the main short-term goal. We came up a bit short there last year. Winning the IRL championship was a big accomplishment for us last year," after Team Target came to the League following its successful CART tenure that saw Chip Ganassi's outfit take four straight titles.

For Dixon, every race weekend has its pressure but taking the title "took a weight off my shoulders. I just want to go out and do the same thing by winning races," he said. He finds that running for the championship is kind of like a race weekend, only on a larger scale.

Dixon will have another series to run this year, the International Race of Champions. This is the Kiwi's first invitation to the four-race all-star tour. He's also joining team owner Ganassi's Grand American team for the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona International Speedway in less than two weeks. "That'll be interesting, too," he chuckled.

While Dixon doesn't have any particular track that he enjoys, "We're struggled a bit on the big ovals. I enjoy the smaller, one-mile or shorter tracks like Richmond and Nazareth," he alluded.

That favoritism could be a problem for a guy who's looking to win his first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race this May. "I learned a lot at Indy last year. It was a huge experience throughout the month. The race went fairly well," Dixon said.

"We had a good car, good engine and, for the most part the race was fairly good. I learned a lot. I now know what to expect. Indy's like most races, but I need to pace myself there." Dixon, while warming his tires during a caution period, had contact with the wall that put him out of last year's race.

"The new engine," which arrives on the IndyCar scene at Indianapolis in May, "should be very interesting. The cars are not so easy to drive. I'm not really sure what to expect so we'll work on the downforce level to make the car easier to drive. With the aero changes, it's hard to know where to go," in chassis development. "I think the cars will be better but it's hard to know at this point."

After leading the point tally much of the year, Tony Kanaan and the #11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda team from Andretti Green Racing had to settle for fourth at Texas last October. The Brazilian took only one victory to go with his three MBNA pole positions, yet recorded nine top-5 results and 12 top-10s to secure the sobriquet, Mr. Consistency, failing to complete only three contests.

It's been a busy winter for Kanaan, yet he hasn't been in a race car since the end of his first Indy Racing League season in October. He's looking forward to getting back into the car next week.

"We went into Texas knowing we had a chance after leading most of the season with consistency. Scott had mechanical problems that let him down (mostly gearbox related) and that last race we all had a chance. Then Helio [Castroneves] hit me," and the season was over for Tony Kanaan.

"We're all going to work hard to do a better job and win more races this year," he declared. "Last year was a good season was good, but we had some ups and downs" in their first IRL campaign.

One advantage Kanaan might have in 2004 is the fact that his Andretti Green Racing team is a four-car outfit, the first to contest the IndyCar Series. "I think the four-car team is a benefit.

It'll be a big help with the limited testing schedule this year as we'll have more information and be able to try different things," he said. Bryan [Herta] helped a lot last year after Dario [Franchitti] got hurt. And we all have a good relationship. We all work well together.

"I'm anxious to get started and I can't wait to get into the car. I think this year will be just as competitive as last year," when five drivers were competing for the title in the final race of a 16-event campaign.

Tony Kanaan appreciates being able to share setups with his four teammates this year. "We all, Dario, Bryan and Dan [Wheldon] work well together. The drivers and engineers are very tight on this team. There's a connection between us all. We exchange info and, at the end of the day, we're all so competitive and we all do different things, but we're still teammates."

His initial IndyCar Series victory in Race #2 at Phoenix International Raceway was a "very important win for the team and for Honda. We wanted to give Honda its first win and everyone will remember that," Kanaan intoned.

This year, the track has changed a great deal from last. "The configuration is all new to me and it's important that we have good engineers in that regard. We think all the changes we've made this year are positive, but we have to try them. We feel confident," Tony said.

"As long as you get along with all your teammates, as we do, four cars are a big advantage in this League. Nobody wants to throw away a championship so it's more of an advantage to work together." As for Dan Wheldon, Kanaan still considers him a rookie. "He's a rookie until we go to Japan, but then we take his stripes off. He's a very good driver and everybody gets better their second year. They're more mature."

It was Tony Kanaan's "great pleasure to race against and with" team co-owner Michael Andretti. "I used to watch him when I was competing against him and think, 'how he can do that?' with the moves he made. When I became his teammate I found out how he got it done. It's been a pleasure, pure and simple and I'm glad I've signed for five more years with his team.

"Michael outside the car is still a driver. He understands, he knows the way a car works. He knows the lack of something is not always the driver's fault. He's tried to calm down a bit being outside the car," Kanaan revealed.

His goals for the 2004 season are simple: Tony Kanaan's focus is on the IndyCar Series title. "First I'm thinking about the title, then Indy. They are two different things. We'll take the season as it goes. Each race is a championship race. I'm bored already - I want to get back in the car!"

Sam Hornish's views are a bit different than Dixon or Kanaan. The 2001-2002 IRL champion went from feast to famine to feast in 2003, starting the year with a recalcitrant Chevrolet Gen III Indy V8 that never had enough punch to get him the wins Hornish was accustomed to taking.

"I was pretty lucky after such a rough start to 2003. We had to make up for a lack of horsepower and we were lucky to get back into it" toward the latter stages of the season "with the new engine. It was a good season, not where we expected to be but we got ourselves back in there. I just wish I'd been able to cap it off with a third title" before leaving Panther Racing.

Hornish was looking for a change and made a huge one last year, moving from the smaller Panther outfit to 13-time Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winners Marlboro Team Penske. "I haven't started yet but I can't expect anything but the best for this year. You never know, though. There are a lot of new things and I just hope we can put it all together."

His goal is to win Indy with Roger Penske's outfit. "They've got such a good record and they are my best shot of winning that race. It may take a year or a few, but it's going to happen and I'll give it my best shot until it does," Hornish declared.

Hornish "had to try something new and I'm so impressed with the way things happened. It feels different to be part of this organization and there's all new people, so I have to learn everybody's name,' the Defiance, OH driver laughed. "There's so much history here. Team Penske has been 30 years in that shop [in Reading, PA]. All the Indy wins came from that shop.

"To be able to talk with [four-time Indy winner] Rick Mears is really cool. The first time Rick or Roger called on my cell, I thought it was really cool," he laughed. "And Helio has so much energy, he has so much exuberance and I'm pretty low-key," Hornish stated the obvious.

He had been so excited about doing the change of scenery that Sam "didn't know what to think when it all started happening. It feels great to put on that [red-and-white] suit and get into that car," his new Dallara/Toyota.

Hornish expects to learn a lot from Mears. "Having him there is so valuable, when you consider his accomplishments. I try to learn something every day at the track and, with Rick around I think I can learn a lot.

" My focus is to win each race, no matter what happened last weekend. The opportunity is there to put points on the board. I have no favorite track because I think I can learn something at every circuit. You know," Sam said, "you can learn about different bumps and what happens when you're on or off the throttle. I always try to make myself better."

The difficulties Sam Hornish and Panther Racing worked through during the first part of the 2003 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series season "made me a better driver. I'm a little more patient and I had to work at it. I had to learn to make my move at the right time with less horsepower. It'll help this year."

Four of the drivers who were working to take the 2003 IRL title will be back to contest for the crown again this year. Only Gil de Ferran will be missing from last year's list of contestants. But there will be other drivers out there gunning for this group and they can't stand still. But then, they're race car drivers, and standing still is an anomaly.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Dan Wheldon , Rick Mears , Roger Penske , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske