IRL: Erwin to make first start at Phoenix

PHOENIX, March 17 ­ He only had one lap to do it, but Brandon Erwin put the G-Force Olds ...

PHOENIX, March 17 ­ He only had one lap to do it, but Brandon Erwin put the G-Force Olds #30 into the field for tomorrow's Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200 Indy Racing League Northern Light Series race during MBNA qualifying Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway.

When tomorrow's 200-lap race gets the green flag at 2 p.m. in front of a live ABC television audience, the 25-year-old sprint car stand-out from Denton, Texas will be 26th on the grid for his first Indy car start ever with an average speed of 160.864 mph.

Erwin was the last driver to take time. As he went into turn one on his second lap, his cockpit filled with smoke. He wisely slowed and brought the car back into the pits for the McCormack Motorsports crew to examine, automatically scratching his second qualifying lap.

"I just tried to do the smart thing; safety first, you know," Erwin said. "When I slowed down the smoke went away, but while it was there it was really heavy. It smelled like something was burning; I don't know if it was electrical or not. I really don't know what the problem was yet, but just to be safe I brought the car in. The McCormack Motorsports team is great, and they'll figure out what it was and solve the problem, I'm sure."

Erwin has been getting consistently faster and more comfortable in the car since practice began here on Friday. On Saturday morning he recorded his fastest time here yet, turning a lap at an average speed of 166.157 mph. The track temperature had increased somewhat in the two hours between practice and qualifying and one doesn't have a drafting partner during time trials, but if Erwin's fastest lap in practice would have transferred over to time trials he would have qualified faster than one of the drivers here that he admires most, Al Unser Jr.

As it is he'll line up tomorrow beside another famous racing name, as he'll share row 13 with someone he's competing against for the 2001 Indy Racing Rookie of the Year award ­ Casey Mears. In addition to Erwin and Mears, the other two rookies here are Felipe Giaffone and Didier Andre.

Erwin, whose goal is to finish tomorrow's race, says he's feeling better every session. "Everything has been getting better; the practice session this morning was the most comfortable I've felt here yet. I'm getting better in traffic. Every time I go out I feel better and better," he said.

Qualifying was held under bright, sunny skies, 70-degree temperatures and a track temperature of 120 degrees, according to Firestone Tire engineers.

Erwin has been very impressed with the Firestone Firehawks used on the G-Force Olds.

"In one session we went out on Firestone Firehawks that had 55 laps on them, and we turned exactly the same times as we did when they were brand new," he said. "Firestone tires are very consistent," he added. "Firestone makes very good tires."


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Series IndyCar
Drivers Felipe Giaffone , Al Unser Jr. , Casey Mears , Didier André , Brandon Erwin