IRL: Fontana postscript

Record-setting day at Fontana; Scheckter searching for victory FONTANA, Calif., Monday, Sept. 22, 2003 -- NASCAR legend Buddy Baker, driving a stock car, turned the first lap on a closed course at more than 200 mph when he drove 200.447 mph on...

Record-setting day at Fontana; Scheckter searching for victory

FONTANA, Calif., Monday, Sept. 22, 2003 -- NASCAR legend Buddy Baker, driving a stock car, turned the first lap on a closed course at more than 200 mph when he drove 200.447 mph on March 24, 1970 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Jerry Grant turned the first official 200 mph lap in an Indy-style car in 1972 during qualifying for a 500-mile race at Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, Calif.

Tom Sneva was the first driver to officially top 200 mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 14, 1977 when he turned a lap of 200.401 mph on his first lap during Indianapolis 500 qualifications.

However, before Sept. 21, 2003, no driver had ever averaged 200 mph en route to winning an automobile race on a closed course.

Sam Hornish Jr. changed that.

At the Toyota Indy 400 at California Speedway in Fontana, Calif., just down the road from where Grant turned the first 200 mph lap at Ontario, Hornish averaged a staggering 207.151 mph in his No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone en route to winning the 400-mile event.

It was the fastest race ever on a closed course. Jimmy Vasser previously held the record, averaging 197.955 mph in a 500-mile CART event at California in 2002.

"I read a couple articles, some of the racing publications over the past couple months, saying 'The 200 mile-an-hour race is coming. When is it going to be here?'" Hornish said. "You know, it was great that I could be a part of it and actually win it."

At Fontana, only six of the 200 laps were run under caution, a new IndyCar Series record. There was only one caution, for debris, which tied the record set in August at Kentucky. There were no accidents during the 200-lap race.

"It's really just a lot of fun to go out there and race against these guys," Hornish said. "You know, when it says 207 mile-an-hour race in the record books, it will say that I won. But it's really a team effort by all the guys out there on the track. They all did a great job today, knowing what the boundaries of what their cars were. You can't have a 200 mile-an-hour race if you're crashing cars every 20 laps. Everybody knew what the boundary of their car was today and drove within it."

The Fontana race continued an incredible second half of the 2003 IndyCar Series season, which has produced record-setting speeds, near perfect reliability and few accidents.

In the last four races, only one car, Bryan Herta at California, has dropped out of the race before the 100-lap mark, and an average of 17 cars have been running at the finish, including 18 at Kentucky, 19 at Chicagoland and 20 at California. At those three races, only two cars failed to finish.

At Chicagoland, 13 cars were running on the lead lap at the end of the race, and the top nine were within one second of each other.

While Hornish has won the three closest races in IndyCar Series history, he also has won the three fastest races. In addition to the record-setting speed set at California, Hornish won at Kentucky and averaged 197.897 mph, the second-fastest race in IndyCar Series history. While en route to a victory at Chicago, he averaged 184.294 mph, the third-fastest race in league history. The fourth-fastest race in series history came in July at Michigan when Alex Barron defeated Hornish by .0121 of a second and averaged 180.917.

Three of the last four races have produced finishes of less than half of a second. At Chicagoland Sept. 7, Hornish defeated Scott Dixon by .0099 of a second in the third-closest finish in IndyCar Series history. He defeated third-place finisher Bryan Herta by .0100 of a second, which made it the closest 1-2-3 finish in series history. At Nazareth, Helio Castroneves defeated Hornish by .1697 of a second, and at California, Hornish defeated Dixon by .3563 of a second.

The tremendous racing on the track has produced one of the best points battles in motorsports. The point standings in the IndyCar Series are the closest they have ever been heading into the final race of the season, with Castroneves and Dixon tied for the lead with 467. Tony Kanaan is third with 460, followed by Hornish at 448 and Gil de Ferran at 437.

All five drivers remain in contention for the IndyCar Series Championship.

The final stop on the 2003 IndyCar Series schedule is the Chevy 500, scheduled for Oct. 12 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Scheckter continues to come close:

Tomas Scheckter led 112 laps, more than any other driver. He led all 112 of those laps in the first 124 laps of the race and finished fifth.

"I don't know what happened," Scheckter said. "We were good in the beginning and bad in the end. The car ended up loose. It went sideways everywhere. I saved it from hitting the wall on several occasions. None of the adjustments helped."

Scheckter has only one career victory, in 2002 at Michigan. In his career, he has led the most laps of a race eight times, including four times this season. He has failed to find victory lane in 2003 and his best finish in those four races was fourth in May at the 87th Indianapolis 500.

Tough day for de Ferran: Gil de Ferran came into the Toyota Indy 400 fourth in points and just 17 points behind teammate Helio Castroneves in the IndyCar Series point standings. He left with a 15th-place finish in the race and is now fifth in points, 30 behind leaders Castroneves and Scott Dixon.

The team opted to use a Panoz G Force chassis at California, the same chassis that de Ferran won the Indianapolis 500 with in May. His teammate Castroneves used the Dallara.

The switch did not prove successful.

De Ferran wasn't in the hunt all weekend, having struggled in the practice sessions and then qualifying a disappointing 12th in the race. He was out of the top 10 most of the day and finished two laps down.

"In hindsight, we probably didn't have enough experience with the (Panoz) G Force in this race trim," de Ferran said. "However, we took a chance. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. It was a long, hot day for everyone, and unfortunately, my car wasn't handling well at all, which made it even more difficult. I spent most of my time just struggling to stay in the race, and I've got to thank my crew for doing a great job in the pits to keep me out there.

"Certainly, we're a long shot for the title now, so we'll have to depend on everyone else's results."

Rookie race heating up:

While the IndyCar Series points battle is the closest it's ever been heading in the final race, the Bombardier Rookie of the Year title is nearly a dead-heat between Dan Wheldon and Roger Yasukawa.

Yasukawa leads Wheldon 281-277 entering the final race at Texas. The driver who wins the title will earn $50,000.

"Dan's catching me again, so I think it's going to go down to the last race, which I knew," Yasukawa said. "I'm going into it ahead, so I'm not under pressure. I just need to do my own job and try to finish ahead of him. Whoever does will probably win it, which should be the way."

Yasukawa has competed in all 15 races thus far this season, while Wheldon has competed in 13. At the beginning of the season, Wheldon's team owner, Michael Andretti was going to compete in the first four races of the season, before retiring following the 87th Indianapolis 500. Wheldon was scheduled to compete at Indy and all remaining races.

However, after Dario Franchitti suffered an injury during a motorcycle accident, Wheldon subbed for him in the No. 27 Archipelago/Motorola Dallara/Honda/Firesone at Motegi and finished seventh. Wheldon then began competing full time at Indianapolis with the No. 26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda/Firestone. He has finished in the top 10 in six of the last seven races.

"The team is doing a fantastic job," Wheldon said. "It is our first year in the series. I think people forget that just because it's a top team. They're doing a really, really good job."

-irl-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Michael Andretti , Jimmy Vasser , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Bryan Herta , Alex Barron , Dan Wheldon , Tom Sneva , Buddy Baker , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr.