Richmond, VA, June 28 - The Indy Racing League returned to Richmond International Raceway this weekend, with a few new faces among the veterans of last year's inaugural event. Two of the new faces - Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves -...
Richmond, VA, June 28 - The Indy Racing League returned to Richmond International Raceway this weekend, with a few new faces among the veterans of last year's inaugural event.
Two of the new faces - Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves - showed the veterans the fast way around the track, filling the front row with record-breaking speeds of 168.705 mph and 168.013 mph, respectively. Their closest competition came from Sam Hornish, at 165.807 mph, almost 3 mph slower than pole. This came in a very fast field, with 19 qualifiers eclipsing Jaques Lazier's 2001 pole record of 160.417 mph. Gil's pole time was just a tenth of a second off the 16 second barrier.
It's not like these two new faces are exactly rookies. Gil is the reigning two-time CART champion, and Helio is a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. And they drive for Marlboro Team Penske, which has won 113 Indy-style races (including 12 500s) and eleven championships.
So Team Penske enters IRL and blows the regulars away? Not unthinkable - there have been years where they blew everyone in CART away. And don't forget Penske's successes in USRRC and the original Can-Am. And NASCAR. Given their "blowing away" skills, maybe the team should give up racing and offer their services in the war against terrorism.
The two drivers and the team know they're good. They work hard at it. But one of their secrets is that they never seem to assume that they're going to win, or that they're better than anyone else. Each success is relished as something special, not expected. When they do well at a new venue, they have another secret: preparation. Driven, perhaps, by just a touch of paranoia.
"When we came here (this weekend), we really came before," Helio pointed out, referring to their testing earlier in the year. "It's not brand spanking new, where we have no idea how to start the setup. The basic setup when we started was pretty much already there. We just made a few touches and that was it."
"But the race is totally different," he continued, refusing to assume success. "Finding speed is not a problem. You might just take a chance one lap, that's it. You might find a good lap, a fast lap. But to be consistent for more than 200 laps, that's the key. So far we've been fortunate. But not only that, we've been working really hard. The whole team has been working hard. That's what counts."
Gil agreed with his teammate. "The work that all the guys do -- especially the test sessions, trying to visit every track before we actually come on the race weekend - has been really important. Even for me, coming here is April when the temperature was completely different - 35 degrees -- even then we learned a few lessons that we carried on with the weekend. Helio came here later on, and we took a little bit from what Helio learned and we arrived for the weekend much better prepared. We've been treating new situations all the time. Especially at the most recent events, such as Pikes Peak and here, we've been fortunate enough that all our thought process and our analysis has been pretty good.
"But, again, we're going to go into tomorrow night," Gil continued, echoing Helio's sentiments. "We don't really know how this track behaves at night. We don't know if it's going to go push, if it's going to go loose, if it gains grip, if it loses grip. We don't know how the lights affect it. We try to think and analyze and do everything we can. But we're going into a lot of new situations.
"The pendulum keeps going this way and that way. I really would not say 'These guys have it all sewed up. It's going to be a walk in the park.' I think it's so close that any slight mistake or misjudgment can swing it one way or another. I really think it's wide open."
Philosophy aside, these two have a good balls-out knowledge of racing and going fast. And a certain relish in beating the unknown of a qualifying run.
"You never really know how the car is going to handle once you really get out there and try it out," Gil explained. "They're always a breath holder. You've got one lap on the tires when they're at their maximum, so you've got to try to get everything out of it. You don't really know how much stick you have. You almost have to believe it and go for it. Whenever you go out to qualify on new tires, you've never been there. It's a place you're going to visit for the first time."
The race itself is still unknown to Gil. What will it be like? "I have no idea. We never raced here before. From practice this afternoon, we saw it was really, really tight." He did offer some expectations. "It's going to be hard to pass, and a really busy race. It's going to be the most physical race we have all year."
Helio is also expecting to have to earn his keep tomorrow. "It's very tough. It's definitely a handling track, instead of 'just go flat out.' It's a very difficult track. The speed - thank God we have been working very hard and have not had problems. Hopefully in the race we'll keep a consistent pattern, a good focused run, and be patient. This is very challenging not only for the drivers but also for the engineers. Hopefully in the end we'll be there."
Helio is not expecting the race to keep up with tonight's blistering qualifying speeds, which knocked on 16 second laps. "I don't think it's going to be that fast. I'm pretty sure with traffic we're probably going to run 17.3, 17.5 - when you have a free track, which probably is going to be impossible."
Despite a spin and wall contact during this afternoon's practice, reigning IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr qualified on the inside of the second row, at a speed of 165.807 mph. While that's usually a very good place to be, Sam was disappointed that he was not able to give Team Penske a greater challenge.
"I gave the guys at Pennzoil Panther Racing a lot more work to do this afternoon, and it really hurt us," Sam said. "We didn't get to run some of the qualifying stuff that we wanted to later on in the session. We were working more on trying to get the car to work good on old tires. We'll just have to wait and see what we have for them tomorrow. If I hadn't screwed up, we probably would've been a little bit quicker, but to be in the top four overall is a good thing after the guys had to put the car back together. I really put us at a disadvantage for qualifying and the race because I know we could've gone faster. A lot of people probably wondered if I would be confident getting back into it and pushing the pedal down, but I have all the faith in the world in those guys. I know they're not going to put me out there in something that's not safe."
Rookie Laurent Redon continues to impress with speed, qualifying fourth at 165.182 mph. "We've got a good car for the race," he said. "The car is pretty good. I'm happy with the time. This is my first time at this track. I watched a videotape of the race last year, but I really don't know what to expect. I like the short track. It reminds me of a road course. I'm not used to the ovals too much. You have to be precise with your car at this type of track."
Buddy Lazier, last year's winner, could only muster fifth fastest. "It wasn't a good lap, but I really enjoy this race track. We're going to do everything we can to have a good night tomorrow." Despite his disappointment with qualifying fifth, his win last year came from a fourth place start. And he might keep in mind that last year's front row finished 17th and 19th.
Tomorrow's SunTrust Indy Challenge will take the green flag at 7:30 pm EDT. It will be telecast live on ESPN. It will also be carried live on the IMS Radio Network, and locally in Richmond on WRNL, 910 AM.