LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000 -- Indy Racing League champion Greg Ray wants Florida's football-crazy fans to know that driving an open-wheel race car is one of the most exclusive professional sports jobs in America. ...
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla., Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000 -- Indy Racing League champion Greg Ray wants Florida's football-crazy fans to know that driving an open-wheel race car is one of the most exclusive professional sports jobs in America. "There are fewer guys driving Indy cars than there are backup quarterbacks in the NFL," said Ray, who begins defense of his Indy Racing League title in the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway on Jan. 29 near Orlando, Fla. The track is strategically placed halfway between Jacksonville and Tampa, whose Jaguars and Buccaneers play in respective NFL conference championship games this weekend. "What if I had said when I was 25 that I was going to start working out , going out and throw 200 balls a day and become an NFL quarterback?" Ray said. "It would have been easier than becoming an open-wheel race driver." Ray, 33, is one of the most remarkable race drivers of our times. He didn't climb behind the wheel of a race car until he was 25. At that age, Jeff Gordon already had won a NASCAR Winston Cup championship, Jacques Villeneuve an Indy 500. In eight short years, Ray has risen to become one of the premier drivers in the sport. He has won four championships along the way and twice has started in the middle of the front row at Indy. It's an even more remarkable rise considering that he took a year off during the middle of his early racing career to run the family marina business in Plano, Texas. All told, he has driven in just 71 races. He's won 24 of them. "I'll bet Tony Stewart has more quarter-midget races," Ray said. Car owner John Menard handpicked Ray to replace Stewart, who moved to the Winston Cup series and was selected rookie of the year, for the 1999 season. Ray rewarded Menard's trust by winning three races and providing Menard with his second series title. Stewart brought Menard his first in the 1996-97 season. Another reward came along, too, when Conseco became sponsor for the 2000 season on Ray's Dallara/Aurora/Firestone machine. Ray quickly indicated he was the driver to beat in the Delphi Indy 200 race. During the Open Test in December 1999 at the Disney track, he topped the speed chart with a top lap of 169.165 mph and backed it up by again being fastest in the early January session with a 168.445-mph clocking. But Ray doesn't consider himself as the target. He was pleased to win the championship last year by scoring three summer victories, at both Pikes Peak races and at Dover, after finishing 21st at Orlando, Phoenix and Indianapolis in each of the first three events. "I won the championship, I did it in a very rewarding way because of the circumstances of the start of the season," he said. "That was last year. Last year doesn't count. We have new cars, new engines, new gearboxes, new tracks, new teams and new drivers. What the IRL has done is make the grids tighter and tighter." That doesn't mean Ray doesn't feel confident about repeating as champion, which would be a first for the Indy Racing League. Buzz Calkins and Scott Sharp shared the league's first title in 1996, Stewart the second in 1996-97 and Kenny Brack the third in 1998 before Ray's success. Work ethic and desire have helped him attain his goals, Ray said. "My confidence is good because of what I did," he said. "There's just a calm that comes with confidence, because I did it before and know I can do it again." But then he puts auto racing into perspective when he adds: "Chaos can happen at the next corner. You can't expect to be on top everyday." Ray said the competition will be so tough at Orlando that he can't pick out any particular teams or drivers who will provide the stiffest challenge. He did mention Scott Goodyear, whom he termed a very steady and good driver; Kelley Racing teammates Mark Dismore and Scott Sharp and team owner Tom Kelley and their determination to succeed, and the A.J. Foyt team and new driver Jeff Ward. "Ward hasn't been in victory lane, but I'll guarantee you he'll be in there this year," Ray said. "There are so many great teams and good drivers." Ray will work with a new chief mechanic, Chris Sumner, this season. His championship season crew chief, John O'Gara, has joined the new Team Purex Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and driver/co-owner Robbie Buhl. "Buhl and O'Gara will be a very formidable match," Ray said. Looking back at his late-starting auto racing career, Ray said he is most proud that he has succeeded when people said he was stupid, that he was too old and he couldn't do it. "I stepped back and said I wanted to do it," he said. "At first, I made so many mistakes it wasn't funny. I take pride in that I learned from those mistakes."
DELPHI INDY 200 AT WALT DISNEY WORLD SPEEDWAY NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway starts at noon (EST) Jan. 29. Pole qualifying starts at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 28.
Practice sessions start at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Jan. 27, and 10 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. Jan. 28.
An autograph session with all Indy Racing drivers is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Jan. 28 in the Midway outside Turn 3 at the track.
The USAC Coors Light Silver Bullet Series 50-lap feature starts at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 29, with qualifying for that event at 2 p.m. Jan. 28.
On the air: The Delphi Indy 200 will be televised live on ABC at noon (EST) Jan. 29 on ABC. The debut of "Indy Racing 2Day" will be at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 29 on ESPN2.
ESPN2 will televise pole qualifying at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 28.
The Indy Racing Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute prerace show at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 29, followed by the live race broadcast at noon. The area IRRN affiliate is WQTM-AM 740, Maitland, Fla.
The IRRN race broadcast also will be available live on the Internet at www.indyracingleague.com as part of a partnership between Indy Racing Online and Yahoo!/broadcast.com, the world's leading Web broadcast site.
Tickets: Tickets are available for the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway by calling (800) 822-INDY or by visiting tickets.com at http://www.tickets.com . Ticket information also is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.indy200.com .