IRL: Gregoire - Strong 1988 Start

GREGOIRE LEAVES NO DOUBT ABOUT ABILITY AFTER STRONG IRL START INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 4, 1998 - A large, white question mark decal was affixed to the sidepods of the Chastain Motorsports G Force/Aurora driven by Stephan Gregoire at the ...

GREGOIRE LEAVES NO DOUBT ABOUT ABILITY AFTER STRONG IRL START

INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 4, 1998 - A large, white question mark decal was affixed to the sidepods of the Chastain Motorsports G Force/Aurora driven by Stephan Gregoire at the season-opening Indy 200 near Orlando, Fla.

That decal, representing the Indy Racing League team's search for a primary sponsor, is about the only question remaining for this team. No questions remain about the ability of Gregoire and the Chastain team. They are for real. And they don't plan on going away soon if the last question can be answered - finding a primary sponsor. French native Gregoire started his second year with the low-budget, Indianapolis-based Chastain team by finishing fourth Jan. 24 at Walt Disney World Speedway. He started 15th and moved to second behind eventual winner Tony Stewart with less than three laps remaining, despite driving more than half of the race with a broken rear suspension piece. The Chastain team gambled on fuel mileage, and Gregoire ran out of fuel on the last lap and was passed by Jeff Ward and Davey Hamilton. An impressive result, considering the team has just two full-time mechanics. A very impressive result, considering that Gregoire hadn't touched the steering wheel of the car since the season-ending Las Vegas race last October. The team's small budget prevented any offseason testing. The strong finish provided a healthy dose of vindication for Gregoire, who finished last after completing only two laps in a hastily-built car during his debut with the Chastain team last year at Disney.

"I feel very happy with the results," Gregoire said. "It was much better than last year. Last year, we put the car together at the racetrack. The car wasn't ready."

Gregoire and team owner Tom Chastain appear to be prime-time players in the chase for the $1 million Pep Boys Indy Racing League championship entering the Phoenix 200 on March 22 at Phoenix International Raceway. But there's one catch: They must land a primary sponsor. Cubic dollars often are just as important as cubic inches in the racing game.

"To be competitive and win races, you need money," the affable Gregoire said. "It will come. I know it. I think we have proven that we are worthy of a sponsor."

Indeed. Gregoire has been competitive in nearly every event that he has entered for Chastain. He finished 11th with 192 points in the final 1996-97 IRL standings, but that total is a bit misleading. He finished 31st at the 1997 Indianapolis 500 after being involved in a three-car accident on the pace lap. He also missed the True Value 500 last June at Texas. Gregoire returned to the series at the Samsonite 200 in late June at Pikes Peak International Raceway and turned in the drive of his life. He finished second to S tewart by just .222 seconds, then the closest finish in series history. Gregoire followed that success by finishing eighth at Charlotte, 15th at New Hampshire and ninth at Las Vegas.

"I think we proved ourselves last year," Gregoire said. "We were strong all year long last year. We proved that we can do it." A generous helping of natural talent has helped Gregoire, 28, emerge as a rising star in the IRL. He won the French karting championship in 1987 and 10 races in the Porsche 944 French Cup series in 1988. He also captured the French Formula 3 'B' title with nine victories in 1990 and won two races in the French Formula 3 'A' category in 1992.

Gregoire then put his skills on display in North America on the racing world's biggest stage, passing his rookie test during his second day of practice at the 1993 Indianapolis 500. Those were his first two days in an Indy car.

But Gregoire has reached the next level with help from veteran chief mechanic Darrell Soppe, who became Chastain's top tuner last year at the Indianapolis 500. Soppe has worked with many talented drivers, including serving as chief mechanic for Rick Mears in 1979 when Mears won the Indianapolis 500.

"We have a good team with good people," Gregoire said. "Darrell uses what we have very well."

And if a major sponsor provides Soppe and the team with a deeper parts bin and a testing budget, Gregoire thinks he could be a dark horse for the series championship.

"I think it is realistic," Gregoire said. "The IRL is so well done that it is possible. You can be competitive with A.J. Foyt, Menard and Treadway. The rules give the same chances to everybody.

"The championship is a possibility. But I don't want to think about that right now. I would just like to be in the top five."

PHOENIX 200 NOTEBOOK

On the run: Chastain Motorsports driver Stephan Gregoire is an avid distance runner, and he thinks the discipline and fitness he gains from his training helps him in the driver's seat. "I know my body better than if I didn't do sports," Gregoire said. "I'm still in shape at the end of a race due to running."

Gregoire finished 76th among more than 10,000 entrants in the Indy 500 Mini-Marathon last May in Indianapolis. He covered the 13.1-mile course in 1 hour, 17 minutes, slightly less than six minutes per mile. ***

Good luck tart: Most race-car drivers are superstitious, but Stephan Gregoire has one of the more unique prerace rituals in motorsports. Gregoire eats a brown sugar/cinnamon Kellogg's Pop Tart before each race for luck. ***

Testing, testing: Pep Boys IRL drivers and teams will prepare for the Phoenix 200 during the annual "Test in the West" test session Feb. 25-27 at Phoenix International Raceway. A media day will take place Feb. 26 at the track, with drivers available for interviews. ***

Phoenix 200 tickets: Tickets for the Phoenix 200 are available by calling Phoenix International Raceway at (602) 252-2227.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tony Stewart , Stephan Gregoire , Jeff Ward , Davey Hamilton , Rick Mears , A.J. Foyt