IRL: Guerrero Ready for First Win at Pagan Racing

GUERRERO HOPES TO CONVERT INTENSE DESIRE INTO IRL VICTORIES INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 11, 1998 - Roberto Guerrero looked at his watch, and he stirred just a bit as he thought about the months ahead. The 1998 racing season was on his mind, a ...

GUERRERO HOPES TO CONVERT INTENSE DESIRE INTO IRL VICTORIES

INDIANAPOLIS, Feb. 11, 1998 - Roberto Guerrero looked at his watch, and he stirred just a bit as he thought about the months ahead. The 1998 racing season was on his mind, a season that he hopes will put him squarely at the top of the list of prime-time players in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League.

He is 39 years old and stoked with desire, a desire that few people can fully appreciate. Roberto Guerrero has been to the mountaintop, and he knows that the view is dazzling. He wants to go there again.

Not so long ago, people looked at the friendly native of Medellin, Colombia, and figured he would be a cinch for a couple of Indy 500 wins, maybe more. The early stage of his Indy career had been phenomenal; perhaps that's what has made the middle stages so numbingly frustrating.

He arrived at Indianapolis in 1984, following success in Formula 3 and Formula 2 racing in Europe. He was an immediate hit at the Brickyard, qualifying well and running a splendid race to come home second behind winner Rick Mears.

It was the best finish by a rookie at Indianapolis since Graham Hill in 1966. Guerrero was the new star, and predictions were that the sky was the limit. He continued his climb that season by clinching the PPG Cup series Rookie of the Year honors, and followed with a third-place finish at Indy in 1985 and a fourth in 1986.

"The first four years were awesome," he said softly, his smile fading only a little bit as he finishes his sentence. "But then it was back to reality."

For Guerrero, reality came in the form of a 1987 season that was filled with bitter disappointment and tragedy. While he scored his first two championship wins that season, that's not what he - and the rest of the world - remembers.

He was leading the Indy 500 when he headed for the pits for his final stop with victory seemingly within sight. But his clutch pedal, damaged from earlier contact with Tony Bettenhausen's loose tire and wheel, was balky as the car came off the jacks, and the car stalled. As his frantic crew scrambled to restart the engine, Al Unser swept past and went on to take his fourth Indianapolis victory.

Reality check number two came Sept. 10, 1987 when Guerrero was critically injured in an accident during testing at Indianapolis. Comatose and near death for weeks, he fought back to make a triumphant return to racing at the 1988 Indianapolis 500, only to be forced out of the race after colliding with a spinning Scott Brayton on the opening lap. His career since then has been an up-and-down struggle, with the 1992 Indianapolis 500 a perfect example. He qualified on the pole, and on an extremely cold race morning brought the field around for their second parade lap. As he touched the throttle on the backstretch, the cold tires lost their grip, sending him spinning into the wall before the race had officially started.

"I thought I was in a nightmare," he remembered of that cold morning, "but I never woke up."

Through it all, Guerrero never lost his smile or his sense of humor. Despite obstacles and heartache, he has never given up on himself, even when others have.

Allan Pagan believed in him. Pagan and his father, Jack, hail from Corpus Christi, Texas, and they got into Indy racing in 1993 with Jeff Andretti. Less than a year later Allan Pagan hooked up with Guerrero, and the Texan was so taken with the driver that they have forged a strong relationship that remains in place today.

"I've told Roberto that as long as I've got a seat he's got a ride," said Allan Pagan, his voice ringing with conviction.

With the introduction of the new IRL equipment in 1997, the team struggled early. The team switched to Aurora power at midseason, and the results were both immediate and dramatic.

"We had a shot at winning at (Pikes Peak), led at Charlotte," Pagan said. "At Las Vegas we had a green-flag pit stop for a tire that cost us a shot at the win. Just with a couple of even breaks, and we can be there."

Now, after a reorganization of Pagan Racing that saw the departure of noted team manager John Barnes (who left for Panther Racing), the team is poised for what it hopes is a strong run at the IRL championship.

The Pagan team was impressive in preseason testing at Orlando, and for the first time in a long time Guerrero was almost giddy as he looked at the coming season.

"It is such a big difference, going into the season feeling comfortable about where we are with the car," he said. "We are so much more excited than last year, because we feel like we are prepared.

"Last year was the season where nothing went right for us, but what comes around goes around. So it's our time to get some breaks."

The league opener in January at the Indy 200 gave notice that Guerrero and Pagan are indeed contenders, as they started sixth and stormed into the lead early in the race. But just 13 laps into the event Guerrero was sidelined after being hit by the lapped car of Marco Greco, who was trying to avoid the spinning car of Eliseo Salazar.

Pagan did not spend the winter just waiting on good fortune. Despite the disappointing departure of Pennzoil as the team's primary sponsor, Pagan took a hard look at his team's needs and went looking for the right people. He brought in a new data acquisition technician Randy Gibson from Team Scandia, along with former Newman-Haas mechanic Jack Pegues.

"I really feel like our chemistry is good," Pagan said. "I'm more confident now than I've been in a long, long time. Tino Belli is our engineer, Mike Turcott is our engine technician along with working with me in team management, Kevin Conley is our crew chief, Doug Barnes is our chief mechanic...they're all good people, and that's the key in racing, getting the right people who can work together.

"And I feel like I've got the best driver out there. I really do. For a number of reasons there are some people who don't have the same faith in him that I do, but I believe he is more talented than anyone in the series.

"It isn't just his on-track talent, either. It's the kind of person he is off the racetrack. He's one of the most honorable, wonderful people you'll ever find."

So Guerrero looks at 1998 as the season that brings him back to that mountaintop of success. One very big tally that he carries with him is that even though the team struggled mightily in 1997, never did they doubt their driver.

"This team believes in me," Guerrero said, his voice soft and sincere, allowing the listener to grasp each word and soak up their intensity.

And then he smiled and laughed, and he talked about what luck is all about.

"I don't believe in bad luck," he said. "You make your own luck. I mean, I'm healthy, I'm driving a race car, I'm making a good living...how unlucky could that be?"

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eliseo Salazar , Roberto Guerrero , Rick Mears , Tony Bettenhausen , John Barnes , Al Unser
Teams Panther Racing