INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY SPRINGS TO ACTION WITH TIRE TEST Sponsor and team announcements, construction also keep facility busy By Dick Mittman indy500.com INDIANAPOLIS, March 18, 1999 -- Mysteriously on cue, snow...
INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY SPRINGS TO ACTION WITH TIRE TEST Sponsor and team announcements, construction also keep facility busy
By Dick Mittman indy500.com
INDIANAPOLIS, March 18, 1999 -- Mysteriously on cue, snow melted, temperatures soared and colorful race cars bloomed like 220-mph tulips March 17 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Goodyear tire testing began around the 2.5-mile oval, dormant since last August. But helmeted drivers competed with hard-hatted workers for attention. The drivers prepared for the last Indianapolis 500-Mile Race of the 1900s while the workers reconstructed the facility interior for the first United States Grand Prix Formula One race in 2000. At the same time, two prominent Pep Boys Indy Racing League racing names were placed in the seats of new cars. Car owner Ron Hemelgarn conducted a press conference in front of the Speedway Hall of Fame Museum to announce that Johnny Unser, nephew of Indy 500 champions Bobby and Al and cousin of champion Al Jr., would become a full-season teammate to 1996 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Lazier starting with the VisionAire 500 on May 1 at Charlotte, N.C. Barely an hour later, Davey Hamilton, who has placed second in the Indy Racing League final standings the past two seasons, reached a three-year agreement to drive for car owner Greg Barnhart, who returns full time to the league after dropping out following last May's Indy 500. "I'm very excited and we're getting back in the right way," said Barnhart, who has purchased two new Dallaras that will be powered by Aurora engines and ride on Goodyear tires. The team will announce a three-year sponsorship deal March 24 in Phoenix, four days before the MCI WorldCom 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, Barnhart said. For Hamilton, it's a big relief to secure a financially solid ride. He finished second in the standings in 1997 driving for A.J. Foyt, but was released at the end of the season. He finished second again in 1998 driving for Nienhouse Motorsports, but again was out of a ride, this time due to financial reasons. Car owner Rick Galles brought Hamilton to the first 1999 race on Jan. 24 at Walt Disney World Speedway, and he finished a strong eighth with no testing. But Galles released Hamilton to search for another ride after a supposed signed sponsor backed out after making an appearance at the "Test in the West" in late February at PIR. "It seems like all the teams I've been with, ran with, we're still on very good terms," Hamilton said. "I made a commitment with Galles this year, and we tried very hard to get sponsors. We worked very hard at it, but it became a dead end. Greg Barnhart and (chief mechanic) Brian Nott had called me in the past, and I told them I had a commitment with Rick. "When that all fell apart, this ride was still available. Since then even some other teams have called. It feels good that other teams are calling, but I feel great with this team. We've got all the right package." Barnhart, no relation to Indy Racing League Director of Racing Operations Brian Barnhart, came into the league last season and saw rookie Andy Michner drive his car to eighth place in the Indianapolis 500. His financial backing ended, but Barnhart kept Nott and crew on the payroll while he revamped his operation. Nott was Lazier's chief mechanic when he won at Indianapolis in 1996. Barnhart grew up in Bremen, Ill., a small town outside Champaign. He acquired his "passion" for Indy-style racing while attending Lincoln Technical Institute in Indianapolis, graduating in 1984. He now owns Syan Imaging, Inc., an imaging company based in Roselle, Ill. "It's nice to have this come together when you know it's going to be funded," he said. Hamilton flew to Indianapolis after a confidence-building weekend racing on the West Coast. He won a pair of USAC Western States Midget races and placed in the top five in two supermodified races, just missing the $50,000 prize offered to anyone who could win all of them. Lazier and Unser have been teammates in the last two Indianapolis 500s. The new sponsor that will allow Hemelgarn to run two cars is Tae-Bo, a series of motivational fitness tapes created by Billy Blanks. Unser's car will carry No. 92 in honor of his father, Jerry, first of the Unser family to qualify for the Indy 500, in 1958. Jerry Unser, who drove the McKay Spl. No. 92 in the '58 race, lost his life in a practice crash at the Speedway in 1959, 40 years ago this May. "This is a day we've all looked forward to for a long time," Johnny Unser said. "I have a long relationship with Ron (Hemelgarn). I drove a car of his in the American Indy Car series. We've always stayed in touch. The last two years at the Speedway I've been around at the right time, and my thanks are out to Ron and the whole team for putting out the effort for me." Unser joins his cousin Robby as a regular in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League. Lazier, who attended the press conference, tests March 18-19, and Hemelgarn hopes to get Unser onto the track the afternoon of March 19. Doing the initial testing March 17 were A.J. Foyt's driving pair of defending league champion Kenny Brack and Billy Boat, defending Indy 500 champion Eddie Cheever Jr. and the Tom Kelley speedy twosome of Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore. In addition to Cheever, who owns his team, owners Foyt and Kelley participated in the day's program. Sharp and Dismore came directly from testing for this weekend's Sebring 12-hour race. Dismore didn't reach his Greenfield, Ind., home until 1 a.m. and 10 hours later was in his Speedway car hitting 218 mph in just three laps. "I haven't driven on a road course in so long my right arm is actually sore," Dismore said. "The (Sebring) track is so bumpy it's like riding a pogo stick. I've got bruises everywhere." Dismore is sharing a ride in a Ferrari with car owner Jim Matthews and road course veteran Tommy Kendall. Sharp is driving a Corvette. "It's definitely different," Sharp said about jumping from one type car to another overnight. "Growing up in the road-type cars -- and the Corvette I'm driving is actually pretty similar to the Trans Am cars I drove for a long time -- it's sort of like getting in an old shoe. It's pretty easy for me. But your approach and how you think about corners and stuff is so much different coming home to open-wheel oval cars to a road-course car. It's fun, and Sebring probably is the bumpiest track in the country. It's certainly a lot of different issues than we typically deal with." Sharp said it was wild but exciting to be driving down the main straightaway at the Speedway and see the vast construction underway in preparation for the arrival of Formula One next year. The drivers wearing helmets looked at the workers handling heavy equipment and pouring cement only yards away from the pits. And the workers in their hardhats naturally turned to watch the speeding race cars zoom by. Sharp moved to Indianapolis a week ago. He was baffled by the sudden change of Indiana weather. Snow remained on the ground for three weeks and temperatures dipped into the 20s last week. On the morning of March 17, the snow had disappeared from the ground, and the temperature climbed to a high of 69. A brisk wind did a St. Patrick's Day Irish jig across the track. "This is a day that is fairly typical for early May," Sharp said. "A lot of what we learn today will be fairly relevant."