IRL: Indy-style champions on points chase

FORT WORTH, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2003 -- In 1909, George Robertson and Bert Dingley were co-champions of the first Indy-style championship, two years before the first Indianapolis 500-Mile race. Since then, with the exception of 1942-45...

FORT WORTH, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2003 -- In 1909, George Robertson and Bert Dingley were co-champions of the first Indy-style championship, two years before the first Indianapolis 500-Mile race. Since then, with the exception of 1942-45 during World War II, a season-long champion has been decided.

It's a safe bet that since 1909, rarely has an Indy-style championship been as close as the 2003 IRL IndyCar Series championship.

With one race remaining -- the Chevy 500 Oct. 12 at Texas Motor Speedway -- five drivers are eligible for the IndyCar Series Championship. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon are tied for the lead with 467 points. Andretti Green Racing driver Tony Kanaan is third with 460, followed by two-time IndyCar Series Champion Sam Hornish Jr. at 448 and 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran at 437.

Several Indy-style champions offered thoughts and opinions on this year's incredible IndyCar Series championship, as well as memories of their championship seasons:

MARIO ANDRETTI (1965, '66, '69 USAC Champion; 1984 CART Champion; 1969 Indianapolis 500 Winner; 1978 Formula One World Champion): "I think it's something very unusual to have this many players going down to the last race. These are the things that any series would dream about. To know you have a shot at it, for any driver, it keeps everything alive. The other part of it, from a fan standpoint, is all that energy that goes into the last event of the season is awesome. It's the things you dream about. It has a lot to do with the point system. That, and these guys have been trading places all season, and there's been no runaway at any time. That's what it's all about. If you could design something to be that, that is what it would be." (About third-place Tony Kanaan driving for Andretti Green Racing, which Mario's son, Michael, co-owns): "I was talking to Tony down in Miami, and I gave him his marching orders, so he knows what to do." (About testing Kanaan's car in late April at Indianapolis when Kanaan was injured): "My role there might have been that of insurance card. The whole thing was, Tony Kanaan was a question mark as to whether he could start practicing when Indy opened and/or whether he could qualify the first weekend. It was pretty sure that he could qualify the second weekend and race. So, the insurance card was for the team and the sponsors. Let's get the car in, in case it rains the second weekend. And that's when I came in. It all became a moot point, flip or no flip, because he was able to get back in the car the second day of practice, so it all worked out anyway."

MICHAEL ANDRETTI (1991 CART Champion, Co-Owner, Andretti Green Racing): "What makes this particular championship even more exciting is that, with the exception of Sam (Hornish Jr.) and Gil (de Ferran), everybody is in a position where they control their own destiny. You don't have to have guys drop out in front of you. For us, Helio (Castroneves) and (Scott) Dixon, I think that is pretty exciting. Now, it's going to come down to real racing, right to the end. It will be all about who does the best job on the weekend. Basically, I think it's going to be the guy that wins the race is going to win the championship. That's pretty cool. I think we should be right there. I think we should be one of the teams to beat. We had a good test there, and we ran well there back in June. For sure, you're going to have to have a car that can get the job done, but I think it will probably come down to the final pit stop of the race. Getting that track position is going to be really important."

KENNY BRACK (1998 IRL IndyCar Series Champion; 1999 Indianapolis 500 Winner; Driver for Team Rahal): "The championship year was special, since we took the lead with three straight wins in the middle of the season. We had the title pretty much wrapped up by the last race at Las Vegas. It was exciting winning for A.J. (Foyt) and his team. In the next year, we had won at Indy but no other races. In the last race at Texas, we had a good chance to beat Greg (Ray) for the championship. I was racing for the lead, but we lost a rear wheel bearing on the last pit stop. We didn't finish, Greg did, and he won the championship. It's hard to race all year and then lose in that last race."

BUZZ CALKINS (1996 IRL IndyCar Series co-champion): "Hardly ever in a 16-race season do you see so many drivers and teams in contention with one race to go in the championship. I think it just shows that IRL racing is the most competitive and exciting racing anywhere. This is one of the best points championships in recent history or possibly ever."

SAM HORNISH JR. (2001, '02 IRL IndyCar Series Champion; Driver for Panther Racing): "The only bad thing is the three races we have won this year, (Scott) Dixon has finished second in all of them. What do you do? If we win, and he finishes second again, the streak still continues, but he beats us (for the championship). My goal at Texas is to win, get the most points that we can and see how everything else works out."

GORDON JOHNCOCK (1976 USAC Champion; 1973, '82 Indianapolis 500 Winner): "I think the year I won, (Johnny) Rutherford and I were pretty close heading into the last race at Phoenix." (Advice to drivers): "You want to go about your program the way you've been going. When you start doing special things, it can bite you. My advice to Sam (Hornish) is to keep running like you've been running. He's got 19 points to be there. I'm sure he'll take the chances he needs to get there."

BUDDY LAZIER (2000 IRL IndyCar Series Champion; 1996 Indianapolis 500 Winner): "I think it's the most amazing championship in all of motorsports. It looks like it could come down to the last lap. At Texas, everybody is running so close together, and there are so many things that can happen during the length of a race, it's going to be exciting. As a competitor, it's one of those championships you wish you were a part of. All five of those guys are in for a super-fun weekend. It's going to be neat to see which one of those race teams and drivers pulls it all together. From a fan's point of view and a competitor's point of view, I can't imagine a better championship battle." (Advice to teams and drivers): "At the end of the day, there's a certain level of performance and competitiveness that got each of those five teams and drivers in that position, and I wouldn't think now is the time to change what they're doing. I look at the Panther team and all the success they've had at Texas, and I think they've got a bit of an advantage going into this race. Then, you say, 'Hey, they're a one-car team, so the two-car teams will have a little bit of an advantage, which sort of nullifies the success that they've had in the past.' So, to me, it looks very even. It's just going to come down to the decisions made on race day and the individual performances of the race drivers. It's everything you want a championship to be. You want it to come down on the racetrack at the last race. It's going to come down to track position and a little bit of luck, who has Lady Luck shining down on them."

JOE LEONARD (1971, '72 USAC Champion): "Tony (George) has done a great job with the series. There are five and six cars within a second of each other and every race. I sit in my chair and watch and my granddaughter says, 'What are you moving around for?' I tell her, 'I can't sit still, it's too exciting.' I haven't see racing so good with open-wheel cars." (About who will win the championship): "Being there and doing that myself, I learned racing is sometimes really cruel. Three times at Indy I had good chances, but we had mechanical failures. You just never know. Today, the equipment holds up better. Helio seems to be the favorite, but you can't count Sam out. Odds-wise though, Helio or Dixon seem to be the favorites." (Advice to the five drivers): "To finish first, you must first finish."

RICK MEARS (1979, '81, '82 CART Champion; 1979, '84, '88, '91 Indianapolis 500 Winner; Consultant, Penske Racing Inc.; Driver Coach, Menards Infiniti Pro Series): "I don't think it's ever been this close. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I don't believe so. To have two guys tied for the lead and then have the five that close, that's got to be a first. There's going to be a lot to be seen. (Texas) has produced some of the closest races. It's kind of boiling down to whoever wins, wins. It's going to be a heads-up sprint race and should be very exciting." (Who will win the championship?): "You're kind of putting me on the spot. Let's just say one of the red and white cars."

BOBBY RAHAL (1986, '87, '92 CART Champion; 1986 Indianapolis 500 Winner; Owner, Team Rahal): "There is always a lot of pressure because everyone wants to win the championship. You always want to finish in front of your point rival at each race. It makes the match easier. I always think of the 1992 season as a special one, since we won it as a car owner and a driver. The team was very strong, but Carl (Hogan) and I were new owners. We had Miller Brewing as a new sponsor, too, that year. We had the older Chevy engine that year, but we had a great oval setup. We won three of the four short ovals, and we should have won the other one at Milwaukee. I think we had 10 podium finishes, so we were consistent. We led the points most of the year, but we didn't finish Vancouver and Mid-Ohio. Al (Unser Jr.) actually took the lead at Mid-Ohio after Michael (Andretti) and I didn't finish. So, Nazareth was a big race for us, and we beat Michael. That was very important. At Laguna Seca, Michael won the pole and the race, and we needed to finish fourth to win the title. We finished third. It was very gratifying. In 1986, the season was bittersweet due to the loss of our team owner Jim Trueman right after we won Indy. I was able to win four of five races (Mid-Ohio, Sanair, Michigan and Laguna), and that helped us, but Michael was right there all season. In 1987, we had a fast car all season, and we were very consistent. Plus, it was back-to-back championships for Truesports. In 1991, we had good battle with Michael down to the final race before we lost a motor at Laguna Seca."

JOHNNY RUTHERFORD (1980 CART and USAC Champion; 1974, '76, '80 Indianapolis 500 Winner; IRL Special Projects): "The track is very fast at Texas. I think we're going to see the education the guys have learned the last two or three years in the IRL about patience. You've got to be there at the end for any results. I think it's going to be a good race, an exciting race, as it always is at Texas Motor Speedway. Going for the championship is a neat experience for these guys because it's the last race of the season, and it's the time when you have to put your best shot together if you're going to have a chance to win. I think we're going to see a tremendous race and to have this many (drivers eligible) is purely indicative of the Indy Racing League. We've been doing this for a few years now, and it's settling in to being one of the most competitive racing series in the world."

TOM SNEVA (1977, '78 USAC Champion; 1983 Indianapolis 500 Winner): "It's gotten pretty close since the Gen IV (Chevy Indy V-8) has come out. It, obviously, made a big difference with Hornish, so the thing is still up in the air. It's going to be tight. I think the points spread may be too big to overcome. I think the Penske cars are pretty consistent. It's going to be an uphill battle for Hornish, obviously. It's a great race to watch down there in Texas, so that will be fun, and there's a lot on the line."

SCOTT SHARP (1996 IRL IndyCar Series Co-Champion; Driver, Kelley Racing): "I think it's exciting for the Indy Racing League and very indicative of how tight the racing is in the IndyCar Series. To have the championship going down to the final race with three very viable contenders creates much added excitement at a track, which is already high on thrills. You would have to give (Scott) Dixon the edge based on how well the Ganassi cars have been running on the big tracks, but all three teams (Penske, Andretti Green and Ganassi) are deep in resources and, I'm sure, will pull out stellar performances in order to win the IndyCar Series Championship."

TONY STEWART (1996-97 IRL IndyCar Series Champion; 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup Champion): "I'm kind of hoping Sam Hornish can pull it out. It's nice to see one of the original teams that joined the IRL still winning races and beating the 'super teams.' I'm pulling for the underdogs."

DANNY SULLIVAN (1988 CART Champion; 1985 Indianapolis 500 Winner): "I've never seen anything this close, and I'll tell you, when I won my championship, thank God I won mine earlier in the season that this one. What a fantastic championship. It's going to be won on the racetrack, at the last race, with five guys. Five people can win that thing. You stand no chance for a hiccup or anything. Based on the way things are going, you've got to be pulling for Hornish because he's been really strong the latter part of the season. They seem to have really gotten that thing sorted out, but you can never count out the Penske boys."

AL UNSER (1970 USAC Champion; 1983, '85 CART Champion; 1970, '71, '78, '87 Indianapolis 500 Winner; Driver Coach, IRL): "I think it's great. It shows just how strong a series can be when you have that many teams and drivers running for the championship. It's a strong series. The list of drivers, all five of them, man, it's unbelievable." (About his duel with his son Al Unser Jr. for the 1985 CART championship during final race): "Back then it was just Al (Unser Jr.) and I, just two of us. Now you have five. That just adds to the benefit of the series." (Advice to drivers on how to win a close championship): "It just depends on how many points you're behind. You have to analyze where you are and how many points you need. In 1985, (Roger) Penske and I sat down and said, 'If I do this, this will happen. If I do that, that will happen.' We figured out how to win the championship, and that's what you have to do. You have to sit down with your team and analyze everything and say, 'If we win it, or we run second or third or whatever, this is going to happen.' You just hope for the best. You hope you qualify well and start up front. You hope you get your car set up well. Texas is a tough place. The competition is very close down there. It's very critical for the teams and drivers to be relaxed enough to handle the pressure. I'm going to predict it's going to be a shootout. There's no way, with those guys, you can predict a winner. I think it's going to be one of those races we've seen down there where you don't know who's going to win with five laps to go. It's going to be a hell of a race."

BOBBY UNSER (1968, '74 USAC Champion; 1968, '75, '81 Indianapolis 500 Winner): "It's a direct indication of how the whole season has been in the IRL. In other words: exceptionally competitive. That's the most competitive I've seen racing between the competitors for as long as I can remember. So many competitors capable of winning a race, any race. It's been really, really good racing this year. Last year was, too. I'm not griping about last year at all. I've watched every race, and I go to some of them." (Can you make a championship prediction?): "No, if you did that in the IRL, you'd be a dumb person. You just look at the way things went last year. This year you've got five guys, and they're finishing it at Texas. Gosh, what a close race that always is. I look forward to Texas being an extremely good race."

-irl-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Sam Hornish Jr. , Sam Hornis
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing