INDIANAPOLIS, May 22, 2001 - Scott Sharp's racing career has taken him from the twists and turns of New England road courses to the high-speed ovals of America's heartland. The machines that have propelled Sharp on his motorsports odyssey include...
INDIANAPOLIS, May 22, 2001 - Scott Sharp's racing career has taken him from the twists and turns of New England road courses to the high-speed ovals of America's heartland. The machines that have propelled Sharp on his motorsports odyssey include road racing sedans, sleek sports car prototypes and needle-nosed Indy cars. General Motors has been a driving force in Sharp's journey through these diverse disciplines of auto racing.
"I wouldn't be where I am without the support of the GM motorsports team," said Sharp. "They've been with me since I started racing."
Sharp is now on the pole for the start of Sunday's Indianapolis 500, where he will lead 30 Oldsmobile-powered Indy cars to the green flag. He rates his pole-winning run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 12 as his greatest accomplishment yet in racing. But Sharp's resume also includes a brace of Trans Am championships in Chevrolet Camaros and an overall victory in the 1996 Daytona 24-hour endurance race with Oldsmobile's Aurora V8 racing engine.
"Having a long-term relationship with a manufacturer is definitely an advantage for any race car driver," said Sharp. "People like (GM Racing executive director) Herb Fishel have been instrumental in my career."
Sharp made his professional debut in the SCCA Trans-Am road racing series in 1989 driving a factory-backed Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme from the Newman-Sharp stable -- the "Newman" being actor Paul Newman. The following year he scored his first Trans-Am victory in Detroit, a sterling performance that attracted the attention of GM executives.
Sharp was subsequently tabbed to drive for Buz McCall's factory-supported American Equipment Racing Trans-Am team in 1991. Driving a Camaro Z28, Sharp was the class of the field. He won the championship in a runaway, scoring six victories, setting seven track records and starting on the pole eight times. After a runner-up finish in the Trans-Am championship in 1992, he came roaring back the following year to capture his second SCCA title with six victories and nine poles.
With nothing more to prove in sedan racing, Sharp had reached a crossroads in his career - and he chose the path that led to Indianapolis. He competed in 16 CART races in 1994, with a ninth-place finish his best result. In 1995, a temporary alliance with A.J. Foyt produced an inauspicious 26th place finish in the Indianapolis -- but that brief encounter with the four-time Indy 500 winner proved to be a life-changing experience.
"It was a big step for me to go from road racing sedans to Indy cars -- a much bigger step than I realized," Sharp admits. "I didn't have any experience driving a car with wings and I had zero experience on oval tracks. That lack of experience showed in my first year.
"On the other hand, I was ripe to learn how to drive an Indy car," he recalls. "I was fortunate to hook up with A.J. He taught me about ovals and about setups. If I had come to Indy after years in midgets and sprint cars, I probably would have already had a style that would have been hard to change."
Foyt and Sharp were the odd couple of Indy car racing. A.J. had found fame and fortune on gritty dirt tracks and deadly bullrings; Scott was a well-heeled Connecticut Yankee with a college degree in finance and a preference for penny loafers over cowboy boots.
Although Foyt seemed an unlikely candidate for the role of Zen master, he nevertheless became Sharp's mentor in the mysteries of Indy car racing. He masterminded Sharp's first win in an open-wheel race car at New Hampshire International Raceway in 1996 and coached him to a co-championship in the Indy Racing League's inaugural season.
"Working with A.J. was amazing," Sharp reports. "He can tell you what springs he used 30 years ago and he remembers every bump on a race track."
Sharp was not entirely weaned from road racing, however. He won the 1996 Rolex 24 at Daytona in Doyle Racing's Oldsmobile-powered World SportsCar with co-drivers Wayne Taylor and Jim Pace - the first overall victory in the 24-hour endurance race by an American engine since 1969. The three amigos raced 2481 miles in 24 hours (the equivalent of a nonstop sprint from New York to Los Angeles) and finished just 65 seconds ahead of the second-place Ferrari in the classic contest.
Sharp also followed in the tire tracks of his famous car owner to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1996 with Doyle Racing's Oldsmobile WSC. Foyt had cemented his reputation as one of the world's greatest racers with a victory in Le Mans in 1967. Sharp's bid for his own Le Mans title expired with a gearbox failure at the 12-hour mark.
After injuries forced him to sit out most of the 1997 season, Sharp joined the powerhouse Kelley Racing team in 1998 -- and he has never looked back. He notched four more IRL victories in Kelley's Delphi-sponsored, Oldsmobile-powered Indy cars. In his pole-winning run for this year's Indy 500, Sharp piloted his Ilmor-prepared 3.5-liter Oldsmobile IRL Aurora V8 to a 226.423 mph lap in qualifying, the fastest speed ever recorded by a naturally aspirated engine at the venerable speedway.
Sharp sees his first Indy 500 pole as only a promising beginning. "Winning the pole is great," he says, "but I still have my focus on May 27th."
The tree-lined road courses where Scott Sharp once competed in amateur sports car races are a world away from the imposing concrete walls of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He has traveled a long and winding road to reach the pinnacle of oval track racing - a journey powered by GM.