INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, May 18, 2000 -- Jeff Ward is in the strange position of acting as the "defending champion" in the Indianapolis 500 although he finished second last year. Ward stepped into A.J. Foyt's famed No. 14 car...
INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, May 18, 2000 -- Jeff Ward is in the strange position of acting as the "defending champion" in the Indianapolis 500 although he finished second last year.
Ward stepped into A.J. Foyt's famed No. 14 car this year as successor to Kenny Brack, last year's Indianapolis 500 winner who now is driving for Bobby Rahal in CART. Brack's victory provided the legendary Foyt with his fifth victory at Indy, four coming as a driver.
Ward's goal is to present Foyt with No. 6 on Race Day, May 28.
"I'd love to get my first one, I know that," Ward said. "A.J.'s been there a few times, and that's what we're here for. That's what he's here for.
"I've been competitive pretty much every time I've run here except the one year I got hit in the pits (1998). I've been there at the finish. The other teams I've been with have been underfunded and didn't have the resources and motors and everything that A.J. has, and that's what I needed last year."
This is Ward's fourth Indianapolis 500. He drove to third place from a seventh-place start as a teammate to Eddie Cheever Jr. in 1997 and earned the Bank One Rookie of the Year Award. He started 27th in 1998 driving for ISM and worked his way up to 13th at the finish. Last year he switched to Pagan Racing. After starting 14th at Indy, he chased Brack home to the checkered flag, 6.562 seconds back.
"I didn't have the power Kenny had," Ward said. "I was able to stay ahead of him if he was behind me because I was blocking his air and messing him up a little bit. But once he got ahead of me, I didn't have the power to stay with him."
Ward has learned that Foyt is smart about choosing practice strategies. Foyt knows the speed he wants. Even if the driver wants to push it higher, Ward said, Foyt will bring in the car and check it over.
"He's probably been there so many times where he feels the car is getting good, does a little change, goes out and does something and hits the wall," Ward said.
"You go step by step, make sure that next jump is thoroughly thought out. It's a 'Let's go see what happens' type of deal. As soon as you're comfortable and say the car feels good, he'll say, 'O.K., let's go back (to the garage).' That's why we only get 15 laps. We check everything over and look into what we're going to do next time.
"He does it real methodical and has his way he wants to do it."
That's why Ward hasn't been at the top of the speed chart through the first five days of practice. He reached 219.759 mph Monday in the Harrah's A.J. Foyt Racing G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone, but that was only 17th fastest. On Thursday, he appeared briefly on and reached 217.224.
"Those guys running quick times Saturday and Sunday don't mean a thing, because you go fast then, take a couple days off, get your car prepared to run Friday and all of a sudden it's different," Ward said. "And then they're lost. They can't figure it out.
"I can see that. You put some really good laps in the beginning of the week, and you feel real comfortable, happy and strong. You sit out for a few days and come back and try it again, and it doesn't happen, then you're lost. Your confidence is gone."
Ward said the best away to approach Pole Day is reach your fast peak just before qualifying. "And then you're there," he said.
The trimming out and placing of aerodynamic pieces began in the garage Thursday. The team also has strong qualifying engines, Ward said.
Ward said he was used to a slower climb to Pole Day. When he was with Cheever in 1997, the team had several engine problems, delaying any early fast running. He did his best time of the week with ISM on the day before Pole Day in 1998. With Pagan last year, he clocked a 222.096-mph lap on Opening Day but didn't exceed it until the day before Pole Day with a 222.794.
The top speeds recorded this week by Juan Montoya, Robby Gordon and Scott Sharp don't bother him. He insists that they were done with "tows" by fast cars in front of them on the straights.
"Everybody knows they can run around 221, 222 by themselves," he said. "I think when they trim out, there'll be some 223's probably. You're running flat out, and you've got the tail wind down the one straightaway. You take the corners and you hit the traffic on the back where you should be just dead in the water and it picks up just like it does in the front and just bumps your speed up 3 mph."
When 20 cars are on the track at one time, the air is constantly moving and a car can pick up a tow even when the driver can't see the car in front of him far down the straight, Ward said.
"It gets a little vacuum going, but on qualifying day it's all dead air," Ward said. The Foyt team has tried to find a dead-air situation during practice to simulate a qualifying lap. They car has been close to 220.
"Just got to free it up," he said. "Hopefully, it sticks in the corners." Ward, a former national motocross champion, thinks he is in the hunt for the pole.
"I think there's about 10 cars that have a shot at the pole," he said. "It's not just Greg Ray, you know, the Menard team, the Kelley team.
"The cars are really equal and easy to drive. I think it's really going to be close. And I think the pole's going to be guys waiting to 5:30, quarter-of-six at night.
"Yeah, we want to win the pole. But we don't have two cars with identical motors. If the primary car doesn't do it, the backup car is not going to be the primary car. A high 222, if you do four of those that would be amazing, although if somebody does one at 224 I wouldn't be amazed by that."