IRL: Jay Drake drawn to Indy

When Anton Hulman "Tony" George began the Indy Racing League back in 1994, it was his intent to give opportunities to grass roots drivers who were trying to make their ways to the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. In order to secure interest from team...

When Anton Hulman "Tony" George began the Indy Racing League back in 1994, it was his intent to give opportunities to grass roots drivers who were trying to make their ways to the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. In order to secure interest from team owners, the League declared that USAC midget, sprint and Silver Crown racing was "the road to Indy."

The first driver to take advantage of that opportunity was Tony Stewart, who became the League's second champion for 1996-97. Now, with most competitors coming from road racing, Tony George and his wife Laura are placing their money and opportunities for success in the hands of Jay Drake, hiring the 2004 USAC Valvoline National Sprint Car champion to drive their #20 Vision Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone challenger in all 14 Menards Infiniti Pro Series contests.

The stepping-stone for drivers hoping to make it to the elite IndyCar Series ranks, the Menards Infiniti Pro Series challenges for 2005 encompass eight ovals and four road circuits.

The oval contests might not present too much of a problem for Drake, the 35-year-old from Val Verde, CA who currently lives in Brownsburg, IN, just up the road from Indianapolis but Jay admits he's "definitely a rookie."

Called upon to join Vision Racing just a few weeks before the first race at Homestead-Miami Speedway the initial weekend of March, Jay Drake was mentally prepared for the challenge. "The whole thing came together really fast and we weren't really prepared for Homestead," Drake reflected. "It showed," he said of his fifth place result.

His first race at Homestead gave Drake some eye-opening surprises. "I hit the wall in practice but the race itself was different from what I expected. You have to stay away from the bottom of the race track all around Homestead and it was a new experience. The draft was a big factor, too. I am looking forward to our next 1.5-mile track; I think I learned a lot.

"I thought the weekend turned out really well. The end result [of fifth] was worth it," Drake acknowledged. "Larry [Curry, team manager] is in charge and he knows this business as well as anybody. We've got a bunch of new guys and we have to find [suitable] places for each guy.

"I really appreciate Tony, Laura and Larry getting me into this type of racing. I know Vision Racing will be a first class operation down the road. I think we're looking good for only being in operation a bit more than six weeks."

Vision Racing took over the rolling stock of former IndyCar Series owner Tom Kelley for Ed Carpenter; Drake is running all new equipment, some of which had to be replaced after his first wall touch.

While some drivers put together both short-term and long-term goals for themselves Drake, accustomed to racing well over 100 times per year has the usual objectives in mind: "I want to win anytime I get in the car. In this series, I want to be competitive enough to win otherwise why even bother showing up," he asks?

With four road courses on the Menards Infiniti Pro Series calendar for 2005, Jay Drake has to learn a completely new set of driving skills and, to make the job easier he took a three-day Russell School on the Infineon Raceway Sears Point road circuit where he'll compete later in the season.

"It went real well and I was pretty surprised" by how comprehensive the school was. "I thought the school race cars wouldn't be as competitive as a 'real race car' but you can easily get into trouble in those things," he laughed. "I thought the school was well worth the time and effort and I might do a refresher course before we head out that way" the end of August.

Prior to taking the Russell school, Drake had "played with go-karts, so really I've done nothing to speak of" on road courses. "That was a big help but it'll take a lot of work to get to the front. I'm not able to compete with the experts but I'm confident I can pick it up quickly. Road racing looks like a lot of fun." He'll find out how much fun when the Pro series competes on the streets of St. Petersburg, FL the first weekend of April.

Drake might feel a bit more at home this week at the fast Phoenix International Raceway mile oval, site of his second place finish in the Copper World Classic earlier in the year. "I've got a lot of experience at PIR and it's got to help me. While I've got a lot of laps there, they're not in this type of car. I hope the familiarity helps but we'll see what we have when we get there for our race package."

Jay will still have the opportunity to practice his regular discipline this season and intends to run as many as 70 USAC contests over the year. "I'm fortunate to do it all this year: midgets, Silver Crown, sprint cars and the Pro series. It's going to be a busy season but that's quite all right. I'm doing what I've always wanted this year."

After placing fourth in his Menards Infiniti Pro Series debut at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May in the Futaba Freedom 100, Drake's name was on a lot of lists. Nothing much came of it until George decided to form his own team for Carpenter and Drake, using two drivers with similar backgrounds.

The transition for Drake (and Carpenter, for that matter) from the front engine USAC cars to the rear engine MIPS racers involves contending with many driving differences. "You have to look at engine rotation and aerodynamics," Drake notes. "There are a lot of differences.

"Now that the Silver Crown series is going to larger engines for bigger tracks, it will be a bit easier for other drivers to make the transition, because speeds are higher and drafting comes into play." Asked if he'd like to try his Pro car at Winchester Drake just shrugs and shakes his head: "Winchester is a different animal in itself."

While some might say Jay Drake is opening doors for other USAC professionals, he'd like to think he's gaining access for Jay Drake first and foremost. "I' guess I'm giving hope to others. Everybody wants to go to Indy; that's the ultimate goal."

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Series IndyCar , USAC
Drivers Tony Stewart , Jay Drake , Tony George , Ed Carpenter