IRL: Jeff Ward Indy 500 Preview

WARD'S PATIENT STYLE, INDIANAPOLIS 500 APPEAR TO BE PERFECT FIT INDIANAPOLIS, March 30, 1998 - Jeff Ward oozes quiet confidence when he talks about the 82nd Indianapolis 500, knowing his chances of victory are excellent this year despite...

WARD'S PATIENT STYLE, INDIANAPOLIS 500 APPEAR TO BE PERFECT FIT

INDIANAPOLIS, March 30, 1998 - Jeff Ward oozes quiet confidence when he talks about the 82nd Indianapolis 500, knowing his chances of victory are excellent this year despite having only five Pep Boys IRL races under his seat belts.

After all, Ward finished third last year at Indianapolis, earning Rookie of the Year honors while driving a second car fielded by driver/owner Eddie Cheever Jr. It was just Ward's second Pep Boys IRL race, as he spent nearly all of last year hunting for a strong full-time ride. Ward, from San Juan Capistrano, Calif., was hired to drive full-time this season for powerful Team Tabasco-ISM Racing. He has responded with second- and fifth-place finishes this season in the team's G Force/Aurora/Goodyear, good for second in the point standings.

No wonder he's confident. But deep down, Ward knows he can flourish on May 24 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway because his style is a perfect match for the only 500-mile race on the Pep Boys IRL schedule.

"It's almost like 400 miles of practice and then the race comes with 100 miles to go," Ward said. "We just need to stay on the lead lap, make the right pit calls and get the car set up.

"If the car's not working, I'm not going to fight somebody to the first pit stop because the car is loose. I'm going to let him go by, drop back two or three positions, make the correction, hopefully beat a couple in the pits, come back out and then we're moving forward again. You can wait until the end. There's no reason to be in a hurry."

That sly approach almost produced a victory last year at Indy for Ward. He started seventh and laid in waiting, taking the lead for the first time on Lap 142 of the 200-lap race. Ward surrendered the point to eventual winner Arie Luyendyk on Lap 167, but he regained the lead on Lap 169 and expanded the gap to 13 seconds by Lap 183. A late caution period clustered the field, and Ward lost the lead for good when he was forced to pit for a quick gulp of fuel on Lap 193.

"When I got out of the car, I was like, 'Man, we just kind of blew it,'" Ward said. "But then it sunk in later what I accomplished, and I was ecstatic about it. The race is won by luck and lost by luck, especially in the last 10 to 20 laps."

But the longest and fastest race of the season also is won by strategy, and Ward is one of the shrewdest managers behind the wheel despite his lack of Pep Boys IRL experience. He honed that skill on two wheels while producing one of the greatest motocross careers in history.

Ward became the first rider to capture American Motorcyclist Association national titles in all four categories of motocross, 125cc, 250cc, 500cc and Supercross. He won seven national titles during his storied career from 1977-92. He retired at age 31 - ancient by motocross standards - and began open-wheel auto racing.

"I had a long motocross career, and I think it was because I was a little bit more conservative than on the aggressive side," Ward said. "When I needed to be aggressive, I was. I have a real good race savvy of what's going on around me, and I think that's what has kept me out of a lot of trouble. At the end of races, once I've got the car to where I like it, that's when I know I can open it up. I don't see why we can't be up front."

INDIANAPOLIS 500 NOTEBOOK

Start me up: Jeff Ward may prefer a conservative approach early in a race, but there's a special time when he can't resist putting the pedal to the metal.

"I like being aggressive on the starts because I like driving on cold tires," Ward said. "I'm pretty aggressive, so I can pass a few people usually on the first laps. That's why I don't worry about where I qualify."

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Surprise, surprise: Jeff Ward earned his first career Pep Boys IRL pole at the Dura-Lube 200 in late March at Phoenix International Raceway almost in spite of himself. He led the closest field in league history with a lap of 172.753 mph in the Team Tabasco-ISM Racing G Force/Aurora/Goodyear on the 1-mile oval at PIR, a track record for the new IRL cars.

"I don't care how fast I go in qualifying," Ward said. "If I'm in the top 10, I'm happy. I don't care to hang it out for a lap to get the pole."

Ward finished fifth.

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T: After finishing third in the 1997 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, it might be easy for Jeff Ward to think that racing on the storied, 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn't as tough as it looks.

Hardly.

"I don't think you ever slack on the Speedway," Ward said. "I think you have to give it respect every time you go out. You've got to have 100 percent concentration the whole time.

"You've really got to listen to the car and listen to your butt on how the car is reacting. If there's something you feel, come on in and check it out. Don't stay out there and say, 'I'm going to try the next turn and see how it feels like again' or tough it out, because it will bite you.

"I go there the same way I did last year, just learning it. I think you learn every time you go there."

***

The big stage: Jeff Ward just missed winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie last year, leading as late as Lap 192 of the 200-lap race before finishing third. A victory by Ward would have been historic, as only six rookies have won in the 81-year history of the race.

Still, Ward thinks winning as a sophomore at the Speedway would be just as incredible.

"Even if you won it on your 20th time there, it doesn't matter," Ward said. "Just to win it makes your career. You establish yourself in car racing throughout the whole world. I don't think I would have dreamed being in the position that I am right now."

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Rookie, open tests:

Teams entered for the 82nd Indianapolis 500 can participate in the first-ever open test at the Speedway April 14-18. Rookies will participate in the Rookie Orientation Program on April 14-15, with veterans testing on April 16-17. Firestone and Goodyear will also select teams to participate in a tire test scheduled for April 18.

Event schedule:

Opening day for this year's Indianapolis 500 is May 10, with a full schedule of activities leading up to race day May 24. Qualifications have been shortened from four days to two this year, combining Pole Day and Bubble Day into one exciting weekend May 16-17.

Practice will take place from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. May 10-15, with Pole Day qualifications starting at 11 a.m. May 16. Bubble Day qualifications start at noon May 17.

Carburetion Day is May 21, with practice from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. and the Coors Pit Stop Competition from 1:30-3 p.m.

The 82nd Indianapolis 500 starts at 11 a.m. May 24.

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Broadcast schedule:

The Indianapolis 500 will be broadcast live on ABC and the IMS Radio Network at 11 a.m. (EDT) May 24. ABC will televise Pole Day live from 1-2 p.m. May 16 and Bubble Day live from 1:30-3 p.m. May 17. ESPN will offer live Pole Day coverage from 2-5:30 p.m. May 16 and live Bubble Day coverage from 5-7 p.m. May 17. ESPN2 will show live Pole Day coverage from 5:30-7 p.m. May 16 and live Bubble Day coverage from 3-5 p.m. The IMS Radio Network will broadcast two live, one-hour shows on Pole Day, at 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. May 16. Two live, one-hour shows also will be broadcast on Bubble Day, at 12:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. May 17. ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, QVC and the IMS Radio Network also will combine to offer thorough coverage of practice days, Carburetion Day and the Victory Banquet, with other race previews also scheduled.

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Tickets:

General admission tickets for Indianapolis 500 practice and qualifications can be purchased in advance by calling (317) 484-6700. Reserved race-day tickets are sold out, but general admission tickets are available in advance or at the gate.

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World Wide Web: http://www.indyracingleague.com

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Jeff Ward , Arie Luyendyk