IRL: Musing on Milwaukee

It's week number two in a three-week jaunt for the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series. Last week they raced the final night eventof the 2005 season at Nashville, this week it's off to the historic Milwaukee Mile and a week from Sunday it's time...

It's week number two in a three-week jaunt for the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series. Last week they raced the final night eventof the 2005 season at Nashville, this week it's off to the historic Milwaukee Mile and a week from Sunday it's time for the annual trip to Michigan International Speedway.

Three-race hauls are tough on the teams and suppliers, but allow the drivers continuity that can only aid them in preparation. It's normally said that the more you race the better you race, so drivers enjoy this type of stretch.

Patrick Carpentier set the current track record at The Milwaukee Mile when he was racing in the former CART series. This weekend he returns to the site - where he finished second in Champ Car last June - to race for Red Bull Cheever Racing in the IndyCar Series.

Coming off his second third-place IRL finish last Saturday in Nashville that advanced him to tenth in points, Carpentier is excited to return to Milwaukee for the ABC Supply Co/A.J. Foyt Indy 225 on Sunday afternoon.

"On the short tracks it seems our team is stronger. But each weekend we get better. We have improved the aero, the suspension and for Nashville, I think the team was getting better anyway," the French Canadian suggested.

"I like the mile tracks but you have to be careful at Milwaukee with the small bump in corner one and in turn two where there's a bit of a bump. You've got to be well placed in the car to get the most of the handling in turns three and four where the surface is quite flat. There's not much banking at Milwaukee and that makes the track more challenging."

In Nashville Carpentier finished one slot ahead of Scott Sharp, the veteran who will be making his 100th consecutive and 107th overall IndyCar Series start Sunday afternoon. Sharp lies sixth in the point chase at this time and acknowledged, "I'm having fun. Delphi has been a huge factor in my success. I'm fortunate to have a great relationship with them, even as I've worked with different teams over the years."

Sharp started his career with A.J. Foyt, moved on to Kelley Racing and now works with Delphi/Fernandez Racing, the second year IRL entrant that missed the first race of the 2004 season but came on strong to the end with Adrian Fernandez behind the wheel.

"Racing is all about opportunity and I'm an extremely competitive individual. Races I've won are far more important to me than races I've run."

With the change in squads from last year, Sharp feels "like I'm in a different series!" While he's pleased with the progress he's making with a new Panoz chassis and new Honda engine, "I want to be better. At the mid- point in 2004 this team hit their stride and, while I know I needed time to figure out the package, it's all going according to plan at this point."

Carpentier's first year in the IRL has presented changes for him. "Everything's changed; from how you drive the car, the teams, the cars are all similar but attention to detail is so important in this series. At the start of the year it was very difficult for me but it's getting better and it's a lot of fun.

"I'm not actually comfortable on the edge with the cars so much. We're usually racing only a couple of inches apart on most tracks but at this point in time I feel I can deal with what happens" in competition. "I haven't won in a long time and I want it so much it hurts," Carpentier admitted. "Being on the podium certainly helps me relax."

Carpentier thinks the aero package on his car will be "much better. We're starting to get to tracks I love. I love The Milwaukee Mile and I was second there last year; that place is always fun. We're the little team that could I think we're going to make it to the top."

Sharp thinks the IRL doesn't get enough credit for the amount of talent it has in the field. "Remember, I ran a totally stock car with Kelley Racing, not nearly as massaged as others.

"Five years ago you could do that and be in the top five but with the engineering talent in the League at this point you have to work so hard for success. There are so many talented drivers and teams now and it's really great what Danica [Patrick] has done for all of us. We have great wheel-to- wheel action and she brings more people to the track to see it.

Patrick, of course is heading to "the one and only track" on which she's raced before. The 23-year-old rookie who has brought the League so much more interest has done so by her talent more than anything else. Currently leading Bombardier Rookie of the Year points with her 11th place position in the standings, Patrick realizes "it's always good to know the bumps and have a feel for the size of the track.

"Of course the cars are much faster than the Toyota Atlantic cars I raced here before but after five-ten laps you get the track down," she explained. While some think the flatness of the Milwaukee Mile makes it appear more like a road course Patrick demurs: "You still turn left so it's not a road course. It's just another short oval so there's not as much side-by-side racing and usually there are not two grooves. When you overtake, you definitely have to make it happen."

Patrick stays focused on the job at hand because her team allows her to do so. "I give all credit to the team for organizing things. We don't waste time and everything is planned. I think I'm getting a fair shake as a driver but some people think I have to win now because of the success I've had. Some people never win these races but it's the story people want. I keep focused; my family, friends and my team helps me to be able to focus and relax."

Danica Patrick has shown she knows how to go to the front but she's still learning about tire management, particularly after pit stops. She's had great qualifying efforts in the past couple of events, sitting on the front row for races at Kansas and Nashville, but falling back in the first part of each event as she comes to grips with the changes in her car from practice to race trim.

With Tomas Enge out of the hunt with fractured lower back vertebrae, her sole competition for rookie honors is Ryan Briscoe. Carpentier, although new to IndyCar Series competition doesn't get to run for Rookie of the Year because of his extensive racing background. Not only did the French Canadian finish second on the Milwaukee Mile last year, he earned his first victory at Michigan International Speedway back in 2001.

"I think my maturity as a driver is playing into positives at Red Bull Cheever Racing," Carpentier noted. "I brought a lot of experience and came from a well funded, organized team. That really helped." Although he was dismayed with the team's early results, "I stay open minded. It's tough not to be affected by bad results because you get involved emotionally.

"Relationships are more important than technology in this business," Carpentier declared, "and so is respect. Through the ups and down, if we work together we can have success."

Sharp is well aware of that doctrine, while Patrick appears to be understanding it. All three are ready for the tight competition they'll experience on Sunday in the ABC Supply Co./AJ Foyt Indy 225 on The Milwaukee Mile.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Enge , Scott Sharp , Patrick Carpentier , Ryan Briscoe , A.J. Foyt , Danica Patrick