SHORT-TRACK LESSONS HELP BEECHLER ACCELERATE LEARNING CURVE INDIANAPOLIS, June 24, 1998 -- It isn't topped with clay, like the dirt tracks where he cut his racing teeth, and it may be half a nation away from his native Springfield, Ill.,...
SHORT-TRACK LESSONS HELP BEECHLER ACCELERATE LEARNING CURVE
INDIANAPOLIS, June 24, 1998 -- It isn't topped with clay, like the dirt tracks where he cut his racing teeth, and it may be half a nation away from his native Springfield, Ill., but Pep Boys Indy Racing League rookie Donnie Beechler hopes the New Hampshire International Speedway feels a bit like home when he arrives there to prepare for the New England 200 on June 28.
And he has never even seen the place.
It will be a matter of perception, in the form of speed and distance. To date, Beechler has competed in a pair of Pep Boys IRL events, those two starts having come at a couple of America's fastest race tracks: the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the high-banked, 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway.
For Beechler, schooled on tracks a half-mile around and smaller during a glorious career in midgets, sprint cars and USAC Silver Crown competition, the relatively short 1.058-mile NHIS oval in Loudon will represent something of a return to familiarity. He has, after all, competed in several Silver Crown events at the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway and the Pikes Peak International Raceway, as well at slightly larger tracks in Memphis and St. Louis.
"I'm hoping that some of my Silver Crown experience will pay off at Loudon," Beechler said. "From what I hear, some of the other Pep Boys IRL teams have been averaging 180 (mph) or so in testing up there, and that's a little bit closer to what I'm used to running."
True enough, its quick lap times - roughly 23 seconds and change per mile - give NHIS something of a short-track feel. But don't make the mistake of thinking that Beechler heads to New England believing that he's got things completely figured out.
"I haven't experienced any 1-mile ovals in an Indy-style car yet," he said, "so it's hard for me to determine yet if it'll be easier or harder to drive than a place like Indianapolis. For one thing, I'm going to have to get used to driving an Indy-style car and using the brakes. That's something I haven't done very much of.
"In qualifying at Indianapolis and Texas, you don't touch the brakes at all, even under race conditions. Once the traffic gets sorted out you don't use the brakes very much."
Surprising as it may seem, Beechler is convinced that his background played a large part in preparing him for the all-out approach necessary for success at the quickest Pep Boys IRL tracks.
Beechler said: "When you run a sprint car with a wing, any track that's got long, sweeping corners is usually a place where you can hold it wide open. Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, is that kind of a track. In the midgets, there are places like Belleville, Kansas, or Sun Prairie up in Wisconsin, where if the track is right, you get out there in qualifying and you just never lift. When you race on those kinds of tracks, you do get used to running flat-out.
"Naturally, there are some differences between running flat-out at those tracks and running flat-out at Indianapolis and Texas. You don't ever want to get an Indy-style car sideways, like we do in the midget or the sprints or the Silver Crown cars. But even in those short-track cars, you try to keep your car as straight as possible when you're on a really fast track. Whenever you get sideways, you're scrubbing off speed, so you try to stay smooth entering the corners.
"On a short little bullring dirt track, it's different. You'll pitch the car sideways way before you get to the corner. But once you get onto the bigger, faster tracks, keeping your car nice and straight is definitely going to help you."
It is the same lesson - be smooth, make no drastic moves - that is constantly preached to Pep Boys IRL rookies like Beechler, and he has clearly paid attention. Still, he admits to having found Indianapolis a bit unsettling upon first introduction.
"The Speedway was a different place for me in the beginning," said Beechler, who turned 37 during May. "I had to get used to the speed before I was comfortable. Obviously, the straightaways there are fast, but you really don't notice that so much. The tough part is getting used to the speed in the corners.
"You get to the end of the straightaway and you don't let off, and you're hoping that the car is going to turn."
But with practice came progress, and he ended up qualifying his Cahill Auto Racing G Force/Aurora/Firestone at an average speed of 216.357 mph. He started his first Indianapolis 500 from the 24th position, and although he dropped out of the race with engine problems after only 85 miles, Beechler cherishes the lessons he learned at the old Brickyard.
"The most important thing, no matter where you're running or what kind of car you're driving, is trusting your car," he said. "When you're comfortable, your job as a driver becomes so much easier. I've always said that I've won races which felt a lot easier than races where I finished second or third. That's because when the car is nice, and you feel that trust in it, you're not working as hard.
"Well, it's the same with an Indy-style car. If it's running right and you're comfortable, it's not nearly as tough to drive as it is when it's not handling right.
"Once you get the feel of the car itself, and you understand what the car is telling you, it becomes a lot easier to adapt to new situations, and even new tracks."
He proved that in the very next Pep Boys IRL event, the True Value 500 at Fort Worth, Texas.
"When we got there," Beechler said, "I think my third or fourth lap was right at 215. That's where my experience at Indianapolis really paid off."
Once again, his race was short-lived - "Four laps into the race, we had a car spin out up ahead of us, and I just couldn't get slowed down" - but there were more lessons absorbed.
"And I'm still in that learning process," Beechler said. "I'm still getting used to how an Indy-style car feels as it starts to get tight, or starts to get loose, and I'm still getting used to the mental aspect of the game, which is entirely different from what I'm used to. Driving an Indy-style car is not as difficult, physically, as some of the other racing I've done, but it's very difficult mentally. The speeds are a lot higher and the races are a lot longer, so you have to stay more focused for a much greater time. That can wear you out."
His hope is that all of this newfound knowledge, combined with a track layout that is bound to look at least somewhat recognizable, will begin to pay dividends at New Hampshire.
"Maybe we can get the feel of the car a little bit sooner there," Beechler said. "That's important, because with the speeds not being as high as they were at Indy or Texas, the aerodynamics of the car won't be as important as things like the car's basic setup. We'll be lifting and braking going into the corners.
"Hopefully, Loudon will be a nice change for us. I'm really looking forward to it."
NEW ENGLAND 200 NOTEBOOK
Event schedule: The third annual New England 200 is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. (EDT) June 28. PPG Pole qualifying starts at 2 p.m. June 27.
Pep Boys IRL practice sessions will take place at 8:30 a.m., 11:15 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. June 27.
*** Broadcast schedule: The New England 200 will be televised live on CBS at 2 p.m. (EDT) June 28. PPG Pole qualifying will be televised live on SpeedVision at 2 p.m. June 27.
The IMS Radio Network will broadcast the race live at 2 p.m. (EDT) June 28, with a prerace show starting at 1:30 p.m. The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute show of PPG Pole qualifications at 3:30 p.m. June 27.
Tickets: Tickets for the New England 200 are available by calling New Hampshire International Speedway at (603) 783-4931.
World Wide Web: http://www.indyracingleague.com