IRL: Northern Light Series Notebook 2000-03-24

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, March 24, 2000 -- Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, consultant and Pace Car driver for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, believes he saw a "real awakening" in Al Unser Jr. during the MCI WorldCom...

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, March 24, 2000 -- Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, consultant and Pace Car driver for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, believes he saw a "real awakening" in Al Unser Jr. during the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 on March 19 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Unser qualified only 20th fastest but worked his way into the lead by Lap 129 and was in serious contention for victory until he made his final pit stop as the leader on Lap 150. Then as he exited the pits to reenter the fray, a crash on the track brought out the caution flag, putting him a lap down. He still charged home in ninth and was on the lead lap with winner Buddy Lazier.

Rutherford said he saw a re-energized Unser as he drove the Pace Car ahead of leader Unser, in his Galles ECR Racing Tickets.com Starz Encore Superpak G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone car, during an earlier caution period.

"He was playing games with us," Rutherford said. "He'd drive up and wave at Jim (Haynes, Pace Car assistant) and then drive up on my side and wave at me.

"There's been something missing for him, and he got a taste of it again. It's like a chicken-eating dog. Once you get the taste, you want to do it again."

Unser is trying to end a losing streak that dates back to 1995. After the Phoenix race, he said no one should know of his true, angry thoughts when the yellow came out.

"So close," he said. "That's becoming my middle name. We were taking our time at the beginning, just running a good consistent race.

Unser has shown competitiveness in his first two Indy Racing appearances although his slow qualifying runs have put him at the back of the pack on the starting grid. In his debut in the Delphi Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway on Jan. 29, he charged up from 24th to ninth before his engine failed on Lap 65.

Unser gets his next chance at a breakthrough victory in the Vegas Indy 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on April 22.

***

Salazar on the F1 airwaves: Indy Racing standout Eliseo Salazar will join the Pan-american Sports Network (PSN) for its telecast of the Brazilian Grand Prix Formula One race.

PSN is a new, 24-hour, all-sports cable and satellite digital television network dedicated exclusively to meeting the unique interests of fans throughout Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Salazar, a native of Chile, is fifth in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series standings after two races this season in the Rio A.J. Foyt Racing G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone.

Salazar also will play host to PSN's motorsports magazine program, "Techno Mundo."

***

Comparing: If defending Indy Racing Northern Light Series champion Greg Ray wants to find a bright spot in his start this season (finishes of 17th and 19th), he has five more championship points this year than he did after the same two races last season. Ray, driver of the Conseco-Menards Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone has 27 and is tied with Al Unser Jr. and rookies Airton Dare and Niclas Jonsson for 15th place.

Last year Ray had only 22 points and was buried in the standings. Yet, he went on to win three races and catapult to the title.

Current leader Buddy Lazier had only 32 points after two races in 1999, but a second and first has provided him with 90 heading into the Vegas Indy 300 on April 22 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Lazier, driver of the Delta Faucet/Coors Light/Tae-Bo/Hemelgarn Racing Riley & Scott/Oldsmobile/Firestone, was 11th at this time last year and finished sixth with 224.

Donnie Beechler and Eliseo Salazar, fourth and fifth, respectively, have made the biggest advances from one year to the next. Salazar, driving this year for A.J. Foyt, has 62 points after accumulating a mere 10 a year ago at this point. Beechler, still driving for Cahill Racing, has accumulated 63 points, almost half of 130 he totaled for the entire 1999 season.

Here's a comparison of the two-race standings of this year and last:

<pre> 2000 1999 1. Buddy Lazier 90 1. Scott Goodyear 93 2. Robbie Buhl 78 2. Jeff Ward 75 3. Scott Goodyear 72 3. Eddie Cheever Jr. 63 4. Donnie Beechler 63 4. Scott Sharp 61 5. Eliseo Salazar 62 5. Mark Dismore 56 6. Eddie Cheever Jr. 55 6. Billy Boat 54 7. Billy Boat 50 7. Robbie Buhl 45 8. Scott Sharp 48 8. Raul Boesel 42 9. Jeff Ward 45 9. Scott Harrington 35 10. Stephan Gregoire 36 10. Stephan Gregoire 34

</pre> ***

Top team establishes fund for fallen friend: Team Purex Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has established a fund to help the 14-year-old daughter of team member Andy Cisternino, who died suddenly March 20 when returning from the MCI WorldCom Indy 200 at Phoenix.

Cisternino served as a fabricator and designer for the team, which fields the Team Purex Dreyer & Reinbold G Force/Oldsmobile/Firestone for standout Robbie Buhl. The well respected Cisternino was involved with top Indy Racing and sports car teams since the late 1960s.

The fund will benefit Cisternino's 14-year-old daughter, Amy, who he was raising as a single parent. Contributions can be sent to:

The Amy Cisternino Fund
Bank One
9505 Haver Way
Indianapolis, IN 46240
Attn.: Caroline Whittle

***

Practice makes perfect: Practice, practice, practice. That's the key to success for this year's crop of rookies in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series, said three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Johnny Rutherford.

After two races, Jeret Schroeder, who has become a series regular after driving in two races during the 1996-97 season and finishing 15th in the Indy 500 last year in his only start, heads the rookie standings with 29 points. That puts the New Jersey native two up on Brazilian Airton Dare and Swede Niclas Jonsson.

Dare has the best finish of the eight rookies who have started in either of the two opening events with an 11th at Walt Disney World Speedway. Schroeder has a 19th and 12th in his two races.

Sarah Fisher made her 2000 debut at Phoenix. She battled handling problems throughout but hung on to complete 183 laps and place 13th.

"I think once again we've got some good, conscientious young men and woman with ability," Rutherford said. "This points out the need for practice, practice, practice. It's part of the learning curve. Some of them learned how hard 200 miles is.

"I remember when I was a rookie standing on the gas and a veteran coming and blowing by me. I wondered whether I'd ever reach that intensity. Eventually, I did."

Fisher has received considerable attention because of her gender, age of 19 and that she's driving the Cummins Special Riley & Scott/Oldsmobile/Firestone machine for Derrick Walker, who also fields a team in CART.

"She's a very intense, focused young lady," Rutherford said. "With Derrick, she's starting on a learning curve. She has shown the aptitude, but time will tell."

Rutherford said Schroeder has displayed a great spark (qualified fifth at Phoenix) and expects to see him blossom. Schroeder is driving for Tri-Star Motorsports. J.R. also sees good potential in PDM Racing driver Sam Hornish Jr.

"I was pleased particularly with Doug Didero," Rutherford said. "He struggled and struggled, then they made some changes and he got a creditable qualifying speed. He just needs seat time."

***

F2000 update: Pole-sitter Aaron Justus of Cristline, Calif., led all but two laps on the way to winning the season-opening U.S. F2000 race at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend. He averaged 78.269 mph as he scored his third career victory.

The 50-lap race was the first of the U.S. F2000 Road to Indy Oval Crown Championship, a three-race series within the overall U.S. F2000 series.

Arie Luyendyk Jr., son of the two-time Indy 500 champion, qualified ninth in the 28-car field but finished 22nd. *** Added to Hall of Fame: Ray Harroun, first winner of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, Sam Hanks, 1957 Indy champion, and Danny Ongais, who drove at Indy 11 times with a top finish of fourth in 1979, are among the 2000 inductees for the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in Novi, Mich.

The induction dinner and ceremony will take place June 8 at the State Theatre in Detroit. The Motorsports Hall of Fame currently is located inside the Novi Expo Center, but plans are underway to move it to a permanent site at the Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit.

-IRL/IMS-

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Robbie Buhl , Eliseo Salazar , Buddy Lazier , Stephan Gregoire , Jeff Ward , Scott Sharp , Billy Boat , Airton Daré , Mark Dismore , Scott Goodyear , Jeret Schroeder , Raul Boesel , Donnie Beechler , Danny Ongais , Scott Harrington , Aaron Justus , A.J. Foyt , Johnny Rutherford , Arie Luyendyk Jr.