IRL: Phoenix Friday practice heats up the desert

Phoenix, AZ, March 15 - The Copper World Indy 200 got under way today with 26 IRL Indy cars, 51 USAC Silver Crown cars, 36 midgets, and 15 SRL Supermodifieds taking to the Phoenix International Raceway mile. Reigning race and IRL champion Sam ...

Phoenix, AZ, March 15 - The Copper World Indy 200 got under way today with 26 IRL Indy cars, 51 USAC Silver Crown cars, 36 midgets, and 15 SRL Supermodifieds taking to the Phoenix International Raceway mile.

Reigning race and IRL champion Sam Hornish was momentarily eclipsed as speed king by two-time CART champion Gil de Ferran, who topped the practice sessions at 177.203 mph, just shy of last year's pole speed of 177.663 mph set by Greg Ray. Gil set his best speed on the penultimate lap of the morning practice, then devoted the afternoon to testing full tank race setup.

"We had a good practice session this morning. The conditions were slightly different than when we tested here, so we had to change the setup of the Marlboro car. We just kept making progress throughout the session and were able to turn a fast lap at the end. It's the first practice of the weekend, so now we're just going to keep working towards race day.

"We spent the whole afternoon working on heavy fuel. We felt the conditions this afternoon would be most similar to the race. It's hard to compare with what other people are going through. I feel I'm on a much steeper learning curve than I was the last couple of years. I must say Homestead and Phoenix are good for us because most of the winter testing is done at these two tracks."

Gil sees a big difference from last year, when Team Penske came to Phoenix only to test for Indianapolis. "Last year was a 'fact finding' mission to find out what we needed to learn. But this year the focus is to score as many points as we can. We're doing the whole championship, every race counts, and you have to bring the points home. That's the focus this year both for me, and I guarantee, for Helio as well."

Sam Hornish was second fastest, at 176.843 mph, also on the penultimate lap of his morning session. "Track conditions were a little bit warmer than when we were here for the 'Test in the West,' but we're pretty happy with how everything went. This afternoon we worked on race setup and trying to make sure the car was going to run good for a number of laps, not just for qualifying. We're going to try to put the Pennzoil Panther up front and see what happens in the race.

"We're confident that we'll have a good race car. You don't really know what the weather conditions will be like until just right before the race starts and it's too late to make changes. But we're pretty excited about this being a good race."

Robbie Buhl showed the muscle of the Infiniti powerplant, with third fastest practice time of the day. He achieved his best speed of 176.256 mph in the middle of the afternoon session. "We saw what the car would do over a period of laps, not just one lap. That was the focus of the Purex car today. You have to have a good race car. The wind picked up a little this afternoon, but with our G-Force we improved our car with things we learned in testing, things we learned at Homestead. Now we're running this year's motor, and it definitely improved I'm very happy with the power from Infiniti.

"We have Infiniti in a couple of cars this year. I think there will be a couple of more Infiniti powered cars by the time we get to Indianapolis."

The other two Infiniti-powered cars in the race, the Red Bull Cheever Racing entries driven by Tomas Scheckter and Eddie Cheever, had times that were 8th and 14th, respectively, for the day.

"We came here with what we thought was a good setup from our testing," said Cheever, "but the cars have been loose all day. We tried several changes thoughout the two sessions today. Now that we are into our second race, the exchange of information between the No. 51 Red Bull Infiniti and the No. 52 Red Bull Infiniti is much better. That helps on days like this where we have to get through a lot of setup issues."

Buddy Lazier, fourth fastest for the day at 174.976 mph, also found traction less than ideal. "The track was slippery this afternoon from the heat and all the rubber on the track, but that is typical, especially here at Phoenix. All in all, we had a real positive first day of practice. We're headed in the right direction. The Coors Light car should be real competitive on race day.

The top five was rounded out by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. "We're really happy with the Corteco/Bryant car. The crew is doing a great job. I'm really proud of the guys. They put a car together that's good right off the trailer. We had our first long run in the car this afternoon. We tried to do it during the test, but didn't get the chance. Slowly but surely we're coming together as a team."

With the two fastest cars of the day being from Penske and Panther, the spectre was raised that the season might be a two-way race between these two championship teams. Neither Hornish nor de Ferran expected to be so lucky. "Looking at the Indy 500," said Sam, "there are 18 people who have a legitimate opportunity to win if things go their way on that day. As far as the championship, there are ten teams that have a chance. Last year Buddy was fourth or fifth, then won four races in a row and got within 25 points of me."

Gil agreed with Sam. "There are a lot of people out there who have the ability to win the championship from a driving standpoint and from a team standpoint. I don't think it's a two horse race at all. We really won't know until probably three races to go who the contenders are."

Qualifying sessions were held today for tomorrow's SRL Supermodified and USAC National Midget races. Troy Regier captured the Supermodified pole with a speed of 155.494 mph and Dave Steele paced the Midgets at 136.178 mph.

Tomorrow's action includes the Supermodified and Midget races, plus qualifying for the Copper World Indy 200 and USAC "Little Trees" 100 Silver Crown race.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Greg Ray , Eddie Cheever , Robbie Buhl , Buddy Lazier , Gil de Ferran , Al Unser Sr. , Dave Steele , Sam Hornis
Teams Team Penske