IRL: Phoenix rookie preview

IRL: Phoenix rookie preview
Mar 27, 1996, 5:47 AM

'LONE STAR J.R.' SAYS ROOKIES HEAD TO PHOENIX WITH HIGH MARKS INDIANAPOLIS, February 26, 1996 -- Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford said today that the young lions of the Indy Racing League head to this week's "Test in the West" ...


INDIANAPOLIS, February 26, 1996 -- Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford said today that the young lions of the Indy Racing League head to this week's "Test in the West" at Phoenix International Raceway with high marks.

Rutherford, the IRL's special projects coordinator, will again be on hand to work with drivers as dozen teams coverage on the Desert Mile for testing Monday through Wednesday in preparation for the March 24 Phoenix 200.

"I ran the first race they ever did there (at Phoenix)," Rutherford recalled. "For a long time, I had more races and more laps at Phoenix than anybody."

He said drivers face similar challenges as they faced last month in the IRL inaugural on the one-mile oval at Walt Disney World.

"Phoenix is the same kind of challenging one-mile oval that Walt Disney World is," Rutherford said. "Some have tested there. It's a matter of getting out there and getting more seat time. It has the same frantic frequency as Walt Disney World.

"It has some unforgiving traits. You get in Turn 1 and something happens, you're almost certain to get in the wall. There's a different shape to the race track. With the dogleg in the back straight, you have to be cautious and aware of where the traffic is. The closing rate is no different from Orlando. You need to be heads up."

Phoenix is the last stop before the traditional month of May for the Indianapolis 500 at the 2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. In the past, Phoenix International Raceway has been a "sneak preview" of Indy.

"That's always been a rule of thumb," Rutherford said. "If your car works well at Phoenix, all you have to do is change gears for the 2-mile distance and you have it covered. Mechanically, what works at Phoenix works at Indy. The way the car is loading is similar to the Speedway."

Here's what Rutherford had to say about the progress of the young drivers and newcomers after the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Presented by Aurora:

About winner Buzz Calkins: "Buzz is a pleasant surprise. He did extremely well testing. He has a premier crew. I consider Kenny Anderson one of the best...he has a good grasp of what it takes, and he's given Buzz what he needs with the car. Buzz has come of age. He was struggling a bit with the Indy Lights car. He needed the opportunity on a car with more horsepower that handles easier. The more responsive, more powerful Indianapolis-type car was easier to drive than what he'd been doing. He's found the right niche, and he's there."

About runner-up Tony Stewart: "Tony is one of those young men that car owners dream about. The young man adapts to anything. He's a racer. That's one of the main prerequisites to success. I'd rather have a racer in my car than a driver. The theory that (sort-track) guys can't adapt the mentality to the sophisticated skyrockets of today's caliber ... well, Tony proved them wrong. This young man has raced nothing but straight-axle cars, but he proved he could handle these as well."

About Robbie Buhl: "He's another of these young men struggling to get an opportunity. He did a creditable job in Indy Lights and has been in Indianapolis-type cars before, but never in a situation where he could show well. He's matured a lot in the last couple of years. He proved that by the tenacity and practice he showed in running the car the way he did and finishing third."

About Michele Alboreto: "From the conversation I had with Michele, he was thoroughly enjoying Indianapolis cars and something new and different. He's raced all over the world, and his credentials speak for themselves. His (fourth-place) finish showed his maturity and ability. It was his first one, and he didn't want to go out there and hang it on the fence. Who knows how much stronger he'll be after two or three races?"

About Johnny O'Connell: "This is probably Johnny's first opportunity to shine as the driver. The other races he's been in have been with teams, with two or three drivers for the 24 Hours, for example. In some shorter ones, where he's been the only driver, he's shown what he could do. He did what he had to do at Orlando by coming out, finishing the race and having a whole race car to load on the truck at the end of the day."

About Davey Hamilton: "Davey has a lot of talent. He's just one of those guys who occasionally comes along who appears to be snake bit to a point. Watching replays of his accident at Disney World, obviously something broke on the car. He couldn't turn it, it went up and he broadsided the wall. Davey has ability and he led the race. He just needs some seat time and needs to run without something happening to cars. He just needs the sun to come out for awhile."

About Stan Wattles: "He's a pleasant surprise because he has a minimum of experience. I had the opportunity to talk to him at rookie orientation at Orlando. He was very tentative -- and that's good -- at the test. I talked to him about getting up to speed when he was running in the groove, the proper etiquette of this type of racing and what to watch for. All of a sudden, he was out there going fast. I might've said the right words to turn the lights on. And he took the lead in that race. Unfortunately, he spun off and banged his car up. But he's going to be one of the young guys who'll be stars in the future."

About Stephan Gregoire: "Stephan is one of the young foreign drivers with a lot of talent. He came to Indianapolis for an initial outing and he showed quite well. Then he went away, for whatever reason. Now he's back and the cars he's been running -- Formula 3s, 3000s -- have prepared him well. He liked the agility and power of the Indianapolis cars, and the more he runs and learns about it, the brighter he'll be."

About Richie Hearn: "Richie has a great deal of talent. He's a somewhat volatile young man in that he knows where he's going, but he's not getting there fast enough to suit him. He has a great mentor in John Della Penna and it's a definite team to contend with. He's done a lot of testing, then race practice and the race. He's proved he's capable beyond a shadow of a doubt. We've not seen the depths of his talent yet. He was moving to the front (from 19th starting spot to seventh) when he came off the turn with a normal attitude and spun. Something (a sway bar adjuster) had to break."

PIT NOTES: Entry invitations were shipped to all teams with Indianapolis-car programs for the Phoenix 200 last week ... Eliseo Salazar has been released from Methodist Hospital and is recovering at home from his Jan. 26 accident at Disney World in which he broke his right leg ... Butch Brickell, injured in a testing accident, is also on the mend and may select a different driver for the cockpit of the Brickell Racing entry at Phoenix ... The A.J. Foyt Enterprises cars of Davey Hamilton and Scott Sharp, both involved in accidents at Disney World, have been repaired and are expected to be on hand at Phoenix for "Test in the West" Monday ... Blueprint Racing has signed Atlantic veteran Jim Guthrie to team with Johnny Parsons in its machines. Guthrie is expected to test at P.I.R.


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