Ken Plotkin - Motorsport.com Phoenix, AZ, March 15 - WOO-HOO!! YEE-HAW!!! Riding shotgun in an Oldsmobile pace car around the Phoenix International Raceway mile. Woo-hoo and yee-haw, but no fear. At the wheel is Scott Sharp, winner of five...
Ken Plotkin - Motorsport.com
Phoenix, AZ, March 15 - WOO-HOO!! YEE-HAW!!! Riding shotgun in an Oldsmobile pace car around the Phoenix International Raceway mile. Woo-hoo and yee-haw, but no fear. At the wheel is Scott Sharp, winner of five Indy races, including that razor-thin .059 second margin at Texas last year. And Dover in 1998, where he beat the Monster Mile - despite the infamous bumps knocking fillings out of his teeth.
It's just a pace car ride-around today, so he's leaving plenty of room - nearly a foot away from the wall - coming out of the corners. But the sheer joy and confidence of his driving shines through.
"I love PIR," Scott explains. "We led four out of the last five races here. It suits me well. My first ever oval race was here at PIR in an Indy car. I think you have to have a real aggressive style around here. Yet you have to be able to time traffic and be able to temper that aggression. Otherwise you're going to throw the race away and end up inthe wall. To be fast and get through traffic you have to really get after it here. That's how I drive a car, so maybe I just have a natural liking that stems from my driving style.
"It's amazing. On a mile oval like this, our cars are running flat out all the way around close to 190 miles an hour. It's quite a thrill ride. At the same time, there's a lot of action. We're going to have a full field of 28 cars. There's a lot of passing. Even on a tight track like this we can still get side by side. A fan is going to see not only a lot of speed and hear a lot of great sounds, but they're going to see a lot of back and forth racing as well."
Back in the garage area, another top driver has a more cautious feeling toward's Sunday's race. Gil de Ferran, reigning CART FedEx driving champion, prepares for a race that he regards as a test session. He's been at PIR once before, in 1995 when he finished 11th driving for Jim Hall. Now he's driving for Roger Penske, and has a bigger goal: the 500.
"This race is going to be very important for us to prepare ourselves for the Indy 500." As a racer, Gil can't help wanting to race. "Once the race starts, you always want to do well," he acknowledges. "But it's going to be our very first IRL race, so our objective is really to get aquainted with the equipment, with the competition - to get our feet wet and see how we go. If we can do well we'll try to do well, but I have very low expectaions about this weekend."
When the Indy Racing Northern Light Series began in 1996, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. was hired as a driving coach. With the series beginning its sixth season, and a healthy roster of veterans, you'd think there wouldn't be as much need for that. User has found, however, that his workload has not gone down.
"It's still the same thing," he explains. "When new drivers come along - rookies - you always want to work with them. They need the most help. A lot of times drivers will come and talk to us and we're able to help them with their car and with their way of thinking. I don't think that will ever stop. Even though you have all the veterans, there are always rookies coming along."
Unser is enthusiastic about his role, providing something that was just not available in earlier years.
"We all needed help. I wish they had something like this when I was coming up. They didn't have veteran drivers that are retired and don't run any more to try to help you. Drivers would help you, but you raced against them. We don't race any more, so we're helping them in a different way."
While veteran drivers may not come to him for help, Unser sees to it that everyone benefits.
"If we see something that anybody is doing, whether they're a veteran or a rookie, we go say something to them. We can help them either way. If they come and ask us, we're very happy to help them. It doesn't make any difference. I helped the Penske drivers a couple of weeks ago out here. It's not that they're dumb or anything. It's just that sometimes in a different series you need guidance and a little help. They're very talented race car drivers or they wouldn't be where they're at. So you just make a statement and they know what you mean and off they go."