RICHMOND, Va., Tuesday, June 18, 2002 -- Richmond International Raceway was the great unknown for the Indy Racing League during the inaugural SunTrust Indy Challenge in 2001, for two reasons. First, it was the first IRL race at the Â¾-mile oval.
RICHMOND, Va., Tuesday, June 18, 2002 -- Richmond International Raceway was the great unknown for the Indy Racing League during the inaugural SunTrust Indy Challenge in 2001, for two reasons.
First, it was the first IRL race at the ¾-mile oval. Second, it was the first IRL race on a track shorter than 1 mile.
This year, RIR still remains a mystery -- for the top two drivers in the series point standings, that is.
Marlboro Team Penske's duo of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and teammate Gil de Ferran are first and second, respectively, in the Indy Racing League point standings. They will compete at Richmond International Raceway for the first time during the SunTrust Indy Challenge on June 29, adding an interesting twist to both the championship race and one of the most unique races on the IRL schedule.
The 250-lap race starts at 7:30 p.m. (EDT) Saturday, June 29 and is the second of three night races on the schedule. It will be televised live on ESPN. MBNA Pole Qualifying is June 28.
Marlboro Team Penske, the winningest team in major-league American open-wheel racing history, joined the Indy Racing League full time this season. Castroneves won two of the first five races in the No. 3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone, while de Ferran earned his first IRL victory at the Radisson Indy 225 on June 16 at Pikes Peak International Raceway in the No. 6 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.
The powerful Penske team was dominant in its first racing visit to Pikes Peak. de Ferran won the MBNA Pole while Castroneves started second, and the drivers finished in that same order. de Ferran led 217 of 225 laps.
But Richmond International Raceway should provide quite a challenge for this new IRL powerhouse. The team has tested at the track, but nothing can prepare a team or driver for Indy Racing at RIR quite like a Saturday-night showdown under the lights at the only "bullring" on the series schedule.
Last year's thrilling inaugural race proved that.
2000 Indy Racing League champion Buddy Lazier led a league-record 224 of 250 laps for victory, but his victory wasn't nearly as easy as those numbers might indicate. Lazier climbed to the lead on the first lap despite starting fourth and then deftly navigated traffic the rest of the night in the tight confines.
That traffic nearly cost Lazier a victory. He chased 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. and veteran Eliseo Salazar for the lead late in the race when Cheever and Salazar crashed with 36 laps remaining.
Lazier just missed the incident, took the lead and then drove away to victory.
1996 Indianapolis 500 champion Lazier could use another victory this season at RIR. He has endured a slow start this season, as he is tied for 12th in the point standings with a best finish of seventh in the No. 91 Coors Light/Life Fitness/Tae-Bo/Delta Faucet Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone.
Also returning to RIR will be 2001 race runner-up Sam Hornish Jr. and third-place finisher Al Unser Jr.
2001 IRL champion Hornish won two of the first seven races this season in the No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. His smooth, yet fast driving style is a perfect match for RIR. Hornish is third in the standings with 206 points, 61 behind leader Castroneves.
Unser is fifth in the series points with Kelley Racing, which he joined before this season. Unser's best finish is second -- by a league-record .0111 of a second to Jeff Ward -- at the Boomtown 500 earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway in the No. 7 Corteco/Bryant Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone. He also finished sixth June 16 at Pikes Peak.
Ward is another driver to watch at RIR. He always was known as a smooth, fast driver who avoided trouble during the first 50 starts of his IRL career. But he never earned a victory during that span. That all changed with the thrilling victory at Texas in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing G Force/Chevrolet/Firestone.
1997 Indianapolis 500 Bank One Rookie of the Year Ward is sixth in the series point standings and has become a factor in the championship chase.
Another driver to watch is rookie Tomas Scheckter. He has led 220 laps combined this season in the No. 52 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone but is winless, plagued by accidents and bad racing luck.
Scheckter, like Castroneves and de Ferran, has never raced on a short track. But his natural speed should make him a contender for victory under the lights at RIR.
SUNTRUST INDY CHALLENGE NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The SunTrust Indy Challenge starts at 7:30 p.m. (EDT) . Saturday, June 29. MBNA Pole Qualifying starts at 6:30 p.m. (EDT) June . 28 Practice sessions start at noon and 2:15 p.m. (EDT) June 28 and 2:30. p.m. June 29 .
On the air: The SunTrust Indy Challenge will be televised live on ESPN at 7:30 p.m. (EDT) Saturday, June 29. "Indy Racing 2Day" will be televised at 7 p.m. (EDT) June 29 on ESPN2.
The IMS Radio Network will broadcast a pre-race show at 7 p.m. (EDT) June 29, followed by the live race broadcast at 7:30 p.m. The area affiliate is WRNL-AM 910, Richmond, Va.
Tickets: Tickets for the SunTrust Indy Challenge are available now by calling the Richmond International Raceway ticket office at (804) 345-7223 or online at www.rir.com.