IRL: Richmond Thursday practice

By Ken Plotkin - Richmond, VA, June 28, 2001 - Richmond International Raceway returned to its roots today as the Indy Racing Series took to the track for their first official practice sessions. Almost 55 years ago, in October ...

By Ken Plotkin -

Richmond, VA, June 28, 2001 - Richmond International Raceway returned to its roots today as the Indy Racing Series took to the track for their first official practice sessions.

Almost 55 years ago, in October 1946, Ted Horn drove an open wheel Champ Car to victory in the first race held on the new State Fairgrounds half mile dirt oval. Horn was one of the most consistent Indy drivers ever, completing 1799 out of 1800 possible laps in nine Indianapolis 500 appearances, never finishing lower than fourth or higher than second.

Saturday night's race is more likely to reward aggression than consistency. Five different drivers have won the prior six races this season, and tempers flared over driving tactics in the last couple of races. Drivers are expecting the 3/4 mile Richmond oval - the shortest track to see Indy cars in over 40 years - to be a hard place to pass.

When today's practice was done, the fastest drivers were quite a mix. Leading the speed chart at 161.181 mph was Billy Boat, who cut his teeth in midgets on short tracks.

"We feel pretty good about our speed so far in comparison to everybody else," Boat said, "but everybody's going to get better, and the track is going to get faster. We still need to work on the balance of the car and carrying our momentum through the corners. It's probably the conditions we're going to have for the race. It's not the conditions we're going to have for qualifying."

Next in line at 160.852 mph was sophomore sensation Sam Hornish Jr., current Indy Racing points leader and winner of the first two races of the season. Sam's path to Indy cars was from Karts and road racing.

"The track has cooled down quite a bit," the 21-year old Hornish said. "It makes it a lot easier on the tires. It's still not where we think it's going to be for the race, but it's getting closer. So it's a better comparison. We are just trying a bunch of stuff."

Third quickest, at 160.805 mph, was 1998 Indy 500 winner and Grand Prix veteran Eddie Cheever Jr. Despite his years of racing around the world, Richmond is a new experience.

"The Richmond track is like nothing we've ever raced at before," Cheever said at the end of the day. "It's short, very busy, and the traffic is intense. It's incredibly demanding both physically and mentally. Everyone is a rookie here, and it's going to be a very difficult race for the engineers. Richmond is a new proving ground for everyone."

The fourth and final member of the "160 mph club" was rookie Felipe Giaffone, at 160.006 mph. Felipe, who has finished in the top ten in every race so far this season and leads Rookie of the Year by a wide margin, was pleased with his car and the team's preparation.

"The car was really good right out of the box. It really paid off to come here and test in the month of May, and we found a really good balance. I was really concerned before we came here because the tempearture was much cooler when we tested. It didn't seem to upset our car. Everybody is going to improve, and hopefully we will too." Felipe is not expecting Saturday's race to be easy. "It's going to be a tough track. We can run two-by-two, but it's going to be hard. You can go two wide, but we're going to have to respect each other or we're going to see a lot of wrecks."

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. and teammate Didie Andre treated today as a test session. "We haven't tested here before today," Unser explained. "We figured we should utilize as much information as we could get today from both Dider and myself. I think we came away with a lot of information from both Galles cars today." Unser's best speed today was 157.179 mph, 12th fastest. He's looking for more speed in tomorrow's qualifying. "The race will be very close nose-to-tail racing, and track position will be very important because it won't be easy to pass."

Greg Ray, a speed demon who takes pride in outrunning everyone and holds three pole positions so far this season, was 13th fastest on the day. Like Unser, he treated today as a test session. "We tried different things this evening as opposed to the afternoon when it was 30 degrees hotter. We're basically collecting data from hot conditions to cool conditions so we can guess what to do when we qualify in the hot and face in the cool. Nobody has a lot of experience, so we're tying a lot of things, and hopefully we'll roll sevens."

The day was marred by two accidents, both without injury.

In the afternoon practice session, Sarah Fisher contacted the turn 2 wall, with moderate damage to the rear of her car. After complaining of neck pain, she was transported to Memorial Regional Medical Center in Richmond for X-rays. Results were negative, and she was released this afternoon. She will be evaluated at 10:30 Friday morning to determine her driving status.

"I'm fine," Sarah said. "They just took some precautionary X-rays to make sure there wasn't anything beyond a bruise. There's nothing there. I felt a little sore at the first stoppage, and I'm perfectly fine."

Despite the incident and abbreviated track time today, Fisher - who grew up in open wheelers on short tracks - was ninth fastest of the day and thought Richmond was awesome. "We're really looking forward to the race. Fortunately, we didn't tear up anything too major, and it will allow us to get on the track tomorrow - same car, same everything. We're going to start up where we left off, which was a pretty good spot."

In the evening session, Donnie Beechler found the wall in turn 4, sustaining heavy damage to his car. He was uninjured, and has been cleared to drive. "I don't really know what happened," he said. "The car was tight through the corner. The back end just came around. We hope to get this back together and will practice in the morning. It should be a great race."

While Beechler did not know what had happened, his car owner, A.J. Foyt, did and took responsibility. "I blame myself for Donnie's accident," the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner said. "I asked him to move up on the track 'cause that's where the fast guys were running. When he did, it pushed up into the loose stuff and just didn't turn. We have to do a few repairs, but it's mostly bolt-on stuff - but very expensive bolt-on stuff. We'll be ready for tomorrow."

The Indy Racing cars take to the track again tomorrow, with practice at 12:30 and MNBA Pole Qualifying at 3:30. There will be a driver's autograph session behind the Commonwealth Grandstand at 5:30, followed by final practice at 7 pm. At 8:00 the NASCAR Featherlight Modified Series cars will take the stage for the Richmond Times-Dispatch 150.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Eddie Cheever , Al Unser Jr. , Billy Boat , Donnie Beechler , Tim Richmond , Sam Hornish Jr.