FORT WORTH, Oct. 8 - After nine months and 10 races all over the country, it has all come down to just one point. Robby McGehee leads Scott Harrington by one point in the battle for the $50,000 Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year...
FORT WORTH, Oct. 8 - After nine months and 10 races all over the country, it has all come down to just one point. Robby McGehee leads Scott Harrington by one point in the battle for the $50,000 Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year Award in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League, making this year's rookie competition one of the closest in motorsports history. Like gunslingers squaring off, they'll settle who gets the award at the checkered in the Mall.com 500 season finale Sunday, Oct. 17 at Texas Motor Speedway. Harrington, driver of the CertainTeed Dallara Aurora, has been leading the point standings in the rookie wars off and on all season. Fifty-five points are up for grabs at each race and McGehee currently has 138 points to Harrington's 137. Standing just a little left of the limelight are Jaques Lazier (118 points) and John Hollansworth Jr. (116 points), either of who could go home with the top rookie prize should McGehee and Harrington have trouble at Texas. The rookie graduating class of the '99 Pep Boys IRL series is a stellar one, and the top rookie award for the series is certainly foremost in Harrington's mind. He was not eligible for any rookie awards at Indy since he competed in the Indy 500 in 1996, finishing 15th. McGehee won the 500's top rookie prize this May, and Hollansworth had been honored earlier that month for being the race's fastest rookie in qualifying. "It would mean a whole lot to win it, both financially and for our morale," Harrington says. "We've had a pretty unlucky season this year, so to manage to win the Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year Award would be great. "You only have one chance to be the Rookie of the Year," the Indianapolis-based driver points out. "You can win multiple championships during your Indy car career, but you can only be Rookie of the Year once. It's definitely something we'd like to take home both for Harrington Motorsports and for CertainTeed." Considering that Harrington and his father, Gene, didn't even decide to form their own team until the Christmas holidays, their accomplishments this year have been nothing short of amazing. Harrington, the 1992 Shelby pro Can-Am champion, had only been in three other Indy car races prior to this year in his career, which began with motocross events at the age of 13. The first was a CART event at Road America in 1989. The second was the 1996 Indy 500. The third only counts when doing the statistics, as he started the injured Eliseo Salazar's car at Dover, Del., last year just so Salazar's team could pick up the money a team gets to take the green flag. Only 25 days after making the decision to strike out on their own after a deal with another team failed to materialize, the Harrington Motorsports entry took the green flag at the 1999 season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway Jan. 24. Mechanical problems ended the team's day early, but the very next race, only Harrington's fourth Pep Boys IRL event ever and the team's second, he qualified eighth and finished fifth at Phoenix. "When you finish in the top five in your second race, that's a testament to the job that the entire team is doing," Harrington notes modestly. "This year has been a learning process for everybody involved, but the CertainTeed team is a great one. I think my guys are the best guys out there." After the disappointment of missing the 1999 Indy 500 due to mechanical problems and rain, Harrington's season suffered another setback when a wheel broke in practice at the first Texas race in June, sending the car into the turn-two wall at over 200 mph. Harrington suffered broken bones in both legs, a broken foot, broken ribs and other injuries in that crash, and went home with a broken body, a broken car and more bills instead of a big paycheck. Instead of lamenting his situation he gritted his teeth, used crutches to hobble over to his car, and almost won the next race. He was running third at Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado with just 17 laps to go when he had trouble lapping another competitor and brushed the wall, postponing his hopes for his first Pep Boys IRL victory until another day. The mount on one of his mirrors broke at the start of the race at Atlanta, causing him to drive almost blindly at over 200 mph with his fellow competitors and the wall just inches away. He relied on his spotter's instructions over the radio and soldiered on until the mirror was repaired at the halfway point, and he worked his way up through the field twice before finishing 15th. He had two strong sixth-place finishes at Dover, Del., and the second race at Pikes Peak in August, and the whole team was buoyed by the fact that the CertainTeed #66 was the fastest car in every practice session at the latter race. He was sixth-fastest in practice at Vegas in September but spun on the first lap of the race and hit the wall. The CertainTeed crew had him back on the track about a half-hour later and he wound up 14th. Some of Harrington's results do not show how fast he was running at most of the Pep Boys IRL races this year, but insiders predict that the day everything falls in place for Harrington is right around the corner. That can't come too soon for Harrington. "We should have won a race by now this season," he says. "The race coming up at Texas is our last shot to win a race in 1999, and we're going to give it our all. The competition is so tight in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League that any number of drivers could win each race, but I think the CertainTeed team has as good a shot as any team out there to win."
What will it take?
"The key to winning is to be there at the end, and then to have a car that is running well enough to be up to the task," Harrington notes. "We want to finish; we want to win; and we want to bring home that Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year Award." No matter what happens Oct. 17 at Texas, Harrington has had a very emotional year in which he has learned a great deal. "There is a reason that they call us rookies, and it's certainly been a season of learning," he admits. "I've gained experience and seat time. You learn something every weekend. "I had never seen some of these tracks we raced on this year, let alone raced on them in any kind of car, and certainly not an Indy car. We also didn't have the luxury of testing like some other teams had. The biggest thing I learned this year is how to run an Indy car in close quarters with other cars. You have to learn how the cars react in traffic and you have to learn how the different drivers are in traffic and how you can race with them. It's a constant learning process. "Fortunately we haven't made too many bad mistakes, but we learned a lot this year. There were things that we didn't anticipate, like having that wheel break at Texas in the spring; that put us into the wall and sent me to the hospital. "Our biggest challenge was and still is a budgetary problem, but we're hard at work on that for the 2000 season. I guarantee that no other team has done so much with the budget and the equipment that we have as the CertainTeed team has. We have one car and one engine, and we have to make them last. Other teams test a lot; we tested three days all year. Other teams practice pit stops almost every day. All of my guys except for two are working at their full-time jobs elsewhere, and there is no way you can practice a pit stop with just two guys. "We have all worked very hard," Harrington summarizes. "We are building a solid foundation. We want to be around in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League for many years to come. And it would be awful nice to add that Sprint PCS Rookie of the Year title to our resumes." The race will be broadcast on a same-day/taped-delay basis on ABC at 4 p.m. EDT. The day before the race qualifying will be shown live on SpeedVision at 1 p.m. EDT.