SUPERB SEASON IN 1998 RAISES BAR FOR EAGER SHARP ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 9, 1998 -- As Pep Boys IRL teams toil through the offseason to prepare for the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway on Jan. 24, Scott...
SUPERB SEASON IN 1998 RAISES BAR FOR EAGER SHARP
ORLANDO, Fla., Dec. 9, 1998 -- As Pep Boys IRL teams toil through the offseason to prepare for the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway on Jan. 24, Scott Sharp paces the floor with the anticipation of a kid waiting for Santa Claus. It's no mystery why Sharp nearly giggles with optimism as he looks toward the Orlando season opener. Sharp, 30, and his Kelley Racing teammates nearly did the impossible in 1998, challenging for the league title in their debut season. As Pep Boys Indy Racing League teams head to the league's Open Test Dec. 11-12 at Orlando, Sharp savors the opportunity. At this time one year ago, the team scrambled to build their first cars, while the rest of the league prepared to test with seasoned personnel and equipment. But Sharp nearly had the last laugh, as he and his teammates shocked the league with a victory in just their second start, winning the Dura-Lube 200 in March at Phoenix International Raceway. Another victory came in the Pep Boys 400K in July at Dover Downs International Speedway. Now, Sharp says, the challenge for the team is to keep things in perspective as they undertake their sophomore season of competition. "We spoiled ourselves a little bit last year," he said, with his broad smile lighting up the room. "We led five of 11 races, won two races, were in the hunt for the title, all the things that you don't expect of a rookie team. "But once you win, and you get excited, you expect to run up front. It kind of takes over your priorities, in a hurry." Sharp was a teen-ager when he made his professional driving debut in 1987, and he has matured to become a seasoned, savvy racer with Indy-style experience since 1993. He is philosophical when he describes his relationship with team owners Tom and Jim Kelley, after driving for legendary Indy champion A.J. Foyt. "There's nobody like A.J., he's awesome," Sharp said. "I needed to be with a guy like A.J. to help me learn how to race on ovals, and he helped me tremendously, right at the right time in my career. "But I'm pleased to move from that experience to the Kelley team, because Tom and Jim Kelley can help me learn so much about many other things. They are very bright and successful businessmen, and there is so much they can teach me about a lot of other areas in the sport." In retrospect, late 1997 was a dark period for Sharp, and his opportunity with Kelley turned out to be a significant turnaround for him. He had watched much of the 1997 from the sidelines after suffering midseason injuries, and there were plenty of questions after the long idle spell. "1998 was a major year, because I had so many questions facing me," Sharp said. "I hadn't been in a car for seven months when I first tested for Tom (Kelley) at Orlando. "On our first morning, I sat down in the car and I really didn't know what to expect. Your mind begins to work against you, planting doubts and fears, and you really have to fight them and face them. "But that first morning, we tested way under the track record, and it was just a huge shot in the arm for me and maybe for the team as well. There are always those lingering doubts, and until you're able to dispel them, they kind of hang over you. "But that kind of thing is maturity, and experience, and you learn from it and go on. I've learned to be a little more confident, to be more optimistic and patient." Realistically, what does Sharp expect from the team in 1999? He laughed when thinking about his answer. "A reasonable goal?" he said. "It's tough, when you've won two races the previous year, led the points for a while ? what else is there but to go for the championship? "But so many factors are out of our reach. When you look at Texas (Lone Star 500) last year, when we blew a tire and crashed while we were leading, that took us out of the championship hunt, and it wasn't something we could control. "You can't say, 'Well, if we don't win the championship we've had a bad year,' because that isn't realistic. "But it's easy to fall into that trap, especially if you've had a good season on your first year out. I mean, we won our second race. After that, you expect to be up front all the time. But this is a very competitive league, so it's hard to make that happen. "Our goal for this year needs to be putting ourselves in a position to win more races, and we have to raise our game a notch to make that happen. But I'm very optimistic. I think we have the right team in place to get to that point." So Sharp keeps smiling, and thinking of January. He struggles to contain his enthusiasm as he prepares to roll out the new season at Walt Disney World Speedway. The 1-mile tri-oval is just around the corner from the Magic Kingdom, the place where dreams come true. Scott Sharp knows all about it.