IRL: Sharp on the road to Japan

IRL: Sharp on the road to Japan

Next Saturday, April 17th marks the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series' second race outside United States borders. The Indy cars take to the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval northwest of Tokyo for the second annual Japan Indy 300. Scott ...

Next Saturday, April 17th marks the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series' second race outside United States borders. The Indy cars take to the 1.5-mile Twin Ring Motegi oval northwest of Tokyo for the second annual Japan Indy 300.

Scott Sharp.
Photo by indyracing.com/Ron McQueeney.
The race marks the end of the 3.5-liter era of IndyCar Series competition and also gives last year's Japan Indy 300 winner the opportunity to notch another victory. Scott Sharp, driver of Kelley Racing's #8 Delphi Dallara/Toyota/Firestone is marking his seventh season with the same team, pretty much an anomaly in major sports.

The 1996 IRL co-champion has won eight times on the IndyCar trail and has notched victory in each of the past seven seasons with Tom Kelley's operation. He's looking forward to going back to Japan where "the fans are so passionate," particularly after a slow start to the 2004 campaign. Sharp was ninth in Homestead in February and 13th at Phoenix last month.

The second-generation driver, whose father Bob was a sports car ace in the 1970s found last year's Japan adventure, "An awesome trip. It would have been a fabulous trip no matter how the race ended up," Scott said. "The overall experience was tremendous." Sharp spent some extra time in the country, meeting people connected with his long-time sponsor Delphi.

Looking at the Twin Ring Motegi circuit, which was built into a hillside and encompasses more than simply the oval track on which the Indy cars compete, Sharp likes the oval's configuration.

"The circuit is awesome. It's got a Michigan or Fontana type of feel to it in Turns 1 and 2, but it's more like St. Louis in Turns 3 and 4. It's really beneficial to have your car set up so you can run well behind someone there," setting up for a pass.

Sharp is, of course excited to return to the site of his most recent victory but agreed, "We don't have the same momentum we did last year, when we were able to come in and build through the weekend. We didn't have great [pre-season] tests; we know there's still work to be done."

The Delphi crew led by Paul "Ziggy" Harcus tried to put their driver to the front in both of his two previous 2004 races. "At Homestead we struggled a bit," Sharp recalled. "We qualified 17th but ran a good race, even though we got out of sequence," finishing ninth.

Scott Sharp.
Photo by Eric Gilbert.
"The bar keeps getting raised and the level of commitment at the front of the pack leads to improved cars. It's pretty impressive," Sharp detailed. "We are a bit behind, but we're working hard to catch up. Nobody here gives up."

Sharp is pleased to be working with engineer Andy Borme, who previously tended to Champ Car stars, including Helio Castroneves in his final two years with that sanctioning body. "He wants it as bad as I do and he's just a little bit older than I am, so we're able to talk really well," Sharp acknowledged.

Even as he prepares to defend his 2003 Japan Indy 300 victory, Scott Sharp is looking forward to the month of May and the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Sharp was one of a two hands-full of drivers who took part in a private, closed test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Saturday, practicing for the first time with the 3-liter engine that comes online once the checkered flags fly at Twin Ring Motegi next Saturday.

"The 3-liter test was good. This was the first stage of testing for Toyota off the dyno and into the car," Sharp said. "We had to look at the aero package and I know we'll gain speed and comfort as we prepare for Indy. The speeds were down and it was a good day. I'm very happy with the Toyota engine; they put a lot of energy into the new 3-liter engine and it made for a very successful day out there."

Not only is he excited about the engine but Sharp also believes the Indy Racing League's senior vice president of racing operations Brian Barnhart and his team did a great job on the aero changes of a 1/4-inch vertical wicker together with a rounded underbody sill. "We're running a pretty stock car right now and I really think these changes will level the playing field a bit.

"Last Saturday the engine ran fabulous. We got great response out of the box and while there's certainly a feeling of less power, the package is what we need." Sharp did note the Firestone Firehawk tires used in Saturday's test were 2003 spec rubber.

Scott Sharp.
Photo by Tony Johns.
"We did have some gearing issues and we did a major suspension change before lunch," Sharp noted. "We probably ran about 3-350 miles all told to get the car prepped" for teammate Sarah Fisher, whose #39 Dallara tub he utilized for the test. His two Delphi cars were being prepped for Japan at the team's north Indianapolis shops.

Sharp thinks the IRL was smart to restrain testing but knows his team needs to get some extra work in, so he's glad the month of May is nearly upon us. "We need to go and try different things so we're looking to the open test and the full week of practice" prior to MBNA Pole Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But he's still not making the error of looking beyond next weekend's race at Twin Ring Motegi, Sharp insisted.

"I love the track and I know it'll be a great race. We're not giving up with the current package, but where we stack up, I'm not sure. So far this year we've had great pit stops and remember, we've won before on strategy. The objective is to score as many points as possible and 50 [points for a win] sounds just right."

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Sarah Fisher , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , Eric Gilbert , Brian Barnhart