IRL: Teams prepare for Indy 500

Several Indy Racing League IndyCar Series teams and drivers came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today to discuss their plans for the month of May, which begins with opening day on May 9th and is complete with the May 30th running of the 88th...

Several Indy Racing League IndyCar Series teams and drivers came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway today to discuss their plans for the month of May, which begins with opening day on May 9th and is complete with the May 30th running of the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Red Bull Cheever Racing is coming off a difficult 2003 season in which it failed to win a race, something the team hasn't done since inception. Owner Eddie Cheever decided on some radical changes toward the end of last year and hired American Alex Barron to complete the season in his Dallara/Chevrolet.

Pleased with the Californian veteran's work ethic, Cheever signed Barron to do the full season in the #51 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Chevy, then added the talents of rookie Ed Carpenter to the mix in a #52 machine.

"We started preparations for Indy when we left last year," noted Max Jones, managing director of the team. "We feel we have a very good chance of winning with both of our drivers."

This will be Barron's third attempt to win the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing". He came from 26th to fourth place in the 2002 race, earning co- rookie of the year honors with Tomas Scheckter while driving for Blair Racing. Last year, as a substitute driver for Arie Luyendyk Barron started 25th and finished sixth. In both instances he led laps.

"At Indy you learn little things," Barron said. "There's so much to learn and it's always a pretty dramatic month. A multi-car team like this has tremendous value to assist drivers in learning what to do, what not to do with the car."

Carpenter, who seemed to come into his own as he moved up to the Indy cars, has already won a race at IMS. He took victory in the first Freedom 100 run by the Menards Infiniti Pro Series last May. He ran three races for PDM Racing last fall and brought the car home intact each time.

"I'm a better position than last year," said Carpenter. "The first two races might have gone better for me but I've got one more tune-up at Twin Ring Motegi next month." He took 12th at Homestead-Miami Speedway and acknowledged an unforced error that put him in the wall last weekend in Phoenix.

Red Bull Cheever Racing has bulked up its engineering staff since 2003 and increased its ability to understand both the Dallara chassis and Chevrolet engine in the process. Jones isn't sure what the new formula will do for his team but understands everyone running the IndyCar Series is in the same boat.

As for whether team owner Cheever will be back in the driver's seat in Indy? "I'm pretty sure he's not going to drive but we're leaving all options open."

Target Chip Ganassi Racing just seems to go from strength to strength. They won the 2003 IndyCar Series title with New Zealand's Scott Dixon and, this year is pairing the Kiwi with Briton Darren Manning, a newcomer to the IRL. Both will drive Panoz G Force/Toyota racers in the 500.

"Winning Indy is everybody's goal," Dixon admitted this morning. "We had a pretty good month last time" until he hit the wall while warming his tires under yellow. "There's a lot of team emphasis on Indy," Dixon said.

Manning, who came up through traditional road racing and was a test driver for the BAR Honda team before coming to the United States last year to race for Derrick Walker's Champ Car squad, knows all about Indy. "It's the biggest motorsports event in the world! Being with a winning team, I stand a good chance of winning the thing," he said.

Owner Chip Ganassi phoned in his comments from Florida, where he is relaxing with his family after being in Phoenix last weekend. "Everyone has the 'big one' on their minds and our eyes are focused on Indy. Some years you have a better shot than others," he said. "Last year we got beat by ourselves, but we've got as strong a team as ever."

Dixon left for France immediately following his press conference to test with the BMW-Williams team, with which Team Target seems to have a working exchange of drivers. "That tells you the level of drivers that come through our organization," Ganassi crowed. "I'd be the last one to hold a driver back.

"This team [for Indy] is as strong as I've ever had. Darren is on a bit of a learning curve but has shown himself to be a good listener and runner. Indy takes a different mindset and Scott makes the good transition from qualifying to racing," Ganassi stated.

Dixon didn't finish the first Homestead race but was second to Tony Kanaan at Phoenix last weekend, hoisting him from 18th to seventh in points. Manning took sixth in his first race and fifth at PIR, giving him fifth place points in this early point of the season.

Team Rahal brought three drivers to the Indy media days, but one of them appears to be ready to sit out the next round of racing at Twin Ring Motegi. On hand to discuss their Indy 500 plans, Kenny Brack, Buddy Rice, Roger Yasukawa and team manager Scott Roembke were a bit coy in delineating their plans.

Roembke reiterated the fact that "it was a pretty big decision in the history of Team Rahal to put all of our focus into the IRL," particularly after team co-owner Bobby Rahal had been a three-time champion and short- term CEO of CART. "It wasn't an easy decision to make, so I think our main goal is to have two strong cars in the IRL and support the IRL in doing that."

Rice remains a substitute driver for Brack at this time, but captured his first IndyCar Series pole position in Homestead last month. While he understands his position on the team, Arizona native Rice is appreciative of "the opportunity that has been given to me from the Team Rahal standpoint, to finally work with a big team and a properly-run team. It's been huge and that's how we started off the season. It's a fill-in role right now."

When Kenny Brack is ready to return to the cockpit - and he's not stating any dates, just agreeing he's getting better by the day - will there be room for Rice in the mix? "I'm very happy to be with Team Rahal [now] and with this group sitting up here."

Brack served as Rice's spotter last weekend in Phoenix and the pair worked well together, with Rice coming from 12th on the grid to finish ninth. "I just don't know," Brack said, "how quick the recovery is going to continue. I'm doing my best every day to start the next day as good as possible. That's my view on this right now."

And the playful Brack has a new nickname: he's Kenny the Rod Brack.

Eventually he'll figure out if he's ready to climb back into the #15 Pioneer/Argent Mortgage Panoz G Force/Honda that's waiting for the Swede, but in the meantime he's pleased with the progress Rice has made in a car he'd never driven in the past.

And the package changes once the team returns from Motegi, with the new engine regulations. "I think there are a bunch of variables that are going to happen that no one knows exactly where they're going to tack up until we have the first test," Rice explained.

The Rahal combine expands to three cars for the Twin Ring Motegi and Indianapolis rounds, with the addition of Roger Yasukawa, runner-up in last year's Bombardier Rookie of the Year contest. Yasukawa will campaign a #16 Sammy Panoz G Force/Honda in those two events, running for the Sammy brand of Pachinko pinball and slot machines from Japan. The firm just bought Sega and is going into game entertainment.

Yasukawa, born in California and raised in that state, Japan and eventually Italy is hoping two good results might parlay his career into a fulltime ride for the balance of the 16-race IndyCar Series season.

The two Marlboro Team Penske drivers, Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves joined Team Penske president Tim Cindric at the Speedway today for some Q&A late in the afternoon.

Castroneves, of course has the best finishing record in Indy history,1.3, having raced three times, winning twice and finishing second to teammate Gil de Ferran last year. "Nothing came easy here," Castroneves insisted. "The crew knows what to do and this makes my job easier. We start slowly and work up to it. I don't think we need to change what we've been doing."

His new teammate, on the other hand will make his fifth start and has a best finish of 14th in 2001, the same year he won his first of two straight IndyCar Series championships. "There's some amount of pressure on me. I feel I have the chance to improve this year." Last year, of course with the Chevy Gen III engine in his Dallara, Hornish was a good 3-4 miles per hour off the race pace.

"Sam holds his own wherever he he goes," Cindric pronounced in support of his driver. "We're looking forward to better results at Motegi this year to get us on the right track for Indy." Last season de Ferran was injured in the Phoenix round and Alex Barron subbed for him, while Castroneves was involved in one of many accidents at Motegi.

At the 2003 Indianapolis 500, Marlboro Team Penske utilized two different chassis: de Ferran won using the Panoz G Force/Toyota package while Castroneves came second in a Dallara/Toyota unit. "We'll approach [this race] as we always do by being prepared and staying focused. With the new rules," Cindric said, "nobody knows what's going to happen. If testing shows it's necessary to make a change, we'll do that.

Hornish is just starting to get accustomed to the Marlboro Team Penske way of conducting a race team and has been careful in his approach. The off- season has "been a great time to get to know everybody at the team. They all know more about setting up these cars than I do," he said.

"It was kind of hard when I made my first trip to Reading. The guys were nice to me," Hornish explained, "I had to learn names, nicknames - and some of these guys have two nicknames," he laughed. As for dealing with his first career teammate: "You can't help smiling when this guy's around."

Mike King of the IMS Radio Network ended the Marlboro Team Penske press conference with this little nugget: "You guys across the board have the best hair in our business," making Castroneves, Cindric and Hornish Jr. all break into guffaws.

The balance of the media announcements will take place tomorrow and will be there to inform you about all of it.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Darren Manning , Eddie Cheever , Arie Luyendyk , Gil de Ferran , Bobby Rahal , Scott Dixon , Kenny Brack , Alex Barron , Roger Yasukawa , Chip Ganassi , Sam Hornish Jr. , Ed Carpenter
Teams Williams , Team Penske , Chip Ganassi Racing