ROOKIE SHOWS NERVES OF STEELE IN PANTHER DEBUT AT TEXAS FORT WORTH, Texas, Sept. 18, 1998 -- Gary Pedigo and Randy Fishman gazed intently at their pit scoring monitor. It was the first practice period Friday morning for the Pep Boys Indy...
ROOKIE SHOWS NERVES OF STEELE IN PANTHER DEBUT AT TEXAS
FORT WORTH, Texas, Sept. 18, 1998 -- Gary Pedigo and Randy Fishman gazed intently at their pit scoring monitor. It was the first practice period Friday morning for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League Lone Star 500 on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
First it read, "Dave Steele, 198 mph." Soon it read 205. A couple laps later, the speed was 214. When the session ended, the reading was 221.666 mph.
That was faster than the speeds recorded by two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk or 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Lazier. He was 14th quickest.
"He's good," said Pedigo, one of five owners of Panther Racing, which fields the Pennzoil G Force/Aurora/Goodyear for Pep Boys Indy Racing League title challenger Scott Goodyear.
Joint team owners Pedigo, John Barnes, Terry Lingner, Fishman and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh were contractually obligated by sponsor Pennzoil to run a second car and driver at one race this season. They chose Texas as the venue because the oil firm is based in the state.
"They're the biggest supporter of grassroots racing in America," said team manager Barnes. Three weeks ago at Atlanta, the team announced Steele as its second driver. Steele, a 24-year-old Florida sprint car star, also drives in USAC. Wally Dallenbach Jr. had agreed to take the ride earlier this year, but he subsequently landed a full-time ride in NASCAR Winston Cup. Steele's Indy-style experience consisted of a practice crash at Las Vegas in 1996 and a single race at Phoenix in March.
Choosing a driver, of course, is the major news story. What the average fan doesn't witness is what is involved in preparing a second team car for a race.
"Testing and all, it costs about $125,000," Barnes said.
While searching for a driver, the team purchased a new G Force car for Goodyear (he trails Pep Boys IRL points leader Kenny Brack by 54 points in fourth place). It was prepared for Goodyear, and his primary car became the one for Steele.
Then it was necessary to hire someone to assemble the second car's crew.
"I was very fortunate to have friend Mark Weida to run the car for me," Barnes said. "We've been friends for 100 years, and he's won many championships. He ran teams in Indy Lights."
Barnes allowed Weida to select his own assistants, emphasizing that racing is a people business and it is important that the head man surround himself with people with whom he feels comfortable. Weida signed on mechanics from California, Utah and Ohio, and a couple from the defunct Scandia team.
Team Scandia also provided the pit equipment and transporter.
Barnes assured that parts will be available from G Force and the team has sufficient engines if Steele encounters any mechanical problems in Saturday's practice.
Steele's car already had the seat molded and pedals adjusted for Dallenbach, so redoing those for the smaller Steele were first on the ag enda when he was signed. Then he and the car came to Texas for a tire-testing session last week.
"David's an incredible talent," Barnes said.
Drivers with ability to win are difficult to find, Barnes added.
Barnes particularly respects the advice of two auto racing legends, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. and Cary Agajanian, son of the legendary car owner J.C. Agajanian and an attorney involved in the sport most of his life. He sought out both during the driver selection process.
"Al pushed Johnny Unser (Big Al's nephew)," Barnes said. "Cary introduced me to David. I had never really looked at him before. I spent a couple days watching film and said, 'Where has this guy been?'''
The key to the success of the project has been Goodyear's reaction, Barnes noted. Goodyear has done a tremendous job tutoring Steele, Barnes said.
"He's reached into his bag of tricks and laid them on the table for him," Barnes said.
In the second practice session under a boiling Texas sun, Steele put some of those tricks to work and pushed his top speed to 223.279 mph, fastest of six Pep Boys Indy Racing League rookies and 10th overall. That also was faster than Pep Boys Indy Racing League points leader Kenny Brack, driving the A.J. Foyt Power Team Racing Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear, who clocked only a top speed of 222.708.
Weida, afterward busily preparing the car for qualifying, said the 200 miles Steele ran last week in testing were very helpful, especially when he followed his teammate around in his groove. This immediately jumped his speed to 218 mph.
"It helped a ton," said Weida, who campaigned four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears' son Clint in Indy Lights this summer.
The car is the one Goodyear led the most laps (93) with at Atlanta.
"He wants to go fast, run up front," Weida said. Then pointing to the other side of the car in his garage stall, Weida said, "Look at him now talking to Goodyear."
Qualifying began late in the heated afternoon. Steele was the 19th car to take a speed, and his 222.049 mph was good enough for eighth at the time. He was pushed back three spots to 11th before the trials reached their termination, but still it was an impressive run for his debut on a high-speed super oval.
Barnes was elated when asked if he was satisfied with the rookie's showing.
"Are you kidding? Ha, ha, ha, ha," he said.
Down at the inspection area in the north end of the pits, Steele accepted congratulations from well-wishers and saying he was used to driving at 120 mph instead of 220.
"I think this says a lot for a team being with a guy coming in with very little experience," he said.
"My feedback is not very good. I'm the weakest link because of that. It's a lot of fun, because even though I'm not able to tell them much, they can make changes to make me more comfortable.
"It's a great opportunity for me to see what I can do. We'll see Sunday. Right now it's a one-race deal. Hopefully, it will lead to something more stable."
Like putting him in a racing stable for the full 1999 season.