SHARP FEELS RIGHT AT HOME ON TRICKY OVAL AT PHOENIX PHOENIX, March 9, 1999 -- As his Kelley Racing teammates prepare for the MCI WorldCom 200 Pep Boys Indy Racing League event March 28 at Phoenix International Raceway, Scott Sharp recalls his...
SHARP FEELS RIGHT AT HOME ON TRICKY OVAL AT PHOENIX
PHOENIX, March 9, 1999 -- As his Kelley Racing teammates prepare for the MCI WorldCom 200 Pep Boys Indy Racing League event March 28 at Phoenix International Raceway, Scott Sharp recalls his very first appearance there five years ago.
Sharp, 31, returns as the defending champ at Phoenix. He hopes to capitalize on a strong showing at the "Test in the West" at PIR in late February, where he and his Kelley teammate Mark Dismore posted the fastest laps of the two-day session. Dismore was fastest at 175.627 mph in the MCI WorldCom Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear; Sharp was right behind at 175.593 in his Delphi Automotive Systems Dallara/Aurora/Goodyear.
Phoenix carries special memories for Sharp, because it marked his first professional appearance on an oval track, as part of his first full season in Indy-style cars. Sharp, the former SCCA Trans Am champ, had become an expert road racer when he was thrust onto the tight, busy, 1-mile confines of PIR.
"Phoenix is tricky, more than any other oval," Sharps said. "My first race there, back in 1994, I felt comfortable right off the bat. It's hard to explain, but there was something about the place that felt good, it made me feel confident.
"It was tough, but I liked it. I think I qualified 12th or 13th, and we wound up finishing ninth that day, so I was obviously pretty happy with my debut.
"Ever since then, I've always looked forward to going back, because I've felt like it is my kind of track, a place where I feel that maybe I have a little bit of an edge."
Sharp was strong in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League season opener, the TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 at Walt Disney World Speedway in January, winning the PPG Pole and finishing fourth after leading 103 of 200 laps. It marked Sharp's first PPG Pole in Indy Racing League competition.
"You spend the majority of your weekend searching for that really fast lap, but when it's time to go racing, that same set of tires has to be able to last 70 laps," Sharp said. "All the cars take on very different handling characteristics after 15 laps.
"That's why everyone wants to qualify well, because it allows you to run up front and helps you stay out of trouble. It felt good to win the pole, and we were happy with it, but that is quickly forgotten when the checkered flag falls on Sunday. You're main goal is always winning the race, not just the pole."
Although he hopes to repeat his pole-winning performance at Phoenix, he cautions that PIR is always challenging. As proof, he points to his crash there during testing, when he spun and backed into the Turn 2 wall. The "black box" onboard the car recorded an impact of 100 G's, or 100 times the force of gravity. Sharp was unhurt, further proving the safety of the Pep Boys Indy Racing League chassis.
"To run a fast lap at Phoenix, you're running right on the edge, and it's very tricky," he said. "You have to run the car that way, because running it 'loose' allows you to get every fraction of speed out of it.
"How your car is handling depends a lot on how much you're on the edge there, and if you're not careful it can bite you. Just like it bit me during the test."
Sharp says the team got caught in perhaps the one characteristic that makes Phoenix most challenging: the changing grip of the track surface related to weather and temperature swings. The track temperature was 106 degrees during the afternoon session Feb. 26, and it had cooled to 51 degrees when teams rolled out the morning of Feb. 27.
"The car swapped ends on me so quickly I didn't even feel it coming," Sharp said. "We tried some things (with the setup) that we probably shouldn't have, based on the temperature change, but I guess you live and learn.
"The car took a very, very hard hit, and I just hopped right out. I think it showed the progress we've made with race cars, and the job our guys did in putting it together. The construction of the car, the padding that can absorb impact, it sure worked in that instance."
Undaunted, Sharp jumped into his backup car shortly after the crash, and ran 100 laps later that day, posting the fast time of the session.
Sometimes, it's hard for Sharp to believe that Kelley Racing was formed just over one year ago. Sharp's Phoenix win came in just their second race as a team, and he ultimately was a late-season title contender.
"Your goalposts sure do move," he said with a laugh. "At first, with a brand new team, you just want to win a race, and maybe finish in the top three in points. Then all of a sudden we were leading the points, and it looked like we had a chance to win it, and suddenly that was all we wanted.
"As you do better, you want to keep doing that well, and do even better."
Sharp insists that as the Pep Boys Indy Racing League has continued to grow, the competition has become extremely tight. The recent Phoenix test is a good illustration of that, he said.
"Gains come very, very hard in this league," Sharp said. "The timing charts (during the test) were very close, with eight or 10 cars within two-tenths of a second of each other. That's very tight.
"When you're one of those cars, you only need to gain a tenth (of a second) or two to move up several spots, but it's very hard to find that tenth.
"It makes getting though traffic very difficult, because everyone is pretty even. We saw that at Orlando. You have to have some patience, and that's hard for me sometimes because I'm not a patient person."
Sitting in the midst of a beautiful desert valley, PIR has often been called "The Desert Jewel." Sharp's eyes twinkle when he thinks of those cactus-covered hills towering over that famed black strip of asphalt, and he looks at his calendar to see how many days remain until March 28.
He can hardly wait.
MCI WORLDCOM 200 NOTEBOOK
Schedule: The MCI WorldCom 200 starts at 2 p.m. (MST) March 28. PPG Pole qualifying starts at 11:20 a.m. March 27.
Practice sessions start at 10:45 a.m. and 2:40 p.m. March 26, 8:35 a.m. March 27 and 9:15 a.m. March 28.
*** On the air: The MCI WorldCom 200 will be televised live at 4 p.m. (EST) March 28 on FOX Sports Net, the network's debut Pep Boys Indy Racing League telecast.
SpeedVision will televise PPG Pole qualifying at 2 p.m. (EST) March 27.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network will broadcast a 30-minute pre-race show at 3:30 p.m. (EST) March 28, followed by the live race broadcast at 4 p.m. A 30-minute PPG Pole qualifying show will start at 3 p.m. (EST) March 27 on the IMS Radio Network. The Phoenix-area IMS affiliate is KGME-AM Sports Radio 1360, Phoenix.
Tickets: Tickets are available for the MCI WorldCom 200 on March 28. Call (602) 252-2227 for more information. Ticket information also is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.daytonausa.com/pir/