IRL: TV, Radio, Teams prep for Indy

Preparations for the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race entail more than getting cars, teams and drivers together for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The television crew from IMS Productions, which has been housed across from the ...

Preparations for the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race entail more than getting cars, teams and drivers together for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The television crew from IMS Productions, which has been housed across from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 1992, is getting ready, too.

In fact, they prepare for the next Indy 500 the moment the checkered flags fly for the last one, even as this group does specific work for the Indy Racing League, Menards Infiniti Pro Series, American Speed Association (ASA) and USAC, in addition to other commercial outside clients.

The small area IMS Production consumes in the same storefront area that houses the Indy Racing League holds treasures from the past, present and to the future. The library of what we might call "film", "tape", or "disks" is what the folks who inhabit this space deign as "elements", has plenty. But not everything. There are still lots of tape in the Speedway Museum's basement that need to be reviewed and cataloged, a chore that the folks working here just live to do.

"We started in 1987 with one camera," noted Buddy McAtee, vice president and executive producer. By 2005, IMS Production will have total digital production capabilities, he advised. Facilities at the West 16th Street offices include two large broadcast studios, state-of-the-art AVID offline and digital online production and editing facilities, full audio post- production studios.

On the road IMS Productions has two fully-digital remote production trucks for the live broadcasts at all USA races and they work - not only with ABC and its ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Classic partners, but with NBC Sports, FOX Sports, Speed TV and the Indiana Pacers. No wonder post-production work is a 7/24 job here!

Some of the company's outside corporate clients include Firestone, Kroger, Simon Properties and the NCAA. McAtee is rightfully proud of the group and its productions.

One of the projects he oversees is the production of DVDs celebrating different decades of Indy 500 racing. The third and newest DVD is in the production process and will be available for pre-order on the 15th of April.

"A Decade for the Ages" celebrates races in the 1980s and focuses on the legends of the sport and the dynamic duels between such drivers as Gordy Johncock and Rick Mears in 1982 and Al Unser Jr. vs. Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989. Based on the preview this will be a winner, just as DVDs from the 1960s and 1970s have been.

Next door to IMS Productions is the Indy Racing League corporate office, which holds all 52 fulltime IRL employees. This is the first time the IRL has had its entire staff under one roof: prior to the end of last year, they were spread out, working in this space, in the IMS Productions offices and at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Everyone from Indy Racing League and Menards Infiniti Pro Series Racing Operations, Marketing, Sales, Technical and Medical are housed in one area, replete with posters, stand-ups of drivers and plenty of racing memorabilia, just what you'd expect.

A team that has had to increase its shop space over the past few years, Pennzoil Panther Racing currently has 40,000 square feet of workshop swept area south of the Indianapolis International Airport. Running a two-car IndyCar Series squad and a USAC Silver Crown campaign means the group needs a large workshop.

Banners hanging from the ceilings celebrate championships, pole positions, victories and pit stop excellence as mechanics work to prepare cars for the upcoming closed test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 3rd and for the Twin Ring Motegi round of the 16-race campaign on April 18th.

Panther is the first IRL team to hire a fulltime trainer for its drivers and crew. Tim Drudge, part of the St. Vincent's Sports Performance Center here in town has been working with the Panther crew for about a year, fulltime since the end of last season. "I work with the pit crew and drivers. We're dealing with muscular endurance for drivers and muscular power for the crew," he said.

Drudge varies the crews' regimen, using a school facility across the highway in his training exercises for all. "We work on strength Monday, Wednesday and Friday and do radio work on Tuesdays and Thursdays." He's also trying to substitute fresh alternatives in the haulers for the standard fare of M&Ms, Doritos and the like, but recognizes that, for the engineering staff sugar fixes may actually be necessary.

Co-owner John Barnes said the group has been working on its Indy 500 program "since we left last year. We have incredible depth to this team right now" with drivers Tomas Scheckter and Mark Taylor, the latter sponsored by Menards and Johns Manville in his rookie season.

Has it been a smooth transition for Pennzoil Panther from the three years working with Sam Hornish Jr., during which time the team won consecutive IndyCar Series titles in 2001-2? "We had a lot of success with Sam," Barnes acknowledged, "but Tomas has brought us to another level. He's added a lot, helping our engine program with his knowledge of launch and traction control.

"When Sam left I knew the one guy we wanted," and that was Scheckter, the South African son of Formula One champion Jody Scheckter. "He was our biggest threat," Barnes said. "We get a lot of technical feedback from Tomas."

The first two races of 2004 haven't exactly gone Tomas' way. At Homestead- Miami Speedway, Scheckter bided his time, not trying to lead every lap he raced, as he might have in the past. Rather, he waited for opportunities. From third on the grid he finished fifth. Last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway, Scheckter was taken out of the race by Dario Franchitti when running third.

Taylor lasted only 39 laps before an accident at Homestead took him out. In Phoenix he finished 12th, two laps behind winner Tony Kanaan, learning as he went.

"It's been disappointing because of all our hard work and because we've had a strong car" for both races Scheckter said. "But that's the way it is in racing. We'll pick up the pieces; good teams can do that." Scheckter has less urgency to lead every lap in his third year of IRL competition. "I'm a lot calmer in the car; my father advised me that it's not important to lead every lap, just the last one."

Taylor has found it a big change to jump from the Menards Infiniti Pro Series - where he won the 2003 title - to the vastly more powerful Indy cars. "The lack of testing is making it harder for a rookie and the first two races haven't gone as we'd hoped for," the Briton explained. "I feel like I need a lot of time in the car at Indy; I feel I can learn a lot from Tomas there," thanks to his two years experience running up front.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is little Access Motorsports on the north side of Indianapolis, the team co-owned by driver Greg Ray, crew chief Jamie Nanny and Ted Bitting, who also serves as team manager and fueler for the tight crew. This group just added the services of Mike Colliver, formerly race engineer for Al Unser Jr. at Kelley Racing to do the same job for Ray.

They occupy the lean shops formerly leased by Blair Racing, who fielded Alex Barron in 2002 in the IndyCar Series and, before that by John Della Penna's Champ Car team. The environment is friendly, cheerful and dedicated here.

"This time last year," Ray recalled, "we had nothing. No car, no engine contract, no shop, no trucks. I feel we've accomplished a lot" since then. Ray, the 1999 IndyCar Series champion has been known for his speed around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - he' sat on the front row four times, held pole position once - is trying to balance his two jobs as driver and owner.

"As a driver, I just want to go fast but wearing my owner's hat I have to make smart, conservative decisions from A to Z," he said. "Conservative and racing are not part of the same vernacular." Without testing at Homestead and doing minimal work in Phoenix during the second Indy Racing League open test, Greg and his team knew they were behind the eight-ball.

At Homestead in February, Ray started 15th and finished 14th. "We had a very good race car but we were still learning. I'm pleased we had a lack of mechanical problems." In Phoenix he finished 10th from 11th starting spot.

"My ideology has changed for Indy. I should have won that race two or three times but I learned a lot from this track. I think our team can win at Indy; I think we can take our program to where the big teams are. We have to get it right and in doing, take risks. Nobody has more passion, more dedication than we do," Ray declared.

Nanny has been with Ray since the team opened its doors and thinks that, while "big teams are very resourceful, we have quality where sometimes they have quantity" on their side. There are still some things left in the #13 Renovac Panoz G Force/Honda that can be developed, he believes. "I've found that everything jells here. The chemistry is great."

In the past, Access Motorsports has been "on a pretty steep learning curve. We're further down the road with sponsors and we're developing chemistry and heart," according to Bitting. The nucleus of the team came from Treadway Racing and, he says, "we're 30% further down the road than we were at the end of the 2003 season."

Colliver joined this group the week before Phoenix after working with Unser Jr. at Kelley Racing. He was hoping that group might be able to fund a full season for perennial "Most Popular Driver" Sarah Fisher but acknowledges that looks like a one-race deal for Indy at this time. He couldn't afford to go it all alone and wait.

"Trial by fire is a pretty good description" of his short time with Access Motorsports. He's still learning the nuances of the Panoz G Force/Honda package after working with Dallara and Toyota in the recent past. "I think we made gains from the start of the [race] weekend to the end. We'll be a force at Twin Ring Motegi," he declared. "Jamie and I are on the same page; he's one of the best crew chiefs in the business."

"We are the 'poster child' for the Indy Racing League," Greg Ray believes. "We are the smallest, newest, tiniest team out there. Thousands dream of it but they're not racing because they're not taking that risk, but we are."

Access Motorsports has a full schedule ahead of it before practice opens May 9th for the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, just like every team in the Indy Racing League. This afternoon they were planning to begin stripping the car for the closed test April 3rd when they test the new 3- liter engine, then have to get their entire traveling wares together for the long trip to Japan on April 6th, using the current 3.5-liter formula.

Once back in the USA after that race, they've got about a week to turn the car around to 3-liter specs before a 2-day open test at the Brickyard the end of April. It's a hectic situation, but this cool crew looks ready to handle the pressure.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Mark Taylor , Sarah Fisher , Greg Ray , Al Unser Jr. , Tony Kanaan , Alex Barron , Rick Mears , Emerson Fittipaldi , Jody Scheckter , John Barnes , Sam Hornish Jr.
Teams Panther Racing