USAC STANDOUTS ACE IRL ROOKIE TEST WITH PENNZOIL PANTHER RACING INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 9, 1998 -- Veteran car owner-chief mechanic John Barnes gave an "A" grade to all of the drivers who tested in his Pennzoil Panther Racing car Dec. 3-4...
USAC STANDOUTS ACE IRL ROOKIE TEST WITH PENNZOIL PANTHER RACING
INDIANAPOLIS, Dec. 9, 1998 -- Veteran car owner-chief mechanic John Barnes gave an "A" grade to all of the drivers who tested in his Pennzoil Panther Racing car Dec. 3-4 at Texas Motor Speedway, but one of them made a huge impression. "I was just blown away by Jay Drake," Barnes said. Drake, runner-up in the USAC midget series, USAC sprint champion Tony Elliott and Ryan Newman, who finished third in the USAC Silver Crown series at age 20, earned their tests with the Pennzoil Panther G Force/Aurora/Goodyear normally driven by veteran Scott Goodyear for these 1998 season finishes. Also making brief appearances during the rain-plagued sessions were David Donohue, son of late 1972 Indy 500 winner Mark Donohue, and Jac Haudenschild, a World of Outlaws regular. Only Drake, 29, of Val Verde, Calif., and Elliott, 37, of Kokomo, Ind., completed their Pep Boys Indy Racing League driver tests between the intermittent raindrops. Newman, from South Bend, Ind., came up 10 laps short due to the weather, but still recorded the fastest lap of 213.36 mph. Donohue and Haudenschild only drove a few familiarization circuits of the 1.5-mile, high-banked quad-oval near Fort Worth. They will be provided opportunities to take their tests later. "The Drake kid was incredible," Barnes said. "I think he is going to make a fabulous Indy-car driver." What impressed Barnes most about Drake was his ability to provide feedback after only a few laps in the car. Drake completed his test in just 55 laps as three-time Indy 500 champion Johnny Rutherford, Goodyear and IRL Director of Racing Operations Brian Barnhart observed. Drake broke the 200-mph barrier in just 24 laps and had a quick lap of 213.16 mph. "This is such a great opportunity," Drake said. "I know I could have raised the 213-mph lap if we had another session. They told me on the radio to slow down during my test, but it was hard because the car drove so well." Drake finished second to fellow Californian Jason Leffler in the final 1998 national midget standings. A rainout at the season finale in Las Vegas wiped away his chance to overcome Leffler's 11-point advantage after Drake had captured the annual Turkey Night feature at Bakersfield, Calif. Drake also won at Kansas City and scored his first USAC sprint victory at Salem (Ind.) Speedway. He also made four Silver Crown appearances, with 14th as his best finish on the clay oval at Eldora Speedway. He now has won six times in 81 USAC midget appearances. Barnes also had high praise for Elliott. "He went out first and did a great job," Barnes said, "considering he had never been in a car and was set in his ways from the dirt. He listened closely, and his attention span was great." Elliott exceeded 200 mph after 34 laps and completed his test in 64 laps. He posted a best speed of 210.7 mph. "I was amazed at how the car just stuck to the speedway going through the corners," Elliott said. "The Pennzoil car was set up great. It made the test much easier just because of the car quality." Barnhart told Newman he would be given the opportunity to complete his final 10-lap segment in either a private test or on a Pep Boys IRL race weekend. "These machines are just amazing," Newman said. "We really didn't know what to expect. The closest I have ever come to racing at these speeds was driving a Silver Crown car on a paved mile like at Phoenix or Pike's Peak. That is going about 160 mph at top end, and the car is a handful to control. "The Pennzoil Panther was so smooth throughout my entire session." All of the drivers did well under the pressure of the time restraints considering the uncertain weather conditions, Barnhart said. "It was a pretty good deal," he said. "The guys showed that their experience and background put them in the position to take the next step up to Indy cars." Barnes said the car was set up with two gear ratios. One was set for the 180-200 mph range and was "fairly easy" for the drivers to handle. Next the drivers had to run in the 205-210 range with a gear actually set for a faster speed. "It was supposed to be fairly hard," Barnes said. "It was an easy gear to run 217." Barnes first approached USAC President Johnny Capels earlier this year about providing the organization's season-best drivers with a test opportunity. Then the details were worked out during a flight to California. Barnes felt it was appropriate since Pennzoil sponsors his racing team and also is heavily involved with USAC. "I've been in this business a long time, and I've been given a lot of opportunities," Barnes said. "I thought this was something I could give back." About the test session he added, "The thing we saw, and saw in David Steele (who drove at Atlanta and Las Vegas in the team's second car), was the way these drivers adapted." The testing isn't over for the Panther team, co-owned by Barnes, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh, car dealer Gary Pedigo and television producer Terry Lingner. The team, with Goodyear and rookie Steele, will participate in this weekend's Open Test at Walt Disney World Speedway in preparation for the season-opening TransWorld Diversified Services Indy 200 on Jan. 24. "We'll run two cars at Indianapolis," Barnes said. "We have a test contract with David. He'll go to every race and test session as we build toward the year 2000."