USAC STARS SET TO CONVERT DREAMS INTO REALITY THROUGH IRL TEST INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 4, 1998 -- Young Ryan Newman gazed down reverently at the yard of bricks stretching across the start-finish line last week at the Indianapolis Motor...
USAC STARS SET TO CONVERT DREAMS INTO REALITY THROUGH IRL TEST
INDIANAPOLIS, Nov. 4, 1998 -- Young Ryan Newman gazed down reverently at the yard of bricks stretching across the start-finish line last week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as if he was viewing the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Four other USAC open-wheel driving stars -- Jason Leffler, Tony Elliott, Ricky Shelton and Jay Drake -- also stood in awe on the main stretch at Indy and talked about the dreams they have of someday driving in the Indianapolis 500 on this very track.
It was a late October day, and the sun had obligingly peeped through the passing rain clouds to provide the light the photographer required to snap his pictures. The yellow Pennzoil G Force/Aurora/Goodyear driven by Scott Goodyear straddled the row of bricks, and four of the drivers soon donned Pennzoil uniforms and posed around the car.
On Dec. 3-4, three of those drivers will get a chance to drive the car during a special test session on the 1.5-mile quad-oval at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. And if successful, they will join Leffler as the newest USAC-trained Indy hopefuls, moving a step closer to a ride in the Pep Boys Indy Racing League and an opportunity to race in the 500.
The Pep Boys IRL, living up to founder Tony George's promise, is providing USAC's best an avenue to the big leagues through special testing sessions such as the one in early December at Texas. It's then up to a driver to find an owner interested in fielding a rookie.
Pennzoil is providing this year's champions in the three top USAC divisions - Silver Crown, sprint and midget - with an IRL rookie test in the Pennzoil Panther car. If the champion already has passed the test, the next-highest finisher without an IRL license will earn the test.
Leffler, last year's USAC national midget champion and this year's Silver Crown champ, took his test this summer. Elliott locked up one of the testing positions in the Pennzoil car by winning the sprint car title. Newman also earned his spot by placing third behind two IRL license holders in the Silver Crown series. Drake and Shelton will battle for the third available spot during late November midget races at Phoenix, Bakersfield, Calif., and Las Vegas.
The quintet's ages range from 20 to 37. Newman and Elliott hail from Indiana, while the other three are Californians who followed the path of Jeff Gordon to central Indiana so they would be closer to the mecca of motorsports.
"I've heard of a guy who spent $50,000 to be able to get the test we're going to be offered through Pennzoil and Panther Racing," said Drake, 29, of Val Verde, Calif. "So really in my eyes, I consider it a $50,000 prize.
"It worked out great for Brian Tyler (he drove in the IRL for Team Pelfrey in 1998) last year. He's in a ride and doing well. It's a tremendous opportunity. If things can come of it as it did for Brian Tyler and some of those guys, then it goes way beyond the $50,000 price tag that you put on it immediately. It can go way beyond that into the millions."
Drake began driving quarter-midgets when he was 8. His father, Mike, also drove then, so it wasn't until the senior Drake retired that son Jay received the help he needed to become serious in the sport. Jay Drake still can beat out Leffler, current midget points leader, for the title in the trio of Western appearances.
Leffler is out front with 867 points, with Drake second with 857 and Shelton third with 789.
Shelton and Newman both are only 20. Shelton came to the Midwest for the first time this year, following on the heels of Leffler and Drake.
"It means a lot to try to be eligible for this deal to be able to go and do the test in Texas," Shelton said. "It'll be a great stepping stone for something better, hopefully."
Shelton began racing when he was 6 and already knew that was what he wanted to do in life. His grandparents built engines and got him started in the sport. Today, he looks up to drivers like Jack Hewitt, who finally qualified for the 500 last May at age 46.
"He's given us all a lot of hope that maybe we'll be here one day," Shelton said.
Leffler, 23, of Long Beach, Calif., said there is so much more racing in the Indiana area that he knew he had to come to the Midwest if he was to improve.
"I knew this (Indianapolis) was the capital of racing and wanted to be here," he said. "It's where to get recognized."
Leffler, who snatched the Silver Crown title away from Tyler in the final race of the season, took his IRL test at Texas in early June in a car fielded by Treadway Racing for two-time Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk. Leffler since has put another 2,000 miles under his belt in an IRL car, including 800 while testing for Firestone at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He signed with Treadway as a test driver in early July and is waiting to learn whether he might get a 1999 ride with the team.
"I'm really looking forward to running in the IRL," he said. "If it doesn't work out (with Treadway), I'll look somewhere else."
Leffler said he pushed his father, Charles, to get him a car so he could start racing at age 12.
Elliott, 37, grew up in Kokomo, Ind. He began racing stock cars when he was 15 and has dreamed about reaching the Indy 500 ever since.
"I've raced since I was a little kid and always came and watched the 500," he said. "It's just something as a driver I've always wanted to do. This thing came up with the Panther team and Pennzoil giving me the opportunity to do this. Hopefully, it will fulfill my dreams, and I'll be there next year.
"When Tony George did his own deal, they talked about bringing us American guys in and trying to have a good series. It has done a great job for a bunch of the guys so far, and hopefully it can keep doing this. A lot of people knew us when they couldn't pronounce the names of the other guys. It just makes for bigger and better things down the road."
Elliott said his only goal at the test is to fulfill the team's wishes. He said he doesn't intend to try to go fast and definitely wants to keep the car off the wall.
"I want to have fun," he said.
Newman, who lives in South Bend, Ind., was driving a midget race car before he could get a driver's license. Press releases began reaching the media by the time he was 17, and a press kit soon followed. He backed up the hype by being named national midget racing rookie of the year in 1995, Silver Crown rookie of the year in 1996 and winning his first three midget events in 1997.
"Mostly, you get a taste what the IRL is like," Newman said of the impending test. "I've never been to an IRL race. I think it is a good deal by Panther and USAC to take us to the next step. It makes it easier for a driver to get to the next step."
Newman's father, Greg, put his son in a quarter-midget when he was 4 1/2. When his father was young, he and Ryan's grandfather built a micro-midget. Greg Newman tested it in a parking lot and hit a pole. Grandma Newman put her foot down about Greg racing.
"My dad said his first baby was going to be a racer," Ryan Newman said.
It's a family operation for the Newmans. His father, mother, Diane, and sister, Jamie, along with uncles and cousins, attend his races and work on the pit crew.
At the test, Newman's goal is to be smooth and be fast.
For racing heroes, Ryan looks up to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
"I like Earnhardt because he the true 'Intimidator,'" he said. "He could psyche out anybody."
These five drivers may be the IRL stars of the future. Keep an eye on them.