IRL: Wheldon and Rice's take on the 2005 season

The past two Indianapolis 500 race champions have different perspectives on their 2005 seasons as the 17-race IndyCar Series campaign comes to a close with next Sunday's Toyota Indy 400 on the 2-mile California Speedway. Dan Wheldon has just ...

The past two Indianapolis 500 race champions have different perspectives on their 2005 seasons as the 17-race IndyCar Series campaign comes to a close with next Sunday's Toyota Indy 400 on the 2-mile California Speedway.

Dan Wheldon has just capped a record-breaking 2005 year, winning Indy as one of six victories and earning the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series championship. He is only the 25th driver to win Indy and a championship in the same year and the first in the IRL's 10-year history.

Wheldon is in his third season driving for the four-man Andretti Green Racing juggernaut alongside Tony Kanaan (2004 IRL champ), Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. "As a whole this season has been particularly enjoyable," he understated.

Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy 500 titleholder has had a macabre season at best, experiencing mechanical breakdowns that have his Rahal Letterman Racing team baffled. "There's some stuff that's happened on the car that we've never seen before," Rice related. "It's been unbelievable."

The duo has been performing Firestone tire tests at Indy today - and will continue tomorrow - with 2001-2 Indy 500 victor Helio Castroneves. Both Wheldon and Rice are thrilled to be back at the scene of their most spectacular triumphs and getting some added seat time in their race cars prior to next week's 200-lap enduro.

"It's large coming back here to drive as a champion although I was at the Speedway as a spectator for the Formula One race [in June]. This is the best track in the world, bar none and, as the season is winding down, there's not much chance to get into the car so I like that," Wheldon said.

"It felt good to be back at the Speedway," Rice added. "When you're flying in and you see the track it's pretty awesome," the Arizona native revealed. "It's really cool to be testing here with Dan and Helio. There's a lot of knowledge at this test today."

Rice, who finished third in the title chase last season currently lies 15th and has to be looking forward to 2006 and beyond. "We just need to work together on the off-season to get it all together. It's not like the team isn't trying and a lot of the problems have been out of our control."

To some extent, the lack of in-season testing might have added to his difficulties and being at Indy today and tomorrow can help.

"Just getting everything situated with Firestone right now as they try a bunch of different combinations is good for us. We're seeing what we need to do to make the car and tire as durable and compatible to everything we're going to be doing next season," Rice continued.

With colder weather coming in on Friday, Rice, Wheldon and Castroneves expect a late start and early finish. "There's always stuff to be learned," Rice said.

A full complement of teams will make [what could be] a final trek west to California Speedway next week for the season finale. Both Rice and Wheldon are disappointed the big oval owned by International Speedway Corp. won't be on the schedule next season.

"I anticipate a really good race because, even though the championship is decided in my favor, second, third and fourth places are still up for grabs," Wheldon reminded. "That's the kind of track that encourages great racing. It's so wide and you'll see a lot of people racing very aggressively. I prefer Fontana as a season closer to Texas because I enjoy that kind of superspeedway," he said.

"It's kind of strange to have everything gone from the west coast but Sonoma next year," Rice piped in. "That's bad for Honda, Toyota, for our sponsors Argent Mortgage and Pioneer. It's bad for a lot of sponsors from this area of the world. I really enjoy the track because it's a fun place to be at," he said. "I look forward to that two-day show."

Both Indy champions agree you need a dancing partner to move through the pack at California Speedway. "I love the place," Wheldon crowed. "It's one of the fastest tracks we go to and people love to see fast cars running together. You've got to have good handling" to succeed at Fontana, according to the new IRL champ. "The setup window is a lot wider too."

Rice isn't so sure about that contention of a wider setup window. The two drivers, although they both use Honda engines have different chassis: Rice uses the Panoz while Wheldon rides with Dallara. "I don't know that the setup window is wider but I do think the width of the track and the close competition, together with the lack of banking makes it different.

"The track doesn't get run on as much and, while it's not too slippery it doesn't have a lot of grip. If you've got your car set up really well, you can break away like Adrian [Fernandez, last year's CA Speedway winner] did last year. But it's definitely pack racing and you've got to have good handling."

If he's back with Andretti Green Racing in 2006 - and the contract remains unsigned at this point in time - Wheldon will be using the #1 plate, disregarding the difficulties Scott Dixon had in 2004 after assuming the number as champion. "I'm as superstitious as the best of 'em and I do some crazy things before I get into a car," Wheldon explained, "but in England a champion always uses the #1. Not to do it takes the value of it away."

He expects AGR to be strong again next year: "The results say we have been very, very strong, but with teams like Penske, Ganassi, Rahal and Panther around that could change. Our goal is to stay winning and eventually, we know we will not be able to win so many races. We never give up and that's due to the beauty of our relationships.

"We push each other hard," Wheldon confirmed. "We never give an inch. For instance, at the open test at Phoenix International Raceway last winter, I set a fast time and then Dario, Tony and Bryan all went out to better it and did. We always work on improvement and, as competitive as we've been, the friendships between us make it all work."

It was AGR co-owner Kim Green who had the faith in Wheldon to bring him to the team in 2003 and who gave him the opportunity to work with the stellar driver and engineering lineup he'd put together with Kevin Savoree and Michael Andretti.

"I think this championship means a great deal to Kim," Wheldon confided. "I came in relatively inexperienced with just a couple of races for Panther under my belt. I soaked info from my teammates and it's great to repay Kim's faith in me with this championship."

Equally, Wheldon's relationship with engineer Eddie Jones - who had worked with Andretti prior to his retirement - has enabled the young Briton to ascend to the top. "We're back at most of these tracks for the third time together and it's about confidence. When we're on the setup pad we can go to another setup and get with it pretty quickly," he confided.

IndyCar Series competition has always been about maximizing points in an arena where wheel-to-wheel dicing is commonplace and the respect between competitors has been a keystone.

"When things are going your way it's all going your way," said Rice with the wisdom of one who's been there and done that. "When it's not, it's not."

Wheldon is hoping he doesn't end up with those kernels of insight revealed by his competitor and can keep bounding from strength to strength. Rice, ever the laidback dude, has the confidence his team and he can bounce back from adversity to reach Victory Lane once again.

For both of these champions, then, it's been a Dickensian year: the best of times; the worst of times.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Helio Castroneves , Michael Andretti , Dario Franchitti , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Dan Wheldon , Buddy Rice , Kim Green