INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, March 11, 2004 -- Like a lot of teenagers growing up in California, Gary Peterson loved to head into the desert and race motorcycles and four-wheelers. The speed and competition of racing captivated him. That love for ...
INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, March 11, 2004 -- Like a lot of teenagers growing up in California, Gary Peterson loved to head into the desert and race motorcycles and four-wheelers. The speed and competition of racing captivated him.
That love for racing led to a dream of someday running in the Indianapolis 500. Thirty years later, that dream lives on for Peterson. He returns for his third, and what he says is his final, year behind the wheel in the Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro SeriesTM. The driver-owner of the No. 27 AFS Racing Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone plans to step out of the cockpit after this season and focus on developing young drivers in pursuit of competing in the Indy 500.
"My goal, my dream was to run the Indianapolis 500," said Peterson, 52. "But just with what it takes to do it -- finances, the time -- it isn't going to happen with me. So I think the only way I'd be able to live my dream is as an owner."
Peterson credits long-time friend Louie Unser, the brother and chief mechanic of Indy 500 drivers Jerry and Al Unser with inspiring his racing career. Louie Unser died March 2.
"Louie started me in this racing career I have," Peterson said. "Louie wasn't able to drive it (the Indy 500), but he lived his dream in bringing up his brothers and the other people he's been involved with. I think I will enjoy stepping out, getting a young driver, working with him, and bringing him up through the ranks."
Peterson made his own way up the ranks, with successes in both racing and the business world. In the car, Peterson made more than 100 off-road starts in the 1970s and '80s including four consecutive top-five finishes in the Mint 400 in Las Vegas. With the encouragement of Unser, Peterson left the dirt tracks for the pavement in the late '80s racing in the SCCA Formula Continental, SCCA Formula Atlantic and Super Vee series.
In the meantime, he started his own business, Automatic Fire Sprinklers Inc.
"I had a sponsorship, but it wasn't enough." Peterson said. "So I actually started my own business to go racing."
Over the past 20 years, Automatic Fire Sprinklers has grown into one of the largest fire protection contractors in the western United States. The firm, with 350 employees, specializes in providing fire protection for multi-family projects, including apartments, hotels and retail and commercial projects. The company designed and installed the system used at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"What always happens in business, you run out of time," Peterson said. "You have the money, but you don't have the time to do what you love."
The success of his business limited Peterson to racing partial schedules in eight seasons in the Toyota Atlantic series.
Peterson moved to the Indy Racing League as an owner-driver in 2002 when the Menards Infiniti Pro Series was formed. Running just one car during that inaugural season, Peterson raced to top-10 finishes in all six of his starts.
He founded AFS Racing and added a second car for the 12-race season in 2003.
Peterson made 10 starts behind the wheel, recording five top-10 finishes. G.J. Mennen drove the second AFS Racing entry, recording six top-10 finishes in seven starts.
"I really enjoy running with the young drivers in this series," Peterson, 52, said of the Menards Infiniti Pro Series which includes 22-year-old Arie Luyendyk Jr., 21-year-old Thiago Medeiros and 24-year-old Phil Giebler among others. "I would step out if I wasn't competitive. Other than the accidents I've been involved with, which are out of my control, we run right up at the top with them."
The Menards Infiniti Pro Series also allowed Peterson to get one step closer to his goal of racing in the Indianapolis 500. The series held the inaugural Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2003. Peterson started 18th in his first stint at the famed 2½-mile oval and had moved up to 14th before an accident on Lap 15 ended his afternoon.
"As with most drivers, my father was a key influence on my becoming a race driver," Peterson said. "We used to watch the Indy 500 together. So seeing and hearing 'Gary Peterson No. 27 on the track', was something I just can't describe. Just to start a race at the Speedway is such a privilege."
Peterson makes his 2004 debut at the Phoenix 100 on March 20 when he will be behind the wheel of his No. 27 car. He is still working on driver and sponsorship deals for his second car. The season continues with Peterson's second run in Indianapolis on May 22 and winds to its conclusion nine races later at Texas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16.
After that, Peterson will step out of the cockpit following 30 years of racing and focus his attention on developing young drivers. Drivers who he hopes might even one day win the Indianapolis 500.
The 2004 IRL IndyCar Series season continues with the Copper World Indy 200 at 4 p.m. (EST) on March 21 at Phoenix International Raceway. The race will be broadcast live on ABC and the IMS Radio Network. The Menards Infiniti Pro Series Phoenix 100 will take place at 2:45 p.m. on March 20. The race will be broadcast by ESPN2 on a tape-delayed basis on March 25.