IPS: Wheels fall off Giebler's championship run

When we last checked in with Phil Giebler, the European-trained road racer stood several days away from making his first ever race appearance on an oval track. Four months later, having won that season-opening Menards Infiniti Pro Series event at...

When we last checked in with Phil Giebler, the European-trained road racer stood several days away from making his first ever race appearance on an oval track. Four months later, having won that season-opening Menards Infiniti Pro Series event at Homestead in impressive fashion, the Oxnard, CA native went into the latest round at Kansas Speedway a solid second place in the points standings.

However, the weekend came and went without Giebler setting foot in Keith Duesenberg's #2 Western Union Speed Team Dallara. Instead, Phil inexplicably watched from the sidelines while Alfred "Just Al" Unser made his series debut in that car and drove to an impressive third place finish. While the team did enter a second car #22 (with driver and sponsor "TBA"), brought a second crew to Kansas and put both drivers' names on the transporter, the #22 never left the paddock.

So what happened? Namely, the same problem which has plagued Giebler throughout his struggles in the overseas feeder formulas reared its ugly head once again. "Mainly it just comes down to lack of funding - that's really all it is. We're now trying to get things together so we can go out there, run more races and be in contention to win races. It's just frustrating to be at this point because we really had a good shot at the championship, or at least a chance to battle for it."

With the announcement of Unser's ride coming minutes after his father's much-publicized retirement from the cockpit, Giebler could do little about watching a potential race victory slip through his fingers. "Most of the team has come up to me and said they wish they had me in the car, because they had a car to win the race that weekend. We could've closed up the gap for the championship, and everyone would've been very excited to go after more race wins and points for the rest of the year."

This denouement befell during the month's layoff after Giebler's solid first appearance at Indianapolis. The Formula 3000 veteran began the Freedom 100 seventh on the 17-car grid and would run in fourth spot most of the day. "I had a good start to the race, and the first ten laps went really well. I thought I had a car to go to the front. I made a couple good passes and one on the restart, and I was up to fourth quite quickly. I was closing on third, and we had a yellow that came out and my race just kind of got jumbled up with a couple of other things going on. I lost radio contact and didn't know the race was coming to an end; that was one thing that hurt me."

The loss of radio communication created a confusing situation between the lapped vehicle of Gary Peterson and the sister car of series debutant Jay Drake, closing in on Giebler in the closing laps for fourth. USAC star Drake ultimately slipped by just before Rolando Quintanilla's turn two accident ended the race under yellow, relegating Giebler to fifth at the finish. "We had a lapped car that got in between the leader and the rest of the field that held us all up and made everybody jumbled up. I actually thought he was coming up on me, but it was actually his teammate for race position, so that was just a surprise to me; I didn't even know. I didn't have a spotter to tell me he was passing. I wasn't very defensive."

The race proved somewhat less eventful for Giebler versus just getting his ride into the qualifying line. "We changed the engine before the last practice, then we had a problem with that engine. You can never be comfortable changing everything at the last minute and hoping for the best. We lost a lot of time during that practice too. It was just one of those things; you just have to trust the engineers and trust that the Menards Infiniti engine is put together well. You can't really think about it; you just got to go out there and run your race."

All in all, Giebler came away reasonably satisfied with what he learned from his first ever superspeedway event. "There are just different things you have to do on setup and preparation, and you have to give up certain things on handling. You pretty much approach it the same way; it's just another track with a few different things. Racing's different because drafting's so important. If you get in the draft, then you can run with anybody. But if you're not, then you're going to be struggling with yourself. It's just more of a strategic approach towards a race."

With Giebler's friend Thiago Medeiros claiming his third straight victory in Kansas and stretching his points lead further, Phil now falls to fifth place with the next round in Nashville looming on July 17. Giebler knows all too well that both previous winners of the opening races - A.J. Foyt IV and Mark Taylor - went on to dominate their respective title seasons and jump into full-time IRL programs. "It's a little heartbreaking, but I can only do what's available to me. This weekend I wasn't available to race, but I feel I made a strong impact at the beginning of the season and can get on with the ovals quite well. I wan't to be with a top team next year - that's my main goal.

"I'd like to (keep going in IPS this season). I have some opportunities that might pop up for the next race, so I'll have to take that one step at a time," he notes. "But really I'm just as eager to move on up to IRL. I feel I've learned enough on the ovals to get a good basis down for what they expect. If I'm going to put this much effort into finding an IPS ride, I think I could be doing the same for IRL."

For someone who had his heart and training set on Formula 1 since childhood, absorbing all that is the American oval institution of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway proved an eye-opening experience for the new Circle City resident. With many this May already campaigning for a spot in next year's Indy 500 field for Giebler, the knowledge he gained may prove particularly valuable should he have that IRL seat come next May. "It's been pretty exciting just seeing the tradition that goes into this race. Before I wasn't aware of how important it is to all the teams and drivers. Now I understand a different aspect of the race- just the history for a lot of teams that have been coming here and the importance of testing. There are a lot of head games that go on here - for me as a driver to learn that and what to do in certain situations, like the wind and just what to prepare for. Qualifying's important, but also you must have a very good race car for the 500 miles."

But at this point Giebler could also just as easily find himself heading back across the Atlantic, having done four F3000 races for the Den Bla Avis team last year until that funding likewise dried up. "It's really going to depend on what opportunities come up. I'd love to go back to Europe and give it a really good shot, especially since Formula 2 will be coming around, and that'll be an exciting championship. That's something I'd definitely consider if it was on the table."

So will Giebler resurface in Nashville two weeks from now in a Duesenberg or other IPS car? Will he follow in the footsteps of 2003 Duesenberg driver Jeff Simmons by making his IRL debut later this season? Will he resume his European adventure instead? Stay tuned...

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Series Indy Lights
Drivers Mark Taylor , A.J. Foyt IV , Gary Peterson , Jeff Simmons , Jay Drake , Phil Giebler , Thiago Medeiros