CART IRL Go Head To Head
May 12, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
After completing a CART race Saturday in Japan, series champion Juan Montoya and teammate Jimmy Vasser will fly to Indianapolis to begin preparations for the 500 on May 28. They have accounted for the first and last of owner Chip Ganassi's unprecedented four straight CART titles.
"We're excited about our current drivers," said Brian Barnhart, the IRL's director of racing operations. "The Greg Rays and the Scott Sharps and the Scott Goodyears and the Jeff Wards of the world are extremely talented, and we certainly welcome Chip Ganassi Racing as well as Derrick Walker."
Walker is the only other CART owner who will field a car, although his will be driven by 19-year-old IRL regular Sarah Fisher.
In addition to the CART crossovers, three former champions -- Al Unser Jr., Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever -- are in the field. But Kenny Brack, who left the IRL for CART, will not defend his title.
So, with practice set to start Saturday, it's already beginning to look a lot more like the Indy 500 of old. Other things won't change, either. The race pays a record purse of $9 million, and the usual 400,000 will be in attendance for the race.
"I've been doing things on other Sundays for four years now, and it'll be nice," said Vasser, who qualified third Friday behind Montoya for the Firestone Firehawk 500 in Montegi, Japan. "Our primary goal is to win the CART championship, and now our second-biggest goal is to win this race."
He nearly did that before the open-wheel split of 1996 gave birth to the IRL and ended CART's participation in the event. Vasser finished fourth in 1994, and crashed while leading in 1995.
"It is the biggest race going," Vasser said. "There's no doubt about that."
The biggest name coming back to Indianapolis, however, is Unser, a two-time Indy 500 and CART champion now in the IRL with Galles Racing, the same team for whom he won the race in 1992.
Last month, in the Vegas Indy 300, Unser got his first IRL victory. That ended a five-year drought.
"We've got great momentum," Unser said. "We don't think we can win in the IRL; we know we can win. There's a big difference.
Unser won the last time he raced at the Brickyard, taking the 500 in 1994 for Roger Penske.
Unser and then-teammate Emerson Fittipaldi did not qualify in 1995.
Penske, who changed his mind about entering his own cars, instead recently agreed to a sponsorship deal with Treadway Racing for rookie driver Jason Leffler.
Besides Montoya, Leffler and Fisher, other rookies expected to compete for starting spots are Airton Dare, Doug Didero, Dan Drinan, Memo Gidley, Andy Hillenburg, Sam Hornish Jr., Ronnie Johncox, Guy Smith and Jaques Lazier _ Buddy's younger brother.
Other rookies who passed a driving test last month but do not have cars include Casey Mears, nephew of four-time winner Rick Mears; Ross Cheever, Eddie's younger brother; and Shigeaki Hattori of Japan.
The 33 starters will be determined in qualifications May 20-21.