October 24, 2000 | 9:30 A.M. EST
On Sunday and Monday, de Ferran was back at IMS. After five years, a lot has changed at the Brickyard.
There’s now a new infield road course, a new scoring tower, new garages along pit road, a new media center and, of course, new rules and cars for the Indianapolis 500.
One thing remains the same, however, de Ferran learned during his testing runs this week.
"We knew going in that the racetrack is certainly no easier than what it was before," said de Ferran, who was behind the wheel of a Dallara-Oldsmobile this week. "I mean, I always regarded this track as one of the most difficult ones that we go to. And in this car, the track continues to be very challenging and very difficult."
De Ferran and Team Penske participated in the first two days of a four-day Firestone tire test along with Indy Racing Northern Light Series drivers Buddy Lazier, the 2000 IRNLS champ; Greg Ray, the 1999 IRNLS champ; Scott Sharp the 1996 IRNLS champ; Mark Dismore; Davey Hamilton and Shigeaki Hattori.
For de Ferran, the visit to the Brickyard kicks off a busy week. On Friday, de Ferran will begin preparations for the CART FedEx Championship Series season finale at California Speedway, where the CART champion will be crowned. De Ferran goes into The 500 with a five-point lead over Adrian Fernandez in the point standings.
The visit to Indy helped de Ferran relax before jumping into the thick of the title tussle this weekend.
"I'll tell you, you certainly can't drive around here thinking about something else," de Ferran said. "So you've got to put your mind completely to driving. Yeah, it relaxes you a little bit, takes your mind away a little from the pressure situation we'll face next weekend fighting for the championship."
If de Ferran wins the CART title, he could be the second straight CART champion to compete in the Indy 500 the next season. Juan Montoya did it this year and won.
De Ferran’s return would represent team owner Roger Penske’s return to the track, too. Penske, who owns a record 10 Indianapolis 500 wins, has not decided whether to participate in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing next season, but the signs are promising.
In May, Penske was back at the speedway as a sponsor for Jason Leffler. At the time, Penske wouldn’t say whether he was planning to come back. Two months later, Penske’s other CART driver, Helio Castroneves, tested at Indianapolis in a G Force.
And now, the strongest sign yet: bringing CART title contender de Ferran to the track along with Penske Racing President Tim Cindric and four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, who serves as Penske’s driving coach and consultant.
"Obviously, we’re serious or we wouldn’t be here," said Cindric, who grew in Clermont, Ind., just a few miles west of IMS. "If the decision is made, we want to hit the road running."
De Ferran agreed.
"We're kind of taking it one step at a time, and we're here to bring our homework," said the 32-year-old de Ferran, who hails from Brazil. "If the decision is made for us to come here next year, we need to prepare ourselves well. I guess this is the beginning of that preparation to assess what the needs are to make a competitive package out here.
"So we're out here getting a feel for it, a feel for what the car needs, what the engine needs, for what I need, and go from there, I suppose."
De Ferran’s return to Indianapolis 500 competition would, most assuredly, produce a better result than his last visit. In 1995, rookie de Ferran was caught up in a scary first-lap crash that also involved Stan Fox, Eddie Cheever Jr., Lyn St. James and Carlos Guerrero. He finished the race 29th.
Ironically, Penske drivers Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi failed to qualify for the race the year de Ferran made his first start in the 500.
De Ferran doesn’t expect that to happen if Team Penske decides to return.
"This has been a wonderful thing for my career," he said. "You always hope that one day you get that big phone call. And I was delighted obviously when it (call to join Team Penske) finally came.
"Once you're inside, then you understand why the team has been so successful over the years."
De Ferran hopes to add an Indianapolis 500 win to that list of Penske successes.
"I think it would be a very nice thing for me to do. Obviously, I would like to have an Indy 500 win in my resume," de Ferran said. "And the only way you can do that is to be here and challenge for it. You know, even before they (Target-Ganassi Racing) came here, it always was a desire of mine to race here. Now that I drive for one of the best teams in the business, if I ever come back here I want to come with (Team Penske)."
Cindric said Penske will determine whether his team will particpate at Indy within the next couple of months.