IRNLS Returns To Texas
October 12, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
But that doesn't mean that Unser wouldn't mind a few minutes in the spotlight, perhaps by winning Sunday's Exite 500. Primarily, Unser just wants to be part of the event, which he says has the potential to be the best in the history of racing. He is still euphoric over the June race at TMS, which involved 31 lead changes among eight drivers and almost two hours of side-by-side racing.
Unser finished third in the Longhorn 500, but spent most of the race in the middle of a lead pack that ran wheel-to-wheel around the high banks at 200 mph for lap after lap. He expects a repeat performance on Sunday.
"This race is going to be as good as everybody thinks it is going to be, which is saying a lot," Unser said. "Not only do you have everybody back, but there's been a lot of testing at TMS and everybody wants to end the season on a positive note. You're going to have a great race and a championship decided. It should be a blast."
The center of attention going into the Excite 500 will be Buddy Lazier, who sits on top of the point standings.
Lazier leads second-place Scott Goodyear by 38 points, with Eddie Cheever just three points behind Goodyear in third. Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore might get a little attention of their own on Sunday as they will likely have a say in who wins the title. The two drive for Kelley Racing and have won the past two Indy races at TMS, with Dismore winning the season finale in 1999 and Sharp winning the June event in the closest race in IRNLS history.
Lazier needs to finish 13th or better to clinch the title and firm up his reputation as a cornerstone on the Indy circuit. He won the first pole in IRNLS history in January of 1996, then won the 1996 Indy 500. He's been one of just a handful of drivers that have competed regularly on the series each year, though he has yet to win a season title.
Lazier started on the pole in the exciting June TMS race and finished seventh. He says the Excite 500 won't be a typical Sunday drive as he'd like to win the title in style - with a victory. "We are going to try to win," Lazier says. "I have not finished on the podium in previous races here. That fact, added with the battle for the season championship, presents some pressure for our team."
The race for rookie of the year honors is even more tightly contested than the championship battle. Airton Dare leads Jeret Schroeder by just two points. Dare, a 22-year-old from Brazil, would seem to have the advantage. Dare not only finished 10th in the June TMS race, but he has tested well at the track. He'll also be running with a TeamXtreme teammate, Jacques Lazier.
Dare will have a large fan base at the season finale as drives for TeamXtreme Racing, which is based not far from TMS in the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, Texas. "I am so glad to be in Texas, my team and I are ready for the big shoot-out in front of our hometown crowd," Dare says.
The IRNLS championship probably won't be the only title decided at TMS this weekend, as the Texas facility holds a unique tripleheader of racing. The Pennzoil World of Outlaws will race at the TMS Dirt Track on Thursday and Saturday nights, while the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will hold its next-to-the-last race of the season on Friday night on the TMS superspeedway. Greg Biffle needs only to finish 27th or better to clinch his first Craftsman title.
And title-clinching celebrations won't be the only type of press conferences that will be held. Several teams are expected to make announcements regarding the 2001 season, with most of them focusing on new sponsorship deals.
In addition, the race will have a Halloween atmosphere.
Unser will be driving a car carrying Dracula's image as part of a promotion with Universal and die-cast car maker Action Performance Companies. Billy Boat will be driving a pumpkin orange car, painted with ghosts and black cats and carrying spooky sentiments such as "Boo" and "Happy Halloween."
Track officials are encouraging children to show up to Saturday's qualifying session in costume, with plans to open up the garage area for a combination trick-or-treat and autograph session. A monster truck will also put on a demonstration.
Lazier is hoping that he gets the biggest treat of all - the Indy Racing Northern Light Series title and the million-dollar bonus that goes with it.
"There's no doubt that this race should be exciting, and because of the track, almost anything can happen," Lazier says. "Texas Motor Speedway is an awesome facility. It is one of the most challenging high-banked ovals we race on. It produces two and three-wide racing, which is very hair-raising for the drivers."