Excitement Grows With Schedule

For most people, if their workload increased almost 50 percent in one year they’d be pretty unhappy.

That’s not the case for Indy Racing Northern Light Series drivers. Anything is an improvement over the nine-race 2000 season that featured inactive periods of six to seven weeks on a couple of occasions.

Greg Ray and Scott Sharp, though, aren’t waiting for the season-opening green flag to fall on March 18. They’ve already been busy breaking in new tracks in Chicago and Miami, two key expansion areas for the IRNLS next season.

While there, the two veterans caught a glimpse of what next season’s 13-race schedule might hold for the IRNLS’s sixth season. First and foremost, the fans should benefit.

"There’s just too much competition for the entertainment mindset and dollar, and if you’re taking six weeks off, there’s too many other distractions that come in that people forget about what you’re doing," said Sharp, who just last week ran the ceremonial first laps at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., in front of a throng of media representatives, community members and business folk. "So I applaud the IRL for reorganizing the schedule. It’s going to be a busy time for us about six months there, but I think that’s wonderful.

"To basically on average be able to run every couple weeks is really gonna keep us in front of people, along with the great TV package we have."

Ray took part in a tire test at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Friday in preparation for that track’s inaugural appearance on the IRNLS schedule on April 8.

"In this day and age where there’s so much to do, you’ve got so many options to spend your time and spend your money, it’s very, very competitive out there," said Ray, who turned in a fast lap of 194.105 mph on the 1.5-mile oval. "Really I think all the new events, certainly for us in areas like Homestead, you probably almost have to subsidize the first events just to get people excited and go out there. You know, create other things that go along with our race, to have more of a carnival or fair-like atmosphere so people can go out there and spend a day or two and really do a lot of things.

"I think we have to subsidize our time and subsidize our promotions and get people out there and maybe not look at the overall profitability of the first year but to generate that enthusiasm to make it a viable business venture for the future."

Once the IRNLS accomplishes getting fans into the seats, Ray feels they’ll be hooked.

"There’s no doubt that our racing is the most exciting and the most competitive on the planet We have more passing and more leaders and the high speeds than all the other types of racing," Ray said. "Anytime you get somebody there in the grandstands for the first time, they get to experience it up close and personal, see how fast they are, see how close they run and how much they pass.

"There’s a lot of forms of racing that are very competitive but they don’t get a chance to pass so it’s not quite as exciting for the fans."

Richmond International Raceway is another new track on the 2001 IRNLS schedule. Sharp conducted a demonstration run at the track Sept. 9 as part of the Chevrolet Monte Carlo 400 NASCAR Winston Cup race.

"That’s going to be a fabulous area of the country for us to be in, and there’s some real enthusiastic race fans down there and they all seem like they’re really charged about having us there running under the lights," said Sharp of the June 30 night race on the three-quarter-mile oval. "It’s going be an exciting track for us."

Sharp got the same impression during his appearance at the 1.5-mile, moderately banked Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.

"It’s one of those rare tracks where it seems like everything is done well and done right," Sharp said. "Obviously, Chicago is going to be a great market for the entire series and all the sponsors or potential sponsors to be in. The back straightaway is one long curve, and really it’s one of the only true ovals we run one.

"It’ll be easy for us to be side by side. I’m sure we’ll be flat out around there."

The new venues fuel the drivers’ excitement about 2001, but so does the variety of tracks, if not moreso.

"It’s nice to have more different types of tracks.” Ray said. "When you play basketball the court’s always exactly the same size, the hoop is exactly the same height, so you play the same game all the time. In racing, all the tracks that we go to ... put a lot of excitement into the team. It’s a new challenge.

"So it really adds a new element of being able to be flexible with you’re driving skills and you’re different approaches. And that’s exciting because that’s the true measure of a driver."

"It’s neat to have tracks where you’ve got the high banks that may be a little bit easier from a driving perspective but certainly require a lot from the handling perspective, and you get down to the flatter tracks and it requires a bit more driver participation where certainly more of the success is weighing on the driver," Sharp explained. "So I think its great that we’re adding such variety and adding such great new venues for the series."

Another benefit to the expanded schedule and the various venues is a better product on the track.

"Just last year, with only having nine events, each race is so important. If you have some mechanical misfortunes like I had, you drop out of two or three races out of nine races, there’s no time to catch that back up," said Sharp, who dropped out of three races this past season. "So I think spreading out to have more races, and even if they continue in future years to keep adding more, I think it maybe gives everybody a chance to have a failure or two in a race to drop out of a race and still give you some races to catch back up.

"And I think you’ll see the points championship be much more tighter in future years."

Teams will reap the benefits of the expanded schedule, too.

"It really kind of keeps the rhythm of the sport," Ray said. "Not to mention it really does keep the drivers a lot crisper -- the teams doing pit stops, the engineers, and everybody gets to get on schedule. It’s very difficult to have a two- or three-race stretch and not have a race for six or seven weeks. It’s very difficult to find you’re momentum. As they continue to add more races from 13 this year to maybe 15 or 18 the year following, I think that shows the true test of a team.

"With so few races, I don’t think it really shows the true nature of any one team."

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