Best Of The West Test

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- This year's rendition of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series "Test in the West" at Phoenix International Raceway was an interesting affair, for many different reasons. Well-attended by the Northern Light regulars, it also opened the newest era of Penske Racing's venture into Tony George's playground, the Indy Racing League.

The three-day media and test session highlighted inclusiveness. Scores of past Indy Racing winners were on-site, including IRL hires Johnny Rutherford, Al Unser, race commentator Tom Sneva, and Penske Racing advisor and mentor Rick Mears.

While there were normal yellows for track inspection, nobody made contact on this difficult oval and the stoppages were minimal in nature. Nearly 2900 total laps were turned without incident.

The reigning Indy Racing Northern Lights Series champion, Buddy Lazier, shared track time with the current CART FedEx Championship Series title-holder, Gil de Ferran. Did the lions lie with the lambs? No, but they co-existed, and this is good.

Arie Luyendyk arrived in time for former teammate Sam Schmidt's Friday announcement of his self-named Indy Racing team. Arie then donned his Treadway/Hubbard driving suit for a television interview. There was a look of contentment on his face we haven't seen since he decided prematurely, it appears, to step out of the cockpit.

On the track, the changing of the guard in the Northern Light Series was in full swing. Sophomore driver Sam Hornish Jr., experienced in the CART Toyota/Atlantic series and renown for his karting expertise, showed the form that convinced Panther Racing to put him in its #4 Pennzoil-sponsored Dallara/Aurora challenger. Hornish topped the leader board in two of four test stints, never running worse than second, turning 20.39 seconds, 176.554mph Friday afternoon.

1999 champ Greg Ray, who claimed six poles in the 2000 9-race series yet failed to be first at the checkered flag in all but one race, was walking gingerly. He tested the brace he'll wear until doctors determine the testing injury to his left knee has healed (2 pins were inserted). Ray still ran quickest in his #2 Menard Dallara/Aurora during the final, Saturday session, lapping at 20.582sec/174.906mph, after struggling to find balance in the other three on-track groups.

Ray did better than 1996 Indy Racing League co-champion Buzz Calkins, on crutches after crunching the Homestead-Miami Speedway turn 3-4 walls on Wednesday. He came for the media sessions and stuck around to watch his competitors.

Dick Simon's #7 Mexmil G-Force/Aurora was, naturally, the first car on the 1-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway on Friday morning. By Friday afternoon, it was also the fastest car of the day, at 20.361sec/176.808mph, with an excited Stephan Gregoire up. Gregoire hadn't turned a lap since the final Northern Light Texas race last October; he was thrilled to be back in his car.

In all, there were 15 car-driver combinations on the circuit. With the long PIR pit road, teams nestled at pit center, with Walker Racing, Sarah Fisher and the #15 Dallara/Aurora claiming pit-in position and Hornish at the opposite end of the road. Disjointed as testing can be, with stops and starts throughout the two days, there was always something interesting to observe.

CART Dayton Indy Lights Championship graduate Felipe Giaffone looked impressive in a #21 Hollywood Treadway/Hubbard G-Force/Aurora on Friday, lapping smoothly and interacting well with his new engineering staff. Casey Mears, making up one of three Galles Racing drivers in a #73 G-Force/Aurora -- the others are Al Unser Jr. and Didier Andre, also an Indy Lights grad -- was deliberate as he tackled this new discipline, never appearing to find quick form, but also unwilling to test the walls. His crew stayed to test on Sunday.

Lazier ran 240 nominal laps both days, yet landed fifth overall in the final tally, behind Gregoire, Hornish Jr., Ray, and Helio Castroneves, and doing his usual yeoman job of finding the sweet spot in the #91 Hemelgarn Delta Faucet Dallara/Aurora. His quick lap of 20.641sec/174.404mph came late Friday.

What of Team Penske, the CART interlopers? Castroneves, fresh from his productive Sebring road course test, came to grips easily with the higher downforce and lower power of Penske's chosen Dallara/Aurora package. Castroneves ended up 4th overall in his #68 machine, noting the lack of turbulence when he ran behind other cars. Helio's quick lap of 20.640sec/174.412mph came late Saturday afternoon.

Teammate, Gil de Ferran, driving #66 had, conversely, nothing but troubles. Of course, he wasn't feeling terribly well, following his two CART testing wall-smackers in two weeks. A sore shoulder, ribs and foot showed in his walk and in his eyes. His Penske Racing crew battled fuel pick-up problems and, at one point, had the schematic for the fueling lines placed below the tub as it scavenged inside for clues to the problem.

The Penske Racing equipe enjoyed working with their Northern Light Series machines, noting that it was easier to work with, lacking turbo, wastegate, pop-off valve and the various information systems endemic to CART Champ Cars. "We can just trim these cars out and run," team manager Clive Howell noted. Team Penske, too, stayed on an extra day to make up for the time lost chasing de Ferran's fueling woes.

The number of drivers in the Valley of the Sun, searching for elusive rides, was vast. Alex Barron (waiting for Dale Coyne to line up "the rest of the money" for his #19 Champ Car seat), Richie Hearn, Buddy Rice, Townsend Bell, Tony Renna, Billy Boat, Davey Hamilton, Jeff Ward. Hovering like hungry vultures.

In the end, it was the sights and, particularly, sounds on-circuit that mattered. Clean running throughout two full days, an autograph session for what appeared to be 1100 excited fans (and drivers), the wail of the Aurora engines and the guttural drown of the Infiniti motors in Eddie Cheever's #51 Exicte@Home Dallara mount and Robby Buhl's #24 Team Purex G-Force.

The urgency to go quickly and cleanly around the four challenging Phoenix International Raceway turns finally eclipsed the politics of racing that seems to grip open-wheel sports in the United States. What emerged was a good, safe, fast 2-day test and a sense that 2001 will be a defining season for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.

With the group's concentration on race-day activities (getting rid of qualifying points for cost-containment purposes) and its new marketing and telecommunications thrust, the Indy Racing League looks prepared for a future of growth.

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