Itest In The West:/I Newcomers Take Phoenix Stage

Sure, Indy Racing Northern Light Series champion Buddy Lazier will be there, as will 1999 IRNLS champ Greg Ray and former Indianapolis 500 winners Al Unser Jr. and Eddie Cheever Jr.

But, the Test in the West this Friday and Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway will be a showcase for newcomers, for the future of the series. Of the 16 drivers who will shake down their cars at Phoenix, five have never started an IRNLS race, three are in their second year and one has only been in one IRNLS race in the past year.

The influx of new blood injects an unpredictable element into the 2001 season.

Can rookies Casey Mears, Felipe Giaffone and Didier Andre have an impact on the title chase? How well will journeyman Stan Wattles do with championship-winning team Hemelgarn Racing? What will Airton Dare do as an encore to his rookie of the year award? Will Roger Penske’s CART juggernaut of Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves clean up at Phoenix and Indianapolis?

The drivers themselves shrug off the analyzing and probing, but their on-track performances will begin to answer those questions this week.

Twenty-three-year-old Mears, for one, just wants to start pushing the accelerator.

"I agree with Al (Unser Jr.) that I just can’t wait to get in the car and start running," said Mears, who is Unser’s and Andre’s teammate at Galles Racing. "My main focus for the test this week is to get some good seat time in. I just want to get as many laps in as I can before the first race so I can get a good feel for the car and all that it can do."

The test represents Mears’ first laps in an IRNLS machine, but he won’t have to take the required rookie test because he passed the rookie orientation program at Indianapolis last year. Fellow rookie Andre passed his rookie test Wednesday with Galles.

Although he’s just been cleared to drive for Galles in the IRNLS, Andre has been hanging around the team for weeks.

"I am living in Albuquerque now so I have been able to spend a great deal of time with my crew, and I am very excited to work with them," said Andre, 26, a native of France.

Like Mears, Giaffone came to Phoenix with his IRNLS racing license in hand. He passed his rookie test at Homestead in January, leaving him to focus on setup and speed on a 1-mile oval.

"My goal is to just get comfortable in the car on the first day. We’ll go for speed on Day 2, and then just get used to running in traffic for the open test," said Giaffone, who arrived at Phoenix on Tuesday for two days of private testing with Treadway-Hubbard Racing. "We should have three good days, and I hope to learn a lot in preparation for the season-opener in Phoenix."

Between them, the three rookies look to steal much of the spotlight in Phoenix. Probably not as much as Sarah Fisher and Dare did in their rookie years in 2000, however.

Fisher, 20, remains the only woman and the youngest driver in the IRNLS in 2001. She, along with rookie of the year Dare, have high expectations to live up to. With a year under their belts, the duo’s performance at the Test in the West should reflect their experience.

Second-year driver Sam Hornish Jr. will not only be preparing for 2001 at the open test, but he’ll also be associating himself with a new team. Hornish replaces Scott Goodyear at Pennzoil Panther Racing for the full season. That puts him behind the wheel of the car that finished second in the standings and won the season finale at Texas.

Those are big shoes to fill, but based on his performance at underfunded PDM Racing, Hornish looks to be up to the task. He led 38 laps at Kentucky in August and finished fourth in the rookie of the year standings despite missing a race.

Wattles, on the other hand, missed eight of the nine races in 2000. In his one appearance, however, he impressed car owner Ron Hemelgarn in the Indianapolis 500. Wattles, who will be Buddy Lazier’s teammate at Hemelgarn in 2000, qualified eighth and turned in some of the fastest laps of the race before his engine expired.

He’ll use the test to get reacquainted with IRNLS machinery.

"The big goal for me is to get some more seat time," Wattles said. "I haven't really been in a car since Indy last year except for a couple days last month in Miami. I would like to spend some time running in traffic during the Test in the West.

"Hopefully we'll have a pretty good handle on the setup by then."

If Wattles can get a handle on his own performance, the team could be a force. It already won a title with Lazier, so the potential is there.

Perhaps the most impressive of the newcomers is Roger Penske’s one-two punch of CART champion de Ferran and Castroneves. The Captain has 10 Indianapolis 500 wins to his credit, and with de Ferran and Castroneves, he’s one of the favorites again this year. He’s using the Test in the West and the season-opener at Phoenix International Raceway to prepare for the Indy 500.

No doubt many onlookers will be keeping track of Penske’s drivers’ times, comparing them to the IRNLS regulars and drawing conclusions about their chances in Indy.

Get out the stopwatch, this season could get very interesting very quickly.

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