Score One For The IRL
March 21, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
If there was only one thing, that Tony George tried to accomplish when he created the Indy Racing League, it was to give new drivers a place to show their talent. The 21-year-old’s victory is proof that the series is doing that job.
Having a regular ride put this youngster in the comfort zone right away. He qualified second and dominated the race -- except for one pit stop miscue -- leading 140 of the 200-lap race.
"Knowing I'm going to every race really is a big confidence-builder. I know that if I wreck a car it is not the end of the world even though we don't want to do that," Hornish said. "It just makes my job a lot easier."
Not only did he beat the best that the IRL had to offer, but he also took on some rookies -- in name only -- in Team Penske’s Gil de Ferran, the 2000 CART champion, and Helio Castroneves.
By the way, the fact that the Penske’s boys from Brazil didn’t finish cannot be categorized as a failure, but more on that later.
While there were many more reasons to start up a new series, I don’t think there is anybody in open wheel racing in the United States who would argue that finding a ride in CART or the IRL for that matter is very easy.
We are not talking politics; it is just that cost of open wheel racing, despite the best of intentions, is spiraling higher every day. The IRL is providing a lower-cost entry point, making more seats available for talented drivers.
Just look at the talent walking around the paddock, from the CART side there is Memo Gidley, and even IRL drivers such as Davey Hamilton and Billy Boat, both proven competitors, who have had to scramble to find rides at the last minute.
A team like Panther Racing with good equipment and some national sponsorship from Indy stalwart Pennzoil is the just the incubation chamber
to nurture underexposed talent. Don’t forget that Scott Goodyear won the season-closing event in Texas for this team.
As the season opened in Phoenix, Hornish and his new team gelled right away.
Co-owner John Barnes explained: "I think along we’ve known how competitive our equipment’s been. And I don’t mean braggadocio."
Hornish added: "I’m surprised I that I got to Victory Lane as soon as I did… but as far as getting to where I’m at this point in my career… I’m not really surprised at myself."
Back to the Penske situation. If there are any bench racers remaining fighting the CART vs. IRL war, I’d say forget about it. This race and the Indy 500 are not and will not be a competition of the series. The main point is the racing.
The Indy Racing League’s rulesmakers and enforcers have made it plain that anyone who wants to race in the series using the same equipment as the others is welcome.
The failure to qualify for the 1995 Indy 500 after destroying the competition in 1994 weighs heavily on Roger Penske’s mind. He said so on Saturday.
He brought his team to Phoenix to prepare for the Memorial Day classic. Sure, he would have liked to have both cars finish or, even better, win. However, this was only a reconnaissance mission.
"I think we did very well. Both cars led the race, we were competitive," he said.
More important, they were getting invaluable data.
"We were right on our strategy, running conservative on fuel. We learned a lot," he added.
The Penske team with its gleaming transporter and headquarters trailer surely impressed Hornish.
"I knew they were going to be really competitive," he said. "Actually, I thought they were sandbagging a little bit through practice and everything."
In the end the team with the most money did not win.
Under the current rules, the Indy Racing League cannot turn into a Formula One-like mindless speeding spree, where cubic dollars determines the outcome. There are just too many restrictions on engines and aerodynamic alterations.
For some lucky drivers, like Sam Hornish, Jr., it means a chance to get in the spotlight.
That’s a point for the IRL.