Exciting Or Excruciating?

It’s very seldom that drivers and fans alike look forward to the same race with the same uneasy mix of excitement and dread.

That’s the case with this weekend’s inaugural Indy Racing Northern Light Series race at Richmond International Raceway. What’s all the fuss about?

Well, RIR is just .75 miles in length, making it the first time the IRNLS has visited a track shorter than a mile. In testing, drivers have recorded laps in the 16-second range at more than 164 mph.

The action expected at the short-track is a double-edged sword. With 20 or more IRNLS cars racing around the bullring, there’ll be little margin of error, but the competition will be tight, making it interesting for the fans.

“There's going to be a lot of traffic at Richmond, which means there will be a lot of passing,” said Jeff Ward, driver of the No. 35 G Force-Aurora. “That will be the most challenging aspect of the race. But with the slower speeds and more traffic, that will make for great racing.

“I think it will be a great show for the fans and the IRL."

Kelley Racing teammates Mark Dismore and Scott Sharp tested at the Virginia track in May after the Indianapolis 500, but they still don’t know what to expect when the green flag drops Saturday night.

"This is the first time that an Indy Racing car has ever participated on what's truly a short track,” Dismore said. “It's going to be really interesting to see what happens and definitely challenging for the teams. It's going to be real exciting.”

“I think there's still a lot of unknowns about Richmond for everybody,” said Sharp, who is third in the IRNLS points standings. “We're all in the same boat, though, so we'll just have to see who can dial around all those things the best.”

Although they aren’t sure exactly what the SunTrust Indy Challenge has in store for them, the drivers agree on one thing: Everyone will need to stay on their toes; if not, someone’s toes will get smashed because there will be little time to react.

“It should be fun if everyone watches what they are doing,” Buzz Calkins said. “I think the closest comparison is Dover (1-mile). Dover is another track that is probably too short for our cars, but it is doable if everyone behaves like they are supposed to.”

“I always thought that 1-mile ovals were very busy, but Richmond is going to be even busier,” said Eddie Cheever, owner and driver of the No. 51 Dallara-Infiniti. “I have always enjoyed watching NASCAR races, and one of the races that I'd never miss was Richmond. There's always a lot happening.”

Sharp is just two points out of second in the points standings, so he’d like to put his No. 8 Dallara-Aurora out front, but he knows that won’t be easy.

“With all the cars out there on race day, I think it's going to be one very tight race with a long train of cars following each other around,” he said. “I think you'll also see the tightest qualifying field in IRL history with only a couple of tenths of a second separating so many cars. You're really going to have to be patient and wait for opportunities to open up.

“There is going to be a lot of action. It’ll be like a big pack of swarming bees that can also move around.”

Robbie Buhl was one of the few drivers to admit what most are probably thinking: There will be crashes on the high-banked oval.

"There will be attrition mechanically as well as attrition from cars getting together,” Buhl said. “There will be sparks flying.

“If I wasn't in the race, I'd be in the stands watching.”

IRNLS veterans Jimmy Kite and Stan Wattles will be taking in the race from the safety of the sidelines, but for different reasons.

Kite couldn’t find a full-time ride after Blueprint Racing closed its doors at the end of last season. Still, he is looking forward to the racing at Richmond.

“That’s going to be one that I don’t know if we’re going to have the best seat sitting in the car or if the people up there sitting about 15 rows up are going to have the best seat,” Kite said.

Wattles, who announced his retirement from IRNLS racing at Pikes Peak last weekend, told RacingOne in April that he was apprehensive about the IRNLS race at Richmond.

“Just three-quarters of a mile with 25, 26 cars on it to me seems pretty tricky,” Wattles said. “That’s the only one I’m not looking forward to.”

Lucky for him, he won’t be behind the wheel of a car this weekend. For everyone else, buckle up.

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