Ward Hopes For Smooth Race
August 9, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Ward, driver of Heritage Motorsports’ No. 35 G Force-Aurora, remembers last year’s inaugural race at Kentucky well.
He led his only laps of 2000’s nine-race season on the high-banked track in Sparta, Ky., after starting fifth.
“Last year, I led 11 laps at Kentucky, so this is a track where I have a lot of confidence,” said Ward, who finished sixth last season. “It’s a fun track.”
This weekend, however, Ward and the rest of the IRNLS will see a much different track. A year of racing and a cold Kentucky winter have taken a toll, making the track much less inviting than it was last season.
Kentucky’s problems surfaced last week during routine testing. Panther Racing and Bradley Motorsports brought drivers Sam Hornish Jr. and Buzz Calkins to the track, but they quickly ended their test sessions after spinning out when their wheels lost contact with the bumpy surface.
Brian Barnhart, IRNLS vice president of operations, inspected the track Thursday and was satisfied that it will pose no problems to the drivers.
"They’ve (Kentucky Speedway staff) done a very good job," he said. "It’s a completely different race track from the one a week ago. The few drivers who have been here today all said the track looks good.
"We’ll encourage everyone to start off conservatively and find the speed gradually."
Eddie Cheever Jr. tested at Kentucky two weeks ago and noticed the rough surface, but it didn’t stop him from turning fast laps.
“We tested at Kentucky two weeks ago, and the track is a lot bumpier than it was last year,” said Cheever, driver of the No. 51 Dallara-Infiniti. “Even with the bumps, though, our times have improved dramatically over last year, and the new Infiniti 35A continues to perform very well, particularly on the 1.5-mile ovals.”
Second-year driver Sarah Fisher, who drives the No. 15 Dallara-Aurora for Walker Racing, had her best finish at Kentucky last season – a third - and she, too, tested at the track recently.
“Even though the racing surface of the Kentucky track has changed completely from last year, the track has been working overtime to prepare the surface for when we return there,” she said. “The conditions they had weren’t a big negative. Indy car drivers are very peculiar and picky about the surfaces we run on because our ground clearance is so minimal. Even the slightest little bump is going to upset our car so we’re very picky. Even the littlest bump we’ll point out, trying to make the perfect race track.”
Greg Ray brushed aside the drivers’ concerns in an interview during “Sports or Consequences” on WLW-700 AM.
“Track conditions have changed since the last time we’ve been here and that will be a challenge for all the race teams,” Ray said. “This isn’t a regulation sport like basketball where the floor is the same in L.A. as it is in Boston. Even though it’s (the track) different, it’s a challenge and it’s tough, but it the same for all the teams.
“We may come in with a different game plan and a different set up, but the team that makes the right compromises will be successful. And that’s what it is, a series of compromises.”
Regardless of track condition, the second annual Belterra Casino Resort Indy 300 comes at a good time for Ward and Heritage Motorsports.
At the most recent IRNLS race at Nashville, Ward finished 20th in his first race back after Heritage decided to spend some time testing. It was a disappointing return for a team that had finished as high as fifth this season. The Nashville debacle and less-than-impressive finishes at Pikes Peak, Texas and Indy haven’t shaken Ward’s confidence, though.
“This team is due for a great race,” Ward said. “This will be an aggressive, intense weekend, which is my favorite kind of racing. We need a great engine, good tire management and a break from our bad luck, and we will produce a solid performance. This team has a great chance to win this race.”
Part of Ward’s optimism is fueled by his strong run last season at Kentucky, but it also comes from recent testing the team took part in at Chicagoland Speedway. Ward was second fastest in the open test at the 1.5-mile track, which is similar to Kentucky Speedway.
“We'll be stronger going into the final stretch of the season because of the testing time we’ve recently gotten in,” Ward explained. “The team missed out on some great testing opportunities earlier in the season, and it hurt us. We had been showing up at tracks on race weekend having to guess on a good setup, while the teams that had tested were making updates and perfecting their cars for qualifying and race day.
“We were going into these last few races two steps behind most of the other teams. You can tell a difference in our confidence and our results from the beginning of our season when we had tested to midseason when we had not. The more days you spend on the track, the better you are.”
Heritage Motorsports co-owner Jim Rathmann Jr. also places a lot of emphasis on testing and its benefits.
“Just from a purely racing perspective, Jeff’s good at those high-banked tracks, Jeff’s good at speed,” said Rathmann, who co-owns Heritage with John Mecom III. “With the right data so we show up and pull the car off the trailer and run quick the first session, I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be able to win.
“The two best motors in any of these races are in Greg Ray’s car and our car. Menard has built the best motors this year.”
Ward proved Heritage’s potential earlier this season. He opened the year with two seventh-place finishes, a fifth and a pole at Homestead. His early-season success helped him climb into the Top 10 in the points standings. Ward is currently 10th, just 16 points out of ninth place despite missing the inaugural race at Kansas Speedway.
“With the limited time we’ve had this year testing, he’s done a great job,” Rathmann said. “I will say this: We’ve got a great motor program and we’ve got a great chassis program, so we’ve been giving him good cars, it’s just that we’ve been giving him the good car late. We’re into the race or the last test session before he gets the car.”
Kentucky Speedway action begins at 11 a.m. (ET) Friday with practice. Pole qualifying is scheduled for 1 p.m. (ET) Saturday, and the Belterra Casino Resort Indy 300 is scheduled to take the green flag at 2:30 p.m. (ET) Sunday.