Go West Young Series

That monthlong gap in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series schedule next year? Don’t worry about it.

The IRNLS brass closed that up quite nicely Thursday, when league founder Tony George and vice president of operations Brian Barnhart announced the all-oval series had added California Speedway to its 2002 schedule. The addition brings the schedule up to 15 races next season.

“This represents a very exiting time for us and represents the continued growth of the Indy Racing League,” George said. “With this announcement today, we’re looking to have 15 races in 2002.

“The Los Angeles market is very important to our league from a corporate sponsorship and media awareness standpoint. In addition, we experienced an unprecedented amount of positive response to our oval racing product from fans throughout the 2001 season. I am confident this enthusiasm will continue as we grow even more in 2002, especially when the great race fans in Southern California experience the Indy Racing League.”

The 400-mile race on the 2-mile oval in Fontana, Calif., will be the third race of the season and will take place March 24, after the race in Phoenix, giving the IRNLS a two-race Western swing. The IRNLS move to California had been rumored for quite some time after the 2002 schedule was released with a five-week gap between the March 17 race at Phoenix and the April 21 race at Nazareth.

California Speedway president Bill Miller sees the announcement as part of the natural progression of the track’s development.

“California Speedway is proud to welcome the IRL to our family of events,” Miller said. “We have been saying for some time that we want to grow the number of events at the speedway, and adding the IRL to our traditional schedule that we've had for the last five years takes another step toward accomplishing that goal.

“We look forward to working with the IRL as the series ventures to the West Coast for the first time.”

Although the race is six months off, Barnhart said IRNLS cars will be testing at California this month.

“The immediate future for the Indy Racing League is to get a car out there as soon as possible,” Barnhart said. “We’ll try to get some testing done out there before the end of this month. In the next three weeks I’m sure we’ll be sending a couple of cars out to Fontana.”

For the past four seasons, California has hosted the CART FedEx Championship Series, the other major open-wheel racing series in the United States. It has traditionally played host to that series’ season finale, and in 1997 Mauricio Gugelmin set a closed-course speed record when he reached 240.942 mph on the D-shaped oval. Last season, CART Series champ Gil de Ferran smashed that record with a 241.428 mph lap.

The IRNLS will not reach those speeds because of its engine package, but the track should produce the close, competitive action that the IRNLS is known for.

Bringing in the IRNLS gives California the three major auto racing series in America, with CART and the NASCAR Winston Cup Series already racing at the track. In addition, the NASCAR Busch and Craftsman Truck Series also race at the track. California Speedway also hosted the International Race of Champions in 1997. The CART Series has a contract to race at California Speedway through the 2004 season.

California Speedway opened in June of 1997.

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