Icommentary:/I A New IRL Era
December 8, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Sure, Sam Hornish Jr. and Buddy Lazier and A.J. Foyt and Scott Sharp and Greg Ray will still be around, but so will Mo Nunn and Roger Penske and Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran.
And, it’s not only the players changing next season. California Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Nazareth Speedway become regular stops on the IRL’s 15-race circuit in 2002, too. Sponsors Red Bull, Marlboro and Hollywood have also thrown their support behind the IRL along with television partners ABC and ESPN.
Yes, things are definitely going to be a lot different, starting, of course, with the competitors.
Roger Penske bringing his Marlboro-sponsored juggernaut to the IRL with drivers Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran gives the series a shot in the arm in many areas.
Press coverage, ticket sales, television viewership and sponsorship are likely to increase because of Penske’s move, helping the IRL in general.
De Ferran, winner of CART’s past two titles, and Castroneves, 2001 Indianapolis 500 winner, immediately become the favorites for the 2002 title.
Defending champ Sam Hornish Jr. walked away with the title this past season after winning three races and finishing in the Top 10 12 times in 13 races. With Penske’s pilots around, the wins won’t come nearly as easy next year.
CART owner and legendary engineer Mo Nunn will be a force, too, with 2001 IRL rookie-of-the-year Felipe Giaffone driving for his Hollywood-backed team. Nunn helped Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya win three CART titles in the 1990s, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be a factor in the IRL. Giaffone, who had 10 top-10 finishes this past season, may have the total package in 2002.
With 1999 IRL champion Greg Ray now at Kelley Racing, daring Jaques Lazier at Team Menard, Eddie Cheever Jr. fielding a two-car, Red Bull-sponsored operation and Billy Boat stepping up as an owner, the field has a new look. But how the new teams jell will go a long way toward determining the primary challengers to Hornish, de Ferran and Castroneves.
The new venues will also play a big part in the 2002 season.
De Ferran and Castroneves have plenty of experience at California Speedway, Michigan International Speedway and Nazareth Speedway – all formerly or currently on the CART schedule - further solidifying their status as title favorites.
California and Michigan have produced tremendously exciting and competitive CART races the past few years, and the IRL has done the same on similar tracks. The combination could produce some of the most intense IRL races to date, and that’s saying a lot.
Sharp and Ray of Kelley Racing, Eliseo Salazar of A.J. Foyt’s team and 2000 IRL champ Lazier are particularly competitive at the large, high-speed tracks, and the new, 15-race schedule could play into their hands.
The 2002 wildcard may be engines. Chevrolet has replaced Aurora, and the Infiniti 35A proved to be powerful if not reliable, especially on the superspeedways.
Chevy has already done extensive testing of its V8 powerplant, and early reports suggest it will be stronger than the Aurora, which powered nine of the Top 10 finishers in the points.
Cheever has been putting the 35A through a rigorous test schedule, as well, but he’s focusing on reliability. The new engine was fast throughout most of the year, but he and Robbie Buhl were knocked out of contention several times because of mechanical problems.
What’s this all add up to? An IRL season like no other. The amazing thing is 2003 could provide even more change, with new chassis and engine manufacturers, more CART teams and drivers, and new tracks joining the fold.
Look at it this way: 2001 set the table, 2002 will be the appetizer, but in 2003 everyone will join the dinner in earnest.
Perhaps that’s too much to digest right now, though. Just try to enjoy the coming season.