Ilooking Ahead:/I California 2002

Like its sister track Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Mich., California Speedway has a knack for producing memorable open-wheel racing events.

Unlike MIS, Fontana, Calif.’s track has made its mark on open-wheel racing in just a few years.

Next year, the Indy Racing League will add to the track’s already-stocked history when it visits the 2-mile track for the first time on March 24 for a 400-mile event.

“California Speedway is proud to welcome the IRL to our family of events,” said California Speedway President Bill Miller. “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.”

The CART FedEx Championship Series has competed at California Speedway since 1997, when the track opened for business. It immediate made its impact when Mauricio Gugelmin set a closed-course speed record at 240.942 mph in the days leading up to the first CART race there.

This past season, CART’s season finale at the track produced a record 74 lead changes among 20 drivers. At the finish, Cristiana da Matta won the race, holding off four challengers who were just 1.5 seconds behind.

Scott Sharp believes the IRL will be able to maintain California Speedway’s tradition of exciting racing.

“I’m most excited to go to Fontana,” he said. “It’s produced some fabulous races for CART, and seeing the kind of racing we put on at tracks where other people don’t put on quite as good a race only leads us to think that we’re going to go to Fontana and probably put one one of the best shows ever.

“It’ll be three abreast a lot. It’ll be a huge drafting and strategy game.”

Eddie Cheever Jr. took his team to the track at the end of November, and he was impressed.

“It is a great facility,” Cheever said. “It is also a very exciting track because it lends itself to very close, side-by-side racing similar to Texas.”

Cheever’s top speed at the track was 220.99 mph.

Jeff Ward and rookie Buddy Rice also turned in laps at California, with Rice topping out at 219.85 mph and Ward at 219.78 mph.

"California Speedway will be great for the IRL cars," Ward said. "We will be able to run together in packs making the race exciting to watch. You'll see more guys running together for the entire 400 miles."

IRL founder Tony George announced the addition of California Speedway to the schedule in October, and he said it was an important step for the 6-year-old league.

“The Los Angeles market is very important to our league from a corporate sponsorship and media awareness standpoint,” he said. “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 race is the first 400-mile event ever for the IRL.

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