First Times Not A Charm
March 4, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Four drivers making their first IRL starts were mostly overlooked, although Red Bull Cheever Racing rookie Tomas Scheckter turned heads by qualifying third for his first oval race.
That pretty much was the highlight for the first-timers.
When race day came around, it was a long day at the track for Scheckter, 310 Racing’s George Mack, Brayton Racing’s John de Vries and Convergent Racing’s Hideki Noda.
Scheckter bulled his way into the spotlight on the second lap of Saturday’s race, but for all the wrong reasons.
As Scheckter put his No. 52 Dallara-Infiniti low to go by his boss and team owner Eddie Cheever Jr., he bobbled, drifted high and made contact with Cheever’s No. 51 Dallara-Infiniti. Cheever was forced out of the groove and into the wall. His promising season took a hit just a couple of minutes into the action, and he wasn’t happy.
Scheckter tried to smooth things over after persevering to a sixth-place finish.
“First of all, I need to apologize to Eddie about our coming together at the beginning of the race,” the 21-year-old said. “At the start of the race, there were cars everywhere around me on the straights. I was behind Eddie, and one of the Penske cars made a move on him. It created a gap for me. I tried to follow the Penske car. I went over the white line to try to avoid Eddie. We just made a little bit of contact, and I got a bit sideways.
“Unfortunately, he went into the wall and I carried on. We had some damage to the car that dropped us back, and from there on I just pushed as hard as I could.”
Mack, the second African-American to start an IRL race, didn’t exactly light up the 1.5-mile oval, but he did bring home a 13th-place finish. He started 24th in his No. 31 G Force-Chevy.
“We improvised in our first race attempt,” he said. “I have only been in the car four times now, and we made up a considerable amount of positions in the course of the race. It's tough. A lot of cars, not knowing what's going on, tires going away, wind blowing - just a lot going on.
“I'm just looking forward to doing better in the next race and the race after that. It's still a learning experience for us.”
De Vries and Noda didn’t make it to the finish of the race. Both drivers experienced engine problems.
De Vries, driving the No. 37 Dallara-Chevy, managed a 17th-place finish. After his engine went sour six laps into the race, he limped home, completing 187 laps.
“Unfortunately, things happened with the motor,” de Vries said. “Otherwise we might have had a top-10 finish. We had a lot of power. We just hung in there.
Noda also had engine trouble on Lap 6. It got worse on Lap 67, when his engine let go, billowing thick smoke and belching fire.
Noda kept the car out of the groove but had trouble locating a runoff area. When he finally got his No. 20 G Force-Chevy stopped, he quickly unbuckled and lept out of the car. He finished 23rd.
“Three or four laps after the first yellow came out, I had an engine problem,” the Japanese driver said. “I think it was an electronic thing. We thought they fixed it, so I went out, but I felt no power in the engine.
“I was carrying on, and it suddenly caught fire.”
Despite their problems, the first-timers enjoyed their first IRL race. Scheckter got to take part in all of the action, as he completed all but two laps of the race.
"It was crazy,” he said. “Especially with the restarts when so many cars are packed together. You're braking sideways into the first corner, and you have cars left and right of you. It was so exciting. It was really good racing.”
Said Mack: “It went really well. I had a great time.”