IRL A OK
March 1, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
This is the year the Indy Racing League should come into its own. As the seventh season opener in Homestead this weekend draws near, the IRL is poised for what is shaping up to be its breakout year.
Here are a few of the storylines to follow during IRL 2002: Sam Hornish became the youngest major-league motorsports champion in history last season at age 21. The young star returns in full force with the Pennzoil Panther Racing team in 2002 and there's no reason to believe he won't be a serious challenger to become the first driver in the series’ short history to win back-to-back titles. Hornish won at Homestead last season, one of three victories in his championship year. With a strong offseason, which included setting the fastest overall time during the Phoenix Test in the West, Hornish has already sent a message to his IRL rivals.
The much-anticipated move of Marlboro Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran has been the talk of open-wheel racing all winter long. The questions remains, however, of how quickly the team will adapt to racing exclusively on ovals with a package it's used in only two races? If offseason testing is any indication, the answer is not long. Both drivers were among the fastest in testing at both Phoenix and Fontana and with the well-funded Penske operation behind them, the team will have some of the best equipment on the series. An don’t forget it was de Ferran who set the world closed course qualifying record of 241.428 miles per hour at California Speedway in Oct., 2000.
A few other veteran CART teams will also make their full-time IRL debuts this season: Ganassi Racing and driver Jeff Ward, Blair Racing and Alex Barron, and Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing with last year's Rookie of the Year Felipe Giaffone. It will be interesting to watch how this trio of teams adapts to the IRL-style of racing.
The series expands to 15 races this season with new stops at Nazareth, Fontana and Michigan. Those three tracks suffered through dwindling attendance problems last year with their CART events. It remains to be seen how fans will support the IRL. While the on-track competition may be strong, there are questions about just how many fans will be in the stands.
Tomas Scheckter looks to be the cream of the 2002 IRL rookie crop. The youngster will team with veteran Eddie Cheever this season and has been impressive during offseason testing. Scheckter got off to a fast start by leading Friday's opening practice session at Homestead. This year's rookie class includes Rick Treadway, Anthony Lazzaro, Laurent Redon, George Mack, Hideki Noda and John de Vries, but Scheckter is far and away with the best team and should not only dominant the freshmen, but has a strong chance to find his way into victory lane.
As the open-wheel war moves into year seven, both CART and the IRL have much on the line in 2002. The IRL gets a jump on grabbing the headlines this weekend.