Play It Again Sam
March 3, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The defending 2001 Indy Racing League champion won the 2002 season opener at Miami, dominating the race. But even better than finishing first in the event, Hornish kept the Team Penske pair of Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves from winning.
As far as I’m concerned, the best thing that has happened to the IRL since it started seven seasons ago is that owner Roger Penske jumped circuits this season. He left CART behind, bringing sponsor Marlboro and his two drivers with him.
The move signals a major power shift in open-wheel racing, with the momentum in the CART vs. IRL rivalry definitely switching to Tony George’s younger sanctioning body. A vocal majority, ranging from sponsors and racing experts to fans down at the bar, viewed Penske’s move as the proverbial writing on the wall.
But as far as I’m concerned, the worst thing that could happen to the IRL is for Team Penske to dominate this seventh season. I fear that a commanding performance by Roger, Gil, Helio and company would make a mockery of the IRL.
Sure, Team Penske had a great 2001 season, but you got to remember that the organization struggled for several seasons before that and the team had fallen from its once lofty status. Even if Penske were the best team in CART, overwhelming instant success would be a blow for the IRL. If de Ferran and Castroneves dominate, it will ensure that the IRL will be thought of as a junior league.
Most CART enthusiasts already think so, pointing to the success of CART teams in the Indy 500 as an example of how IRL is a series of want-to-bes.
That doesn’t mean that de Ferran and Castroneves can’t win a few races. They need to be high profile, but they must not become the only profile of the IRL. And while Hornish dominated the Miami race, there was just as big a gap between Hornish and the Penske team as there is between the Penske operation and the other teams racing on Saturday. The three drivers were the only ones left on the lead lap at the end of the race.
I’d even like a Team Penske win at the Indianapolis 500. After all, that’s been the way of the open-wheel world for the past two decades. And I wouldn’t begrudge one of the Penske drivers the 2002 title, just as long as it a hard-fought championship. In fact, a shootout between an IRL veteran and the Penske drivers would be a great boon for the circuit.
But can anyone stop the Team Penske juggernaut? Some might already be asking a different questions: Can anyone stop the Hornish steamroller?
As they showed in Miami, Hornish and his Panther Racing team aren’t exactly sitting around in awe of Team Penske. Hornish picked up where he left off in 2001, becoming only the second IRL driver to successfully defend his season title by winning the inaugural race of the next year.
Panther Racing doesn’t have the legend and the lore of Team Penske, but it does have some things in common with Team Penske; a strong sponsor, a big budget and a stud behind the wheel.
Of course, Hornish isn’t the only hope for the IRL faithful.
Buddy Lazier and Scott Sharp already have IRL titles on their resume, and they finished second and third, respectfully in the 2001 standings. A.J. Foyt, one of the best open-wheel drivers ever, has also enjoyed much success as an IRL team owner. He’ll field cars for Eliseo Salazar and Donnie Beechler in 2002, who finished fifth and 15th in the points.
Eddie Cheever, despite managing just three laps in the season opener, will be heard from before the last of the IRL’s 15 races. Jaques Lazier is an up-and-comer and he’s got a powerful operation in Team Menard.
Some of the drivers and teams that have a chance to derail the Penske train are, like Penske, CART defectors. And unlike Foyt, who joined the IRL from the first day, many of these teams have just recently moved over.
Al Unser Jr. finished seventh in the points in 2001 with an underfunded team, but is driving for the powerhouse Kelley Racing this year. Unser not only is the CART career leader in earnings, but he enjoyed most of his success while racing for Penske. Jeff Ward finished fourth in the Miami race, driving a car owned by CART big gun Chip Ganassi. Driver Felipe Giaffone’s Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing team also have some experience in CART.
So it can be Hornish, other drivers with CART experience or just one of the IRL’s good old boys like Sharp, but somebody needs to keep the Penske drivers from a romp in the park.
There can even be a tag-team effort, with the field taking turns keeping de Ferran and Castroneves blocked. The Miami race was a good start, thanks to Hornish.
Play it again, Sam.