April 24, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
While the hardy fans in Nazareth were enduring a blustery unspringlike day, Indy Racing League car owners Tom Kelley and Roger Penske were gambling like they were in a smoke filled room in Las Vegas.
In the end Kelley, who may be Penske’s biggest fan excluding the Captain’s own drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, beat his friend and role model.
Despite the troubled early days in the schism of open wheel racing in the United States, Kelley has kept up his relationship with Penske and even runs the same Ilmor-prepared Chevy engines. In fact, Kelley Racing hired ex-Penske driver Al Unser, Jr. this year.
For Kelley to beat the powerful Marlboro Penske Racing team, on a track formerly owned by Penske and within 40 miles of Penske’s Reading, Pa. headquarters, made the victory so much sweeter.
Gracious in victory, Kelley said “to pull one out of hat and beat my dear friend Roger in his home territory, even though he's my hero, it's nice to beat him, I guess like beating Tiger Woods or something like that. It's just great to have the lift for the guys. They've been trying so hard. Things just haven't quite gone our way.”
In the last four years of the Indy Racing League Kelley’s No. 1 driver, Scott Sharp, managed to win at least one-race a year and was on the pole for last year’s Indy 500. The excitement of that feat turned to embarrassment, though when on a cold start Sharp spun in the first turn of the first lap. Castroneves went on to win that race.
This past weekend, in Nazareth, everything went Kelley’s way. On a cold rain-swept day the race around the one-mile oval was going to be determined on pit stop strategy due to the league record 116 laps of yellow caused by crashes and moisture on the track.
Two-car teams have an advantage when this type of race comes into play. You can fill-up one driver, but lose track position while gambling that your other driver – who remains on the track – will have enough fuel to go the distance if there are enough yellow caution laps.
On one pit stand, Penske, with 11 Indy 500 wins and 111 overall Indy car wins, played his hand based on his years of experience. Next door at Kelley, he had a similar decision earlier, based on an incident that could have been more serious.
Rick Rinaman, Castroneves’ crew chief, appeared to put his right leg out far behind him, as if to help him restore balance, just when Sharp was pitting. Sharp’s Delphi Dallara/Chevrolet’s left front wheel clipped Rinamin’s ankle but didn’t cause a serious injury.
This was during a yellow flag pit stop, early in the race. When Sharp was penalized and dropped to the rear of the field Kelley wisely decided to bring Sharp in to top off, especially because there was no loss of track position.
Out of sequence, Sharp, who was not the fastest car of the day, could run richer at the end, that was the eventual key to the victory.
“It was a team effort” Kelley explained “because we knew where we qualified, we weren't going to pass that many cars to win the race, we had to do it in the pits. Scott did a great job of listening and doing what we asked him to do on saving fuel.”
Kelley might have had second thoughts near the end of the race while watching “professor” de Ferran hold off his driver. The Brazilian driver eventually led 86 laps of the 225-lap race.
“It gives its owners a lot of gray hair trying to figure out how to call the race. Everybody looked at me, ‘Are you going to pit or aren't you?’ Kelley said in the post-race interview.
Sharp responded: “you made the right choice.”
When de Ferran’s engine sputtered in turn two of the last lap Sharp dropped down a gear and floored it knowing that this was his race.
Kelley could breath a little easier. Maybe it took away a little of the pain of last year’s Indy 500.
“I'll take any win against Roger that I can get, whether he ran out of fuel or not,” Kelley explained. “Roger sets a standard that you just can't keep up with. We're in an engine program with Roger. I said it's like having an 800-pound gorilla as a partner because budgets go out the window when Roger wants to win something. I think it's phenomenal that Roger is here.”
Penske said he had no regrets on his strategy. "That's what makes racing,'' he said. "You've got to take that gamble every time.''
Again, Kelley would not gloat in his victory, he praised his friend and rival.
“He was always been my hero,” said Kelley . “As a kid growing up, his 11 wins were all when I was watching Indy. It's a thrill to be able to compete, nice to be able to beat him once in a while. He does set a standard that I think you have to be a John Menard to be able to keep up with, but we'll do the best from our standpoint.”
And with a little luck he just might beat his friend at the Indy 500 next month.