Cant Beat Indy
May 8, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
This year Happy Hour is much more than that. Leading up to Pole Day, on Saturday, there are interesting characters, stories, and grudges to settle. The cast reads like much of the entry list.
While the schedule says that there are seven hours of practice, during the weekdays, Mother Nature has decided to throw down some rain making every minute on the track more precious.
Past winners, like Kenny Brack, Helio Castroneves, Eddie Cheever Arie Luyendyk, and Al Unser Jr. slipped behind the wheel and quickly motored into the groove.
Last year’s pole winner, and winner of the preceding IRL race, Scott Sharp out to avenge his first lap spin – last year - is also comfortably quick.
Anyone one of these drivers have the right combination to win the pole and be the spotlight for two weeks until race day.
Taking about Sharp there are some other unresolved scores that will
be shaping up. While Castroneves’ victory and Spiderman-like climb of the safety fence are vivid in most memories, don’t forget that he beat his teammate, Gil de Ferran, out of the pits to set up that victory.
De Ferran, who some call the professor, has waited a year to get a shot at that elusive Borg Warner winner’s trophy. To make a statement the professor might just surprise with a pole dash too.
Then there’s IRL points leader, Sam Hornish Jr., who also suffered the embarrassment of spinning out last year. Sam doesn’t always say much, but speaks volumes with his accelerator pedal.
Most of those drivers are powered by the reliable Chevrolet engine.
This Saturday may be drivers powered by Infiniti engines best chance to make history. The Infiniti powered teams have struggled in the past few years due to a small budget and sheer numbers of rival teams.
Since last year Infiniti has added Bernard Dudot, the masterful engineer, who helped Renault have the most powerful Formula One motor during his time there.
Now, in terms of speed, the Infiniti can equal the bow-tie Chevy boys.
In March, at Fontana, Cheever and his rookie driver, Tomas Scheckter, appeared to have the field covered speed-wise, only their motors didn’t last the entire 400 mile event.
Scheckter, who was parked by IRL officials for unsportsmanlike driving in Homestead and Nazareth until Wednesday, will be playing catch up. On the other hand, this kid is blazingly fast. On a track all by himself for four laps, ten miles, he could win the pole and achieve a small measure of redemption. He is my dark horse favorite.
Chip Ganassi’s Team which prepares some of the best cars in open wheel racing has Bruno Junqueira, fresh off a win at the last CART race in Motegi, running quickly in his second time at the track. Jeff Ward, who finished second to Cheever in 1998, is also on the team, which includes the 1999 winner Brack.
Brack, who won the race driving for A.J. Foyt, then moved to Bobby Rahal’s CART team has been struggling this year for Ganassi’s CART team. There’s probably more than a few IRL stalwarts who want to show him up.
All of this brings up the other “rivalry”, that is CART drivers making a one-off run this year.
Barry Green, who tasted victory here in 1995 with Jacques Villeneuve, brought back Indy veterans Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy as well as Dario Franchitti. Rahal returns for the first time with Jimmy Vasser who ran for Ganassi last year. Vasser is a driver who you probably won’t hear too much about, that is until the checkered flag looms when I expect he’ll be on the lead lap looking for the win.
Mo Nunn has his IRL rookie of the year Alex Giaffone, and adds his CART driver, Tony Kanaan.
Max Papis, CART’s man who deserves more respect, is driving for Cheever.
You can’t talk about the Indy 500 without mentioning Super Tex, A.J. Foyt, who hired Greg Ray to sub for his injured driver Eliseo Salazar. Ray, the 2000 pole sitter, hasn’t raced since last year with the Menard team.
Yes, it’s Happy Hour again at the Speedway now if only there weren’t so many hours left until 6 p.m. on Saturday.