Rocketing Around Richmond

With a freshly paved surface that drew rave reviews after two NASCAR races last month, Richmond International Raceway is set to host the fourth annual SunTrust Indy Challenge on Saturday, June 26, a race that the IRL IndyCar Series drivers say will feature more speed, passing and excitement than ever before.

During a recent test session, several drivers easily ran laps that topped Gil de Ferran's track qualifying record of 16.0043 seconds (168.705 mph) that was set in 2002. The drivers credited the new surface for the faster speeds, which defy some rule changes implemented during the off-season designed to slow the cars down, including a smaller, 3.0-liter engine.

"Richmond is always an action packed, fast race, but it just got a whole lot better because of the repaving," said eight-time series race winner Scott Sharp, who participated in the test session. "It's going to be a lot easier to be two and three abreast in some spots. The grip is really there now for our cars. We've picked up some speed and we're running sub-16 second laps."

The repaving (as a result of the installation of a modern under drain system during the off-season) has eliminated bumps in the track's surface which slowed the cars down at certain points and made them a challenge to set up. The new, smooth surface will provide the drivers with more tire grip and as a result, more speed.

Sharp and Marlboro Team Penske drivers Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves were among the drivers who participated in the Toyota engine test. All three drivers were pleased with the test and think the June 26 event will be the best yet for the fans.

"You are going to see a lot of side-by-side racing here," said the personable Castroneves, the 2001 and 2002 Indianapolis 500 winner. "The track is incredible. They did a great job and as they say in the movies, 'It's as smooth as a baby's butt.'"

"Richmond is one of my favorite tracks," said Hornish, who made a thrilling pass on de Ferran in the waning laps to win the SunTrust Indy Challenge two years ago. "There are good opportunities to pass and the track is now very smooth. I've run three races here and finished first, second and fourth, so I really enjoy it. Richmond is a great track and it's the only track like it we run at."

Indy Cars on the ¾-mile track- the only short track the series races on- reach speeds more than 50 mph faster than their NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series counterparts, and according to Sharp, IndyCars at Richmond International Raceway pull between four and five G's in the turns, which is more G Force than the drivers feel at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

G Force loads that high make the drivers feel like they have a 50 lb. weight attached to their heads, making Richmond- with the quick laps and constant turns of the wheel- the most physically demanding track the IRL drivers encounter.

That means a great show for the fans in a city generally regarded as NASCAR territory. "The fans are real supportive here in Richmond and I think we're going to put on the best show we've ever put on for them," said Sharp, who pilots the No. 8 Delphi car.

"I think the fans are going to see the best IndyCar race they've seen here yet," Hornish echoed. "The fans are going to have fun and so will we."

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