Notebook: Drivers Ready For IROC

Two-time IRL IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. returns to the Crown Royal International Race of Champions Friday night (7 p.m. (ET) on Speed Channel) with his eyes on the prize at the end of the four-race series.

Hornish, who finished second in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, knows a good finish during the race at Texas Motor Speedway will help him in his hunt for the $1 million champion’s prize.

"I’m second in points, but a long way back from Matt (Kenseth), so we want to go out there and have a good run," Hornish said. "I’m really excited about this race. I have a good opportunity to go out there and do well, but at the same time, the better you are in points, the worse you start."

Hornish, who went straight from the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to Texas Motor Speedway for IROC testing on April 3, will start 11th in the 12-car field of identically prepared stock cars. Fellow IndyCar Series driver Scott Sharp, who finished ninth at Daytona, will start fourth.

"The Texas race tends to be a little calmer race than the one at Daytona, where everyone is drafting and moving through the field all the time," Sharp said. "The field at Texas seems to get more spread out. It’s important to do well at the start and gather as many positions you can on the restarts. It’s just a good time for all of us, so I’m looking forward to going there."

Both hope to duplicate the feat of previous IROC Texas winners Danny Lasoski and Sebastien Bourdais, who outfoxed NASCAR stars to win races on the 1.5-mile quad-oval.

"At Texas it’s difficult to pass and I think the last few guys who’ve won there have won from the front," Hornish said. "I think this race will be different. I’d love to win a race, but what I love about IROC is you don’t need to win a race to win the championship. The key is getting as many good consistent finishes as you can."

Castroneves drives World Champion’s car
Put IndyCar Series driver Helio Castroneves behind the wheel of a Ferrari and he might not return it exactly at the agreed upon time.

But organizers of this weekend’s 14th annual North American Ferrari Challenge Series had one thing in their favor Friday, April 7, when the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion sat in the Ferrari F2002 driven in 2002 by World Champion Michael Schumacher: it was on a closed course.

Castroneves, who won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on April 2 and is the IndyCar Series points leader, took the car that carried Schumacher to 11 victories and 17 podium finishes for a spin (no pun intended) on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

"This is an incredible opportunity to drive a Formula One car," he said. "I’m going to go out and have a good time. It’s going to be interesting when they tell me to come in — I might not want to stop driving it."

Kanaan is task manager on “The Apprentice”
Team 7-Eleven driver Tony Kanaan will appear in an episode of “The Apprentice,” which will air at 10 p.m. (EDT) April 10 on NBC. Fortunately, he won’t have to hear Donald Trump bellow "You’re fired!"

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion, was called upon by Trump to participate with 7-Eleven in the show, which pits two corporations made up of candidates against each other in a series of various business-oriented tasks.

Kanaan and the No. 11 Team 7-Eleven Dallara/Honda/Firestone prepared by Andretti Green Racing play a direct role in the completion of the task assigned by Trump to the corporations (Synergy and Gold Rush) to help roll out a new product by 7-Eleven available April 11.

“This particular item is the first of its kind; nothing like it exists in the market, and we’re very excited about it,” said Joe DePinto, president and CEO of 7-Eleven, Inc. “Building on that, we thought it would be interesting to do something else we’ve never done before: challenge the best and brightest business entrepreneurs on ‘The Apprentice’ to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to introduce a new product that is completely novel to consumers. We think they will enjoy the show and the product.”

The episode is the second of back-to-back first-run shows. Each episode, Trump issues his signature "You’re fired" to one candidate. The last candidate standing wins the title of The Apprentice and is given a high-level job within Trump’s organization.

Wheldon presents AutoRox award
Reigning IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon will join actress Pamela Anderson on stage to present the 2006 Car of the Year award during SpikeTV’s AutoRox Awards Show on Friday, April 7, at the Freemont Experience in Las Vegas.

The star-studded homage to cars will feature categories including Best Luxury Car, Hottest Exotic, Convertible, Sports Car, SUV’s, and others. One industry icon, chosen for their major contributions to the automotive world, will be recognized. The 2005 recipient was racer and car builder Carroll Shelby.

Ice Cube is host of the show that will be televised at 10 p.m. (EDT) April 18.

Roth’s Big Week – Race at St. Pete, Test At Indy, Get Married
A big week is just the kickoff to a big month for Indy Pro Series™ driver Marty Roth.

After finishing 14th and 12th April 1-2 in two races at St. Petersburg, Fla., Roth flew to Indianapolis April 5 for an IndyCar® Series test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Roth is preparing to compete in his third Indianapolis 500 at the end of May.

To top off the week, Roth will marry Margaret Disher on April 8.

"It’s a busy month to say the least," said Roth, who has finished 24th and 31st, respectively, in the last two Indianapolis 500s. "We’re looking forward to a big party on Saturday. Then we’ll be heading off to our honeymoon and coming back to do Indy."

Roth, a 47-year-old Toronto native, is a veteran of 33 starts in the Indy Pro Series, but he doesn’t get many opportunities to drive his IndyCar Series machine.

"It’s great to be back in the IndyCar Series car," said Roth, who has Honda power in the No. 25 Dallara for the first time. "I love that car. The Honda engine is so sweet. The power is so clean. It comes in and out of the pits - it’s not jumping off the ground and burping. It’s just so clean and smooth. It’s a pleasure. It’s like driving a street car out there. It’s just smooth and fast."

Roth turned 121 laps on the 2.5-mile oval April 5, the earliest he’s ever practiced for the 500. In 2004, Roth purchased the equipment for Roth Racing and practiced most of the month of May. Last year, he didn’t finalize his plans until most of the month of May was over. The early preparation this year increases his expectations for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500.

"We’re here to win the Indy 500 just like everybody on this block," Roth said. "With the spec engine, this is going to be a fantastic opportunity for a lot of drivers out here. It’s certainly reshuffled the deck this year. I’m really looking forward to the 500."

But the 500 will have to wait – at least temporarily. The honeymoon comes first.

"We’re going to head off in a sailboat and go sailing around," Roth said. "We haven’t done that in a couple of years, and it’s one of the things we miss doing. So we’re going to head down south to the islands, jump on a sailboat and sail around."

Cheever enjoying return to racing
Since announcing his return to the cockpit after a three-year absence to concentrate on the ownership side of his IndyCar Series program, Eddie Cheever Jr. has said that early-season efforts were geared toward a successful Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Along the way, the IndyCar Series’ first owner-driver has rediscovered the exhilaration of close and spirited competition and a measure of success.

He finished 10th in the season opener on the Homestead-Miami Speedway oval March 26. After an 11th place on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on April 2, Cheever remarked, "I feel so good now, I think I could go another 100 laps if I had to."

The 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner said with each practice session he is more comfortable in the No. 51 Cheever Racing Dallara/Honda/Firestone and with the crew’s input and preparations.

"I’m proud of our team," he said. "It is so much stronger than it was when we left for Homestead. I know you can’t see it on the surface, but it’s all the little things that are gelling. Our preparation has been getting better and better every day."

Prior to the Open Test at the Speedway on April 5, he said the excitement level was building the night before.

"I felt like a 10-year-old just before Christmas, and it was going to be a good Christmas with lots of presents today because I was a good boy," he said. "They tell me it’s the first day of practice, and I’m telling them I’m having too much fun."

Cheever was seventh quick on the 2.5-mile oval at 223.367 mph.

"Our goal has always been to perform well with a chance to win the Indianapolis 500," he said. "I feel so lucky that I can still come out here and run on pace. Driving Indy – there’s nothing compared to it."

Cheever said he’ll have a teammate at the track in May.

"I expect we’ll announce a driver after Japan," he said.

Simmons gets acquainted with team, car
A day after being named the driver, Jeff Simmons registered his first laps in the No. 17 Team Ethanol Rahal Letterman Racing Panoz/Honda/Firestone.

"It’s nice to finally get into the car and think only about that, think only about driving," he said. "They’ve got a great car, I noticed that right away. We were flat pretty quickly; they’ve got some extra downforce in my car, but it’s a good car right off the bat. I’m sure we’ll have the same thing at Japan.

"They’ve always been really competitive at Japan and Indy."

Simmons, who had two IndyCar Series starts in 2004, welcomed the track time after a whirlwind week. He finished second and fourth, respectively, in two Indy Pro Series races at St. Petersburg, and was introduced as the successor to the late Paul Dana for the No. 17 car on April 4.

"There’s less pressure, and I can take my time," he said. "But there’s not a lot of time before Japan. I think this is the only time I’m in the car before we go to do a race weekend, so it’s still happening pretty quickly. But I’m definitely looking forward to having a full month this time and having a great run at the ‘500.’"

New colors for Franchitti
Dario Franchitti’s No. 27 Dallara/Honda/Firestone will sport a black, white and gold look starting at 90th Indianapolis 500, as the colors of Canadian Club whisky will appear on the car.

Klein Tools will remain on the car as a major sponsor. The new paint scheme will be on Franchitti’s car for the rest of the IndyCar Series season. Michael Andretti will carry the Jim Beam sponsorship on his No. 1 car for the Month of May. That car was driven by Bryan Herta during the Open Test.

Jaques Lazier looking
Veteran Jaques Lazier is very hopeful of landing a ride and was on hand pounding the Gasoline Alley pavement.

"I’m very optimistic," Lazier said. "We haven’t finalized anything, but we’re definitely getting close. We’re working with a great sponsor right now, and although we haven’t finalized it, I believe it’s a sponsor I can carry with me for many years.

"I think we’re going to have to announce something by the Motegi race. We can get that aspect done now and focus on doing the best job we can for our sponsor."

D&R skips test
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing was scheduled to take part in the test but opted out.

"With losing a car at the Homestead race, it put us behind," said team manager John O’Gara. "We just figured the time would be better spent in the workshop."

Dreyer & Reinbold is in a unique position: It has two previous winners entered, 1996 winner Buddy Lazier and two-time champion Al Unser Jr. A single team has not entered two former winners since Marlboro Team Penske saddled up Emerson Fittipaldi and Unser in 1995 – and ironically, both missed the field that year.

"I hadn’t really given any thought about that," O’Gara said. "I hope we don’t repeat that."

"We have three cars for Indy, and our fourth one is just missing a few bits. We’ll probably have four cars over there by the time things start."

O’Gara didn’t rule out running a third entry.

"I wouldn’t say it’s totally out," he said. "My guess is if we did it, we’d have to farm it out to somebody for some help. But I wouldn’t say it’s out of the question."

Veteran engineer eyes entry
Veteran engineer Roman Kuzma was on hand at the Speedway and is hoping to field a car for the 90th running of the Indianapolis 500. He said he has access to a car from Newman-Haas Racing.

"It’s one of the backups to (Bruno) Junqueira and (Sebastian (Bourdais) last year," Kuzma said. "I’m just trying to work things out. I’m down here on a fact-finding mission. This is the most even I’ve ever seen the field and the first time in quite awhile that an independent can come in and do well.

"We have a car, and we’re trying to work a deal for an engine package. We have people looking for sponsors and have it narrowed down to four to five drivers, veterans who can do it."

The last time Kuzma fielded a car at Indy was 1992 with rookie Kenji Momota.

Four is enough
Michael Andretti was asked a hypothetical question about his father-son appearance in the 90th running of the "500": If his Andretti-Green team gets its five cars smoothly in the field, and his father, 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner Mario, came up and said, "I want to drive one," what would Michael, as a car owner, say?

"Aw, he blew it," Michael said, laughing, referring to his father’s testing accident two years ago. "He broke my car. He’s too expensive to have in the car. I gave him his shot and he blew it."

Then he turned serious.

"No, we can’t do it," he said. "We’re up to ‘here’ right now running five cars. We don’t have the infrastructure for six cars."

Ethanol in May
Tom Slunecka, executive director of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, said as many as 18 ethanol plants are scheduled to open in Indiana. Fuel for the Indianapolis 500 will contain 10 percent ethanol in May and convert from methanol base to ethanol completely in 2007.

"This is no longer a Midwestern-based fuel," Slunecka said. "It’s a national fuel."

When Indy cars were converted from gasoline to methanol in the ‘60s, it was a safety factor because methanol has a higher flashpoint than gasoline.

"We consider them virtually the same in that area," said Jeff Horton, the IRL’s director of engineering, of methanol and ethanol. "Ethanol burns at 55.4 degrees Fahrenheit, and methanol at 52 degrees."

Marco getting ready
Marco Andretti said he’s still preparing for his first month of May as a driver.

"I wish I knew what it’s really like," said Andretti, 19. "But it’s the beauty of being a rookie, you don’t know what to expect. I’m still (preparing) every race, every time I sit down in the cockpit. I know this is a place that you have to sneak up on it."

In a news conference, his Andretti-Green Racing teammate Bryan Herta spotted longtime "500" public-address announcer Tom Carnegie in the front row.

"I just figured it out," Herta said. "Tom announced 42 Indianapolis 500s before Marco was born."

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