AUTO RACING : Indy Lights Series Is Gaining in Stature

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The breeding ground for Formula One drivers has long been the European Formula 3000 series, a real triple-A minor league circuit that has produced most of the current stars of the international grand prix series.

The Firestone Indy Lights series, which used to be the American Racing Series, was supposed to be the same type of stepping stone to Indy-car racing. So far, it hasn't been, but that appears to be changing--quickly.

The fields in the first three seasons have been small, but the effort already has produced some drivers who are likely to be stars of the future in Indy-car racing, including Canadian Paul Tracy, Mexican driver Adrian Fernandez, Frenchman Franck Freon and American Robbie Groff.

But that number could increase quickly with the expected growth of the support series that has featured Buick V6-powered cars in Wildcat chassis.

First came a three-year extention of its sanctioning agreement with IndyCar, the body which runs the Indy-car series.

Then there was the announcement last weekend of a new agreement with Lola Cars of Great Britian to design and build an all-new chassis to be used in Indy Lights beginning in 1993.

The new car, which will use the same non-turbocharged Buick engines, will incorporate technology from Lola's Formula 3000 chassis as well as from the current Lola Indy-car chassis.

Another big leap for Indy Lights includes the use of a new Lola Indy-car for 1994 for the 1993 Lights champion. The series winner can take that chassis, worth about $300,000, with him to whatever team he wants--an attractive way to find a job.

"It has become a very healthy series and one with a bright future," said Indy-car team owner Dick Simon, who has placed an order for a new Indy Lights chassis for 1993 and plans to run a new team with an as yet unnamed driver.

Steve Horne, who helped bring the Truesports team to Indy-car prominence before going out on his own earlier this season, said he will start an Indy Lights team with current Lights driver Bryan Herta next season.

Roger Bailey, the series president and chief operating officer, says this is only the beginning.

"The coming year will mark the most important period of operations since its inception in 1985," Bailey said. "Lola will provide safe and technologically modern race cars, the long-sought after embrace from IndyCar has emerged and our sponsors remain one of the finest groups in all of motor racing."

SPEAKING OF up-and-comers, 23-year-old Tony Ave and 20-year-old Ashton Lewis are the drivers chosen to represent the Team USA Scholarship program Oct. 23-25 in the 21st annual Formula Ford Festival and World cup at England's Brands Hatch track.

In its third year, the scholarship program has already helped Jimmy Vasser to an Indy-car ride and Bryan Herta to a full-time Indy Lights seat.

The two primary aims of the scholarship program are to assist in the development of young drives and to heighten awareness in Europe about some of the most talented youngsters on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ave, from Hurley, Wis., is currently leading the SCCA Oldsmobile Pro Series after winning three of the first seven races.

Lewis, from Chesapeake, Va., is second in the IMSA Saab Pro Series. The rookie won a race earlier this season at Lime Rock, Conn.

They were picked from a field of seven North American drivers who tried out last month at Snetterton, England.

CHEVROLET's unprecedented string of nine straight NASCAR manufacturers' titles is certainly in jeopardy with seven Winston Cup races remaining this season, although Ford has shown some signs of weakness recently after an indomitable start.

General Motors teams have won eight straight races going into Sunday's event at Dover, Del., and--until Mark Martin's Ford Thunderbird finished second to the Pontiac Grand Prix of Rusty Wallace at last weekend's race at Richmond, Va., Chevrolet Luminas had been making great inroads in Ford's lead.

Nine races into the season, Ford led Chevy 81-40, but the Chevys had cut the margin to just 15 points before falling back two more at Richmond.

Still, history shows the Chevrolet teams that they still have a chance to catch their bitter rival. A year ago, Chevy built a 22-point lead at this point, then had to hold off a Ford charge to win the title by three just points, 194-191.

Darrell Waltrip, who has scored 51 points for Chevy this season--more than anybody else in any make--said, "Sometimes you can't lose in the spring and then you can't win the fall. I've been around a long time and I've seen it happen that way time and time again.

"I told my team when Ford was on a roll at the beginning of the season to keep their mouths shut and just work on getting our car right. That's what they did, and it's paid off."

Waltrip, who has two wins a second and a third in his last four starts, added, "We've been on a roll and I think we're going to stay on a roll. . . . Ford better wait a while before dusting off their trophy case, because I think Chevrolet is going to make a serious run for the manufacturers' title."

PENSKE RACING has had some great years but Roger Penske's team has had only two previous weekends to compare with last Saturday and Sunday when Rusty Wallace won a Winston Cup race on Saturday night and Emerson Fittipaldi took the Indy-car event on Sunday.

The last time it happened was in July of 1971 when the late Mark Donohue won an Indy-car race at Michigan International Speedway, then added a Trans-Am victory at Brainerd, Minn.

That matched Donohue's showing of two weeks ago when he gave Penske the first of his 71 Indy-car victories, at Pocono International Raceway, then added a Trans-Am win at Donnybrooke, Minn.

"The key thing for the team throughout this weekend is that all cars were competitive, in the hunt," Penske said. "It's been a goal of the team's all season long. I'm pleased we achieved this. Flawless pit stops and preparation made the difference."

The victory for Wallace was his first of the season, while Fittipaldi has now won four times in 1992.

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