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Nothing Wrong With Indy League Race

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As races go, the first event of the Indy Racing League was quite a success.

Buzz Calkins, an articulate young American driver--the kind IRL founder Tony George was looking for when he broke with CART, the established Indy car organization--won the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World in a late-race duel Saturday with the poster boy of the IRL, Tony Stewart.

There were enough tense moments of close racing, screeching tires, crashing cars and nervous restarts to entertain the 50,000 fans who came to the Magic Kingdom to watch in shirt-sleeve weather.

But as a test pattern for the Indianapolis 500, it fell substantially short.

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There were only 20 cars in the race, and at least three of those were unsuited for the rigors of Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2 1/2-mile track. With CART team owners controlling the spare 1995 models, there seems little likelihood that IRL can field the traditional 33 cars for the May 26 race.

CART drivers, such as Al Unser Jr., Michael Andretti and Paul Tracy, will not be available to fill the empty spots, either, because they are scheduled to be at Brooklyn, Mich., for the U.S. 500 on the same day.

“A lot can happen between now and May,” George said when asked about the Indy 500’s future. “We’ll worry about Indy after Phoenix. That’s our next concern, and we will scrape every resource we have to get ready. We have a lot of work to do before our critics realize today wasn’t a fluke. We are going to build on the momentum we generated today.”

The Phoenix 200 is March 24.

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“Now that I’ve won the Walt Disney World 200, I’m going to Indianapolis,” shouted a jubilant Calkins after winning the historic series opener.

Calkins, 24, a University of Colorado graduate who came to the IRL after three years in the Indy Lights series, has never been to Indianapolis except as a spectator.

Starting from the third row in a ’95 Reynard-Ford Cosworth purchased from Derrik Walker after last season, Calkins moved up quickly and took the lead from Stewart on lap 66.

For the rest of the race, Calkins led every lap except for three while he pitted. At one point he had lapped the field, only to have Stewart get back on the same lap during a pit stop. At the finish of the one-hour, 33-minute race, the two leaders were two laps up on third-place finisher Robbie Buhl and former Formula One winner Michele Alboreto.

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Most of the early excitement revolved around Richie Hearn, the No. 2 qualifier who had to start in the rear row after an accident late Friday during practice demolished the Della Penna Motorsport team’s only car. When it was determined it could not be repaired by race time, the team leased a car from Pagan Racing, Roberto Guerrero’s team.

Hearn, the Formula Atlantic champion from Canyon Country, impressed onlookers by charging from 19th to seventh in the first 17 laps. The challenge ended, however, when a swap bar apparently broke on lap 18, sending Hearn into a spin that put his car into the inside guard rail.

“Coming out of [turn] one the car came around violently,” Hearn said. “It wasn’t normal and didn’t happen with warning. I was disappointed for my crew after they worked all night getting the car ready for me.”

There were two yellow caution flags late in the race, one on lap 178 when Davey Hamilton put one of A.J. Foyt’s three entries into the wall and the other 10 laps from the end when veteran Eddie Cheever collided with Scott Sharp, another Foyt driver, that scattered debris all over the first turn.

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Overzealous safety crews, in their haste to get the cars off the track, cut in front of Stewart as he came upon the wreck scene at racing speed. In a remarkable piece of maneuvering, the U.S. Auto triple champion darted between the wrecker and wall, grazing the cement barrier, then ran over a wing off Sharp’s car as he dove down across the track between the two wrecked machines.

“I hit everything that was there,” Stewart said. “I was bouncing off the walls and jamming gears. I didn’t know I cracked a wing when I hit something.”

When the green light came on with six laps remaining, Stewart tried twice to edge his nose past Calkins, but both times fell short.

“When I saw that last yellow, my heart just about stopped,” Calkins said. “The accident was ahead of me, but I got by before the service trucks got on the track. I knew Tony would make a run at me so I took a defensive line, but the last couple of laps I got away from him a little bit.”

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Calkins’ victory margin was .866 second. He averaged 128.325 mph.

“I didn’t really come here expecting to win,” he said. “I thought a fifth-place finish, or maybe a spot on the podium would be nice. I’m still in shock. I thought it was a pretty good show.”


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