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Hearn Remains Above the Fray, Wins Opener at Las Vegas Track

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richie Hearn bid farewell to the Indy Racing League by winning a crash-ridden Las Vegas 500K Sunday before an enthusiastic 67,132 who sat in on the inaugural race of the lavish Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Hearn and his car owner, John Della Penna, announced last week that they were leaving the IRL to race next season exclusively with CART, the older of the two feuding Indy car factions. The victory was Hearn’s first this season, although he distinguished himself with a third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500.

High-speed accidents sidelined eight of the 28 starters, including favorites Arie Luyendyk, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart and Buddy Lazier, and slowed the winning speed to 115.171 mph. This was more than 100 mph slower than Hearn’s late-race laps in which he held off young Michel Jourdain Jr. of Mexico, the only other finisher on the same lap.

Almost half the race, 83 out of 200 laps, was run under the yellow caution flag at speeds around 70 mph.

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In addition, the race was stopped for 20 minutes with only 15 laps remaining when Johnny O’Connell’s car got upside down and skidded a quarter of a mile along the wall past the start-finish line before rolling to a stop in the middle of the track.

Chief steward Keith Ward called for a red flag to stop the race while emergency crews could attend to O’Connell, but before they reached him, the popular red-head crawled from the wreck, waved to the cheering crowd, and walked away. O’Connell was third at the time.

“My guess is, we cut a tire,” O’Connell said. “I was ducking and upside down and waiting for the car to stop. The helmet did its job.”

Mike Groff finished third, one lap back, to take over the IRL points lead after two races. Groff, who was fourth in the season opener last month in Loudon, N.H., has 63 points to 62 for Michele Alboreto and Buzz Calkins.

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“One of the problems today was that the newest car out there was a year old,” Groff said. “That’s not a good situation.”

Things will change for the next IRL race--Jan. 27 in Orlando, Fla.--when new chassis and engine formulas will take effect. The cars are expected to be 15 to 20 mph slower than the cars in Sunday’s race--all of which became obsolete once the race ended.

Hearn, who started eighth in his Reynard-Ford Cosworth, first made his presence felt midway through the race when he moved up to challenge Gordon, who had dominated until that point. He took the lead for the first time on lap 100.

“I knew it was going to be a long race, 300 miles on a track this small [1 1/2 miles], so we took the Rick Mears approach: be there at the finish. Our plan really worked. After the first 30 or 40 laps, the race track came to us and we found we could run the car anywhere on the track and I could run flat out with full tanks.

“I was more comfortable on the low side, and this worked in our favor when it seemed that most of the guys who wrecked were running a higher groove.

“We were doing Indy 500 speeds out there. It was just fantastic, it’s probably the best oval I’ve been on.”

Gordon, who traded the lead back and forth with Hearn for 60 laps, dropped out on lap 179 when his car rolled to a stop.

“We knew we could catch them in traffic, we were starting to reel him in when we lost a right wheel bearing,” Gordon said. It was Gordon’s last race in a open-wheel car as he will race next year in a Winston Cup stock car for Felix Sabates.

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A persistent wind that blew dust over the new track surface cooled the spectators on a sunny 90-degree day, but it made for slippery racing conditions.

“They should start this race at 10 o’clock because the winds seem to pick up in the afternoon,” said Luyendyk, adding that “the winds were fierce out there in the fourth turn.”

Spectators praised the view from the grandstands, which offered a sweeping panorama of the track and the desert.

Motor Racing Notes

R.C. “Rod” Mathis, 49, a retired Las Vegas police officer, became the track’s first fatality Saturday night when he died of multiple injuries suffered after crashing in Turn 4 during a Shelby Pro Series race earlier in the day.


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