IRL Teams Showing No Fear After CART's Indy 500 Sweep

Helio Castroneves climbed the fence after winning the Indianapolis 500 in one of the great celebrations in the race's 85-year history. Castroneves led a sweep of the top six positions in the race by drivers not affiliated with the all-oval Indy Racing League, which sanctions "the greatest spectacle in racing."

"We have been joking that we were second in class because of all the extra guys who came in," said Mark Weida, race engineer for eighth-place Airton Dare.

Dare finished right behind the highest-finishing IRL driver, Eliseo Salazar, one of A.J. Foyt's drivers. Since Juan Montoya won in 2000, Castroneves' was the second consecutive Indy 500 victory for a driver from the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams.

"The significance is that there was a lot of bad luck for our most well-funded IRL teams," said Weida, who lives in San Clemente. "There's no doubting that [Roger] Penske and [Chip] Ganassi and [Barry] Green are the cream of the crop [owners] on the CART side, and coming to the IRL, they're still going to be the cream of the crop. Penske [also] has one of the top teams with Rusty Wallace and Jeremy Mayfield in NASCAR. They're well funded, have great people and great drivers. They're going to do well no matter where they go."

Penske's drivers, Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, are second and sixth in the CART series, where de Ferran is defending his championship. Michael Andretti, third at Indianapolis, is 10th in CART. Jimmy Vasser, who finished fourth for Ganassi at Indy, is fifth in CART for owner Pat Patrick.

Bruno Junqueira, fifth at Indy for Ganassi, is 12th in CART in his rookie season. Tony Stewart, who finished sixth for Ganassi's four-car Indy effort, is sixth in the NASCAR Winston Cup standings. He also won the second IRL championship in the combined 1996-97 season. The worst finish for a non-IRL driver was 29th by Ganassi rookie Nicolas Minassian, whose car suffered gearbox failure; Minassian is 14th in the CART series.

Weida called the IRL's misfortune an anomaly:

* Pole-sitter Scott Sharp, third in the IRL standings, crashed on the first lap.

* The 1996 Indy winner, Buddy Lazier, sixth in the IRL and last season's champion, had an engine misfire on Lap 1 and finished 18th, eight laps back.

* Sarah Fisher, seventh in the IRL, crashed on Lap 7 with cold tires.

* Sam Hornish, the IRL leader, spun on cold tires on Lap 16 and forced Al Unser Jr. into the wall. Hornish had the race's fastest lap but finished 14th.

* Jeff Ward, fourth in the IRL standings, was in third place when he broke a half shaft. Ward was posting competitive speeds at the end, but was 32 laps behind.

Said Andretti: "I just think luck was against them."

Penske also downplayed the significance of CART's success.

"It was unfortunate some of the best runners had problems," Penske said. "There are a lot of good cars out there. There are a number of fellows out there that could drive one of our cars, I could tell you that right now."

Kenny Brack, the 1998 IRL champion and 1999 Indy 500 winner, currently leads the CART series driving for Bobby Rahal. Brack wasn't at Indianapolis this year.

"We need to have one open-wheel series with guys like Helio and Gil and Tony Stewart and Montoya and everybody else we can think [of] running here," Penske said. "That way we can take open-wheel car racing in this country where it needs to be."

The idea of the Indy 500 being a true all-comer's meet is attractive to purists such as Weida, who worked his first race in 1980.

"It reinforces that the Indy 500 is the greatest race in the world, bar none," he said.

There was certainly something for everyone. Even off-roaders could get behind Robby Gordon, who led the first 22 laps.

"I don't think we should put this in terms of CART, IRL, NASCAR or Formula One," Castroneves said. "On that track, it's the track. Everyone is [an] Indy 500 driver. Nobody is there to be better than any other series. Everybody is trying to achieve one thing, which is win the race."

Roberto Guerrero, driving for owner Dick Simon, was the first man bumped from the field at Indianapolis. Simon still found a way to stay involved in his 40th year at Indianapolis, with his team supporting Donnie Beechler's effort for Foyt. Beechler, retired by an oil leak, finished 25th.

This week, Simon was in talks with two sponsors involving three drivers, Guerrero, Beechler and Bakersfield's Casey Mears, that could carry his team through the rest of the IRL season. "If it comes through, we're going to Texas [on June 9]," Simon said. "If it doesn't, we probably won't go to Texas but we'll continue to work on the sponsorship."

Stephan Gregoire, Simon's driver the last two seasons, quit after failing to get up to speed at Indianapolis in a Simon-prepared car. Gregoire qualified for Heritage Motorsports in one of Ward's backup cars, but eventually finished 28th. On Wednesday, Gregoire notified Simon he wanted back into the fold, and Simon is still mulling that.

Off-road

Gordon tackles the extreme opposite of the Indy 500 this weekend when he competes in the 33rd Tecate SCORE Baja 500 in Ensenada.

Gordon will race in the premier Trophy Truck class.

The 489.9-mile loop on the Baja peninsula could be a jarring ride for Gordon and 237 others.

"The desert is where racing all started for me, and I'll always find a way for at least one race a year," said Gordon, the overall winner of the Baja 500 in 1989 and 1990, and the series champion from 1988-90 for Class 8 full-size production trucks. "I happen to have more time this year than I expected, so I'll be back in Baja in . . . November [for the Baja 1000]. And I won't be there to finish second."

Gordon won't be the only Indy 500 veteran to leave the starting line on Saturday. Hiro Matsushita, 40, a four-time Indy veteran, will compete in Class 3 for short-wheelbase 4x4s in a Mitsubishi Montero.

The motorcycle race could be the most interesting. American Honda factory riders Jonah Street and Johnny Campbell were separated by only 15 seconds last year in the closest finish in SCORE history. Campbell will ride with Tim Staab and Street with Steve Hengeveld.

NASCAR

PPI Motorsports owner Cal Wells announced a company-wide restructuring Wednesday that reduced the Southern California owner's staff by 14. PPI will retain 97 employees in its Hickory (N.C.) shop, home of the Fords driven by Ricky Craven and Andy Houston.

"We're really just over a year old, in terms of practical experience, as a Winston Cup racing team," Wells said. "This restructuring was an important evolution, and ultimately we're taking necessary steps to bring us more in line with how the sport's top teams operate."

Last laps

Kansas Speedway, a new 1.5-mile superspeedway near Kansas City, hosts its first event this weekend with races in the NASCAR Winston West and ARCA/REMAX series. The last time the Winston West Series went to Kansas, Sean Woodside of Saugus won at Heartland Park in Topeka in 1998. . . . The NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Series continues Saturday at Mesa Marin Raceway in Bakersfield with the Coors Lite 150. It was postponed April 7 because of bad weather. Hometown driver Craig Raudman is going for his third consecutive victory. . . . The Food 4 Less super late models will be the featured class Saturday night at Irwindale Speedway.

This Week's Races

WINSTON CUP, MBNA Platinum 400

* When: Today, qualifying, 10:30 a.m. (Fox Sports Net); Sunday, race (Ch. 11, 10 a..m.)

* Where: Dover Downs International Speedway (oval, one mile, 24-degree banking in turns), Dover, Del.

* Race distance: 400 miles, 400 laps.

* 2000 winner: Tony Stewart.

* Next race: Kmart 400, June 10, Brooklyn, Mich.

* On the net: http://www.nascar.com.

BUSCH, MBNA Platinum 200

* When: Today, qualifying, 9 a.m.; Saturday, race (FX, 10 a.m.)

* Where: Dover Downs International Speedway.

* Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.

* 2000 winner: Jason Keller.

* Next race: Kentucky 300, June 16, Sparta, Ky.

On the net: http://www.nascar.com.

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS

MBNA e-commerce 200

* When: Today, race, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN, 5 p.m., tape).

* Where: Dover Downs International Speedway.

* Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.

* 2000 winner: Kurt Busch.

* Next race: O'Reilly 400, June 8, Fort Worth, Texas.

* On the net: http://www.nascar.com.

CART, Miller Lite 225

* When: Saturday, qualifying, 8 a.m. (ESPN2, 1:30 p.m., tape); Sunday, race (ABC, 3 p.m., tape).

* Where: The Milwaukee Mile (oval 1.032 miles, nine-degree banking in turns), Milwaukee.

* Race distance: 232.2 miles, 225 laps.

* 2000 winner: Juan Montoya.

* Next race: Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix, June 17, Detroit.

* On the net: http://www.cart.com.

NHRA, Prestone Route 66 Nationals

* When: Today, first-round qualifying, 12:45 p.m.; Saturday, second-round qualifying, 9 a.m. (ESPN2, 6 p.m., tape); Sunday, final eliminations, 8 a.m. (ESPN2, 4 p.m., tape).

* Where: Route 66 Raceway, Joliet, Ill.

* 2000 winners: John Force in funny cars, Gary Scelzi in top fuel, Krisher in pro stocks and Antron Brown in pro stock trucks.* Next event: Pontiac Excitement Nationals, June 17, Kirkersville, Ohio.

* On the net: http://www.nhra.com.

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