The Indy Racing League opens its 2001 season Sunday in Phoenix and the two things that make it interesting have little to do with the Indy Racing Northern Light Series.
Making the race special are the entry of Roger Penske’s CART team, in preparation for the Indianapolis 500, and the combining of the IRL race with what once was the Copper World Classic.
It’s a sorry state of affairs when having CART champion Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves in the field is the most exciting thing about the Pennzoil Indy 200, first of a record 13 races in the Indy car season. Penske bought a pair of Olds-powered Dallaras to take on the IRL’s best over Phoenix International Raceway’s mile oval in what is little more than a pre-Indy test run.
Juan Montoya, the 1999 CART champion, won the Indy 500 last year for CART owner Chip Ganassi without the benefit of a preliminary race, but Penske chose to give his Brazilian drivers more experience in the IRL cars before heading for the Speedway.
One thing will be different. Instead of the Marlboro sponsorship the team has in CART, de Ferran and Castroneves will be in Penske Auto Center Specials.
The Copper World Classic has been an early season staple in Phoenix since 1977, but when IRL attendance fell off to fewer than 18,000 the last several years, track promoters combined the two events. Besides Sunday’s 200-lap IRL main event, there will be 25-lap races Saturday for U.S. Auto Club midgets and Supermodified Racing League cars, and a 100-mile Coors Light Silver Crown race Sunday.
Davey Hamilton, the only driver to have started in every IRL race since its inception in 1996, has entered all four races. The Las Vegas driver, who tested his Silver Crown and supermodified cars at Irwindale Speedway this week, won Copper World supermodified races in 1989, 1991, ’93 and ’95. He missed last year, while recovering from a broken back suffered in an accident at Walt Disney World Speedway in January.
“I think I’ve got a realistic chance to win all four of them,” Hamilton said.
He will drive a Dallara-Olds for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in the IRL series opener. Schmidt, a former Las Vegas IRL driver who is paralyzed from the chest down after an accident while preparing for the 2000 season, chose Hamilton, 38, over Billy Boat and Jacques Lazier to drive the full IRL season. Ilmor Engineering, which built Chevrolet engines that won the Indy 500 from 1988 to 1993, is returning to Indy car racing, building Oldsmobile engines for Schmidt and Kelley Racing drivers Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore.
Buddy Lazier, driving Hemelgarn Racing’s Dallara-Olds, is defending series champion and won last year’s Phoenix race after starting last.
Among the changes this year are the addition of rookie drivers Casey Mears and Didier Andre to a Galles Racing team that had only Al Unser Jr. last year, the downsizing of A.J. Foyt’s Harrah’s team to one driver, Chilean veteran Eliseo Salazar, and the loss of sponsor Mexmil for Dick Simon Racing, which added French driver Stephan Gregoire. Gregoire was fastest during winter testing at Phoenix, running a lap at 176.808 mph, faster than last year’s pole speed.
MESA MARIN RACEWAY
NASCAR Craftsman Truck driver Bryan Reffner can relate to the bittersweet experience of Michael Waltrip when Waltrip ended a winless streak at the Daytona 500 on the same day that his close friend, Dale Earnhardt, was killed.
Reffner had gone 111 races without a victory in the truck series before breaking through last October at Texas Motor Speedway--the same day that Tony Roper was killed in a head-on crash into the retaining wall.
“Tony was one of my closest friends, we had both raced for under-funded teams struggling to get the right opportunity,” said Reffner, 37, of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. “Tony and I had raced together in trucks and in the ASA [American Speed Assn.], his dad and my dad had raced against one another, his wife and my wife were really close.
“Like the way Michael [Waltrip] felt, it was a tremendous thrill to win my first truck race, then to have the thrill taken away when you find out later you’ve lost a good friend.”
Waltrip had gone 462 races without winning before Daytona.
“The best thing I can say about it is that all of us in the racing business may have learned something from the tragedy,” Reffner said. “If Tony had been wearing the HANS [head and neck support] device, I believe it would have saved him. A lot of us started wearing one from that day on. I don’t know if it’s the perfect answer, but it will help.”
Earnhardt’s death, in a similar accident, also led to a number of NASCAR drivers, Waltrip among them, using the HANS or similar head restraints.
Reffner will be at Mesa Marin Speedway in Bakersfield on Saturday for the 4 p.m. OSH 250, third race of the 24-race Craftsman Truck series. He will be in a Chevrolet owned by John Menard, who will also have a car for 1999 champion Greg Ray at the IRL race in Phoenix.
Before moving into trucks in 1996, Reffner was ASA rookie of the year in 1994 and its champion in 1995.
Winston West cars will race Sunday at Mesa Marin with rookie John Borneman III of Ramona looking for a second victory. Borneman, whose father, John Jr., was also a Winston West winner, drove the family-owned Ford to a one-second victory over fellow rookie Tony Schmidt last Saturday night in Tucson.
Borneman’s crew chief, Mike Harvick of Bakersfield, is the father of Kevin Harvick, who won last Sunday’s Winston Cup race in Atlanta while driving Earnhardt’s former car for Richard Childress.
After a highly successful American Speed Assn. event last Saturday night to start its third season, Irwindale will move into its regular NASCAR Weekly Racing Series on Saturday night with main events for super late models, super stocks, Grand American modifieds and Mechanix Wear super trucks.
Former Winston West champion Sean Woodside plans to run in the 100-lap super late-model race and then head for Bakersfield and Sunday’s Foods Co. 200 Winston West race. The Saugus driver won a Southwest Tour event last year at Mesa Marin as well as Winston West races in 1997, ’98 and ’99.
With the 2001 season only one race old, Jaguar has already announced a driver change--for next year.
Test driver Pedro de la Rosa, formerly with the Arrows team, has been named to drive one of Jaguar’s two cars in 2002. Not announced was the driver he will replace. Eddie Irvine, 35, has a contract through next season, and Luciano Burti, 26, was promoted from test driver this season. One of them apparently will be a lame duck for 15 more races.
The Formula One season resumes Sunday with the Malaysian Grand Prix in Kuala Lumpur. If Michael Schumacher wins in his Ferrari, he will set a modern record of six consecutive victories. He and Nigel Mansell each won five in a row.
ARCA driver Shawna Robinson has entered the April 29 Winston Cup race at California Speedway in hopes of becoming the first woman driver in NASCAR’s premier series since Patty Moise in 1989. A mother of two, Robinson, 36, will drive a Ford for Michael Kranefuss in six Cup races, in anticipation of racing for rookie-of-the-year honors in 2002. . . . Perris Auto Speedway’s late-model stock car program Saturday night has been canceled to make way for a rave at the fairgrounds.
SFX, producer of the highly successful AMA-sanctioned EA Sports Supercross series, has acquired majority interest in the International Hot Rod Assn. . . . Australian Mat Mladin, who won last year’s Daytona 200 by .011 of a second on his Suzuki, was a repeat, and more convincing, winner of the country’s most prestigious motorcycle race last week when his margin over Kawasaki rider Eric Bostrom was more than 10 seconds. Kurtis Roberts, younger brother of world Grand Prix champion Kenny Roberts Jr., finished third on a Honda.
Fifty years ago this week, Wally Parks, Ak Miller and the late Marvin Lee met at the Tam O’Shanter restaurant in Glendale to draw up papers that led to formation of the National Hot Rod Assn. Last Tuesday, Parks and Miller, along with newer members of the NHRA, met at the same place to reenact the historic event.
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This Week’s Races
WINSTON CUP, Carolina Dodge Dealers 400
* When: Saturday, qualifying (Fox Sports Net, 7:30 a.m.); Sunday, race (Ch. 11, 10 a.m.)
* Where: Darlington Raceway (oval, 1.366 miles, 25-degree banking in turns 1-2, 23 degrees in turns 3-4), Darlington, S.C.
* Race distance: 400.238 miles, 293 laps.
* Defending champion: Ward Burton.
* Next race: Food City 500, March 25, Bristol, Tenn.
* On the Net: https://www.nascar.com.
BUSCH, Suncom 200
* When: Today, qualifying (FX, 10 a.m.); Saturday, race (FX, 10 a.m.)
* Where: Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C.
* Race distance: 200.802 miles, 147 laps.
* Defending champion: Mark Martin.
* Next race: Bristol 250, March 24, Bristol, Tenn.
* On the Net: https://www.nascar.com.
CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS, OSH 250
* When: Today, qualifying, 3 p.m.; Saturday, race, 4 p.m. (ESPN2, 5 p.m.)
* Where: Mesa Marin Raceway (oval, half-mile, 17-degree banking in turns), Bakersfield.
* Race distance: 125 miles, 250 laps.
* Defending champion: Joe Ruttman.
* Next race: Advance Auto Parts 250, April 7, Martinsville, Va.
* On the Net: https://www.nascar.com.
FORMULA ONE, Malaysian Grand Prix
* When: Today, qualifying, (Speedvision, 9 p.m.); Sunday, race, (Speedvision noon)
* Where: Sepang International Circuit (permanent road course, 3.443 miles, 15 turns), Kuala Lumpar.
* Race distance: 189.365 miles, 55 laps.
* Defending champion: Michael Schumacher.
* Next race: Brazilian Grand Prix, April 1, Sao Paulo.
* On the Net: https://www.formula1.com.
INDY RACING LEAGUE, Pennzoil Copper World 200
* When: Saturday, qualifying, noon (ESPN2, 1:30 p.m., tape); Sunday, race (Ch. 7, 1 p.m.)
* Where: Phoenix International Raceway (oval, one mile, 11-degree banking in turns 1-2, 9 degrees in turns 3-4), Avondale, Ariz.
* Race distance: 200 miles, 200 laps.
* Defending champion: Buddy Lazier became first Indy Racing League driver to start last and finish first.
* Next race: Infiniti Grand Prix, April 8, Homestead, Fla.
* On the Net:https://www.indyracing.com.
NATIONAL HOT ROD ASSN., Mac Tools Gatornationals
* When: Today, first-round qualifying 8 a.m.; Saturday, second-round qualifying, 8 a.m. (ESPN, noon, tape); Sunday, final eliminations, 8 a.m. (ESPN2, 2 p.m., tape)
* Where: Gainesville Raceway, Gainesville, Fla.
* Defending champion: Jerry Toliver.
* Next race: O’Reilly Nationals, March 24, Baytown, Texas.
* On the Net: https://www.nhra.com.