Seconds Will Count in Race for First in IRL

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The Indy Racing League, which has produced the closest wheel-to-wheel finishes in racing this year, is closing its season with a similar finish.

After 14 races, Sam Hornish Jr. holds a 12-point lead over Helio Castroneves heading for the season finale Sunday, the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. Fifty-two points are at stake in the race.

The rival drivers agree that the race--and the championship--will probably not be decided until the last lap or two after 200 trips around the 1.5-mile oval. That has been the pattern in IRL races this season.


Hornish, the defending series champion, took the lead from Castroneves, the Indianapolis 500 winner, Sunday at Chicagoland when he edged Al Unser Jr. by .0024 of a second--about three inches--after 200 laps to win the Delphi Indy 300. It was the seventh IRL race this season that had been won by less than a second.

“We’re going to Texas to win the race because we know if we do that, the title will take care of itself,” said Hornish, 23, of Defiance, Ohio. “But we also know that we have 300 miles to go and a lot can change quickly.

“Our first priority will be to keep ahead of Helio, but I feel sure the winner won’t be decided until the last lap or two. I just hope we’ll be there.”

Hornish knows something about tight finishes. He beat Scott Sharp by .0188 of a second last October at Texas and he lost to Airton Dare by .1741 in July at Kansas.

“These races keep getting closer and closer, and pretty soon I’m not going to be able to tell the difference,” said the former Grand National karting champion.

Hornish and Unser raced side by side at 220 mph for the final 21 laps last week, a situation that frustrated Castroneves, who was right behind them but couldn’t pass because there was no room.


“It was like going to Afghanistan with only a knife,” the little Brazilian said.

Before that race, Castroneves had been the points leader. He, Penske Racing teammate Gil de Ferran and Hornish had been waging a season-long battle for the championship. De Ferran, who is 38 points behind Hornish, will miss the Texas race after suffering a concussion at Chicago.

“We have been the hunted, now we are the hunter,” said Castroneves. “There is only one guy we are hunting, and that’s Sam. It would not surprise me if the two of us were right there together on the last lap.

“It should be an unbelievable race because there are a lot of other good drivers, with no chance to win the championship, who will want to close the year with a win.”

Hornish will be easy to spot in the bright yellow Pennzoil Panther Dallara, as will Castroneves in the distinctive red and white Marlboro Penske Dallara. Both are the colors of champions, Pennzoil having been on the sides of winning Indy cars driven by Johnny Rutherford and Rick Mears, Marlboro having been in the Indy winner’s circle with Emerson Fittipaldi, Mears, Unser and Castroneves.

The points lead has changed hands four times in the last six races and after each of the last three. If Hornish and Castroneves end up tied in points, Hornish will collect the $1-million bonus because he will have the most victories--four. He scored his others at Homestead-Miami, California Speedway and Richmond, Va.

Castroneves, 27, applauded Penske’s hiring of CART veteran Max Papis as a replacement for De Ferran. Papis, who won CART races last year at Portland and Laguna Seca, lost his ride when his Sigma team dropped out of racing.


“The more cars, the better to mix up the points, the more chances for someone else to finish ahead of Sam,” he said. “Maybe Max can help me climb another fence.”

The excitable Castroneves has endeared himself to fans by climbing out of his car and climbing the nearest fence after winning a race.

Hornish will also have a teammate, rookie Dan Wheldon of England, who finished 10th in his IRL debut last week.

A win by either Hornish or Castroneves would provide a little history. Hornish would become the first driver to win the IRL title twice, and Castroneves would become the first to win the Indy 500 and IRL championship in the same year. Jacques Villeneuve, in 1995, the last year before the IRL-CART split, was the last to win the 500 and season championship, when CART was the sanctioning body.

Cory Kruseman, Sprint Car Racing Assn. champion from Ventura, will make his IRL debut Sunday, driving for PDM Racing, the team that launched Hornish’s career in 2000. Kruseman, who will be 32 on Sept. 20, is the SCRA’s all-time winner with 56.


Is CART becoming open-wheel racing’s development series?

Four of its last five champions have left, De Ferran to the IRL, Juan Montoya, Alex Zanardi and Villeneuve to Formula One. Now Cristiano da Matta, its likely 2002 champion, appears to be heading to F1 with Toyota.


Toyota has announced it is dropping Allan McNish and Mika Salo and is looking for two new drivers next year. Da Matta is expected to be named before the U.S. Grand Prix on Sept. 29 in Indianapolis.

“Toyota is a very unique Formula One team that comes in with a good budget and good prospects for the future,” Da Matta told the Associated Press in England where he will drive in Saturday’s Rockingham 500. “I think it could be very good for me.”

Da Matta, who has won six races this year, tested for Toyota on May 17 in France and described the experience as “very good.”


Some of the world’s most sophisticated racing bikes will be running Sunday when the Willow Springs Motorcycle Club hosts a $150,000 Toyota 200 Unlimited Motorcycle Grand Prix at Willow Springs Raceway. There will be no limitation on horsepower, engine configuration, displacement or weight.

“We should see some real high-performance machines out here,” said track owner Bill Huth. “We may even see the outright motorcycle lap record broken at this event.”

Steve Rapp holds the record over the 2.5-mile road course of 113.882 mph.

Vincent Haskovec, a Czech living at Lake Elsinore, has the fastest qualifying speed of 109.110 and qualifying continues today for the 1 p.m. race Sunday. Other front row starters are Aaron Gobert of Australia and Jeremy Toye of San Diego.


Club racing is scheduled Saturday and Sunday mornings. The feature race will pay $50,000 to the winner.

Street-Legal Drags

In a throwback to the early days of drag racing, the So-Cal Speed Shop will hold a session for pre-1974 hot rods on Sunday at Irwindale Dragstrip’s eighth-mile strip. Alex Xydias, Speed Shop founder and a pioneer in drag racing, will be grand marshal of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. get-together.... California Speedway will also hold street-legal racing, starting at 8 a.m. Saturday and Sunday on its quarter-mile strip.

Last Laps

With two races remaining in the NASCAR super late model stock car series at Irwindale Speedway, Rip Michels leads Brandon Loverock, 698-640, with Tony Bruncati next at 618. The super late models head Saturday night’s program.

Renny Harlin, director of the CART movie “Driven,” with Sylvester Stallone, is driving in the world offshore powerboat racing series. He failed to finish last Sunday in Izmir, Turkey, but plans to drive Sept. 27 in the Fujairah Grand Prix in the United Arab Emirates.

The Oval Nationals, richest nonwinged sprint car race in history with a purse of $100,000, is scheduled Nov. 2 at Perris Auto Speedway, but Sprint Car Racing Assn. drivers will get a tuneup there Saturday night in a 30-lap main event. Richard Griffin has a 369-point lead over Kruseman in his bid for a fourth SCRA title.

The Las Vegas Primm 300, Round 5 of the six-race SCORE Desert Series, will be run Saturday on the California-Nevada border at Primm. The event will be split into two races over a 70-mile course. One, for slower classes, will start at 6 a.m., with the truck classes and unlimited Class 1 starting at 2 p.m. Six-time SCORE class champion Rob MacCachran will try an unusual double, sharing the wheel with Gustavo Vildosola in the trophy truck race and then doing the same thing in an open-wheel desert car with John Making in Class 1.




*--* IRL Driver Standings Though 14 of 15 races No Driver Points 1 Sam Hornish Jr 481 2 Helio Castroneves 469 3 Gil de Ferran 443 4 Felipe Giaffone 419 5 Alex Barron 336 6 Al Unser Jr 301 7 Scott Sharp 300 8 Airton Dare 286 9 Buddy Lazier 279 10 Jeff Ward 263