League Lights It Up

Anne Proffit
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FONTANA, March 8, 2005 - The Indy Racing League IndyCar Series started with a literal big bang this weekend on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway.

A crowd estimated anywhere from 30- to 50,000 came to party and watch some racing in the 200-lap Toyota Indy 300 and what they had was an entertaining show.

Of course the one thing anyone will remember about this race, #1 in a season of 17 contests is not who won but who crashed and how.

Dan Wheldon was the consensus winner after leading 158 laps and completing the distance nearly a straightaway ahead of Sam Hornish Jr., who passed Wheldon's blocking teammate Tony Kanaan on the last lap. Too little too late for Sam, who was hoping to win this race for the second straight time and the fourth in five tries.

Wheldon did make it interesting by earning 11th on the 22-car grid and stating, "We suck in qualifying" afterwards. Candor is so refreshing. Perhaps he and engineer Eddie Jones can't quite figure out that end yet, but they've got the racing part handled and, with John "Ando" Anderson manning the headset Danny boy had a quick ride to the front.

He was in the lead by the 20th lap and paced the field four times en route to a fourth IndyCar Series win, one that mirrored Wheldon's coming-of-age victory at Twin Ring Motegi last April in the IRL's last gasp for the 3.5-liter engine formula.

Wheldon, together with Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta have the Dallara/Honda/Firestone package at their disposal, with an engine that has won all but two of the last 17 IndyCar Series races.

Toyota is making progress these days it appears, but not enough to outrun these Hondas. That Hornish finished second, albeit 3.69 seconds away is a good run for the 2003 engine champs; his teammate Helio Castroneves was fifth in the other Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota and Darren Manning finished sixth in Team Target's Panoz/Toyota.

Not much was expected of Chevrolet this weekend, after their vow to bow at the end of the season. Chevy decided to field only one two-car team, allowing GM Racing to place all of its emphasis on winning with Panther Racing.

Tomas Scheckter put his Pennzoil Dallara/Chevy on pole for the first time since Michigan in 2003, quite a drought for the South African speedster. Nobody - other than his team - expected Scheckter to go the distance and he did not, getting caught up in The Big One.

As has been his way, Jody's kid raced hard all day, but inconsistently. He vanished from the top ten each time he pitted (two of three times under yellow) and burst to the front once the track went green again. As always Scheckter is great fun to watch, but he sure is scary.

Another scary guy out there was Kosuke Matsuura, who earned Bombardier Rookie of the Year in 2004 driving for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing in a Panoz/Honda. Matsuura was deemed dangerous by a few of his competitors for some outside moves during his rookie year, but Sunday's outside pass of Scheckter in the marbles at a restart was over the top.

The result was eight cars out of a field that had already lost four for various reasons. That meant the final order had ten cars running when they went green on lap 176 and quite a few departures from the stands.

It also meant the end of Danica Patrick's Day in one of Rahal Letterman's Panoz/Hondas. Patrick qualified a solid ninth and had just gotten into tenth place after battling mid-field for much of the contest. Her team was mighty excited by the lass' progress and thought she had a chance for a good finish.

As an aside, after qualifying on Saturday one wag had commented, "We learned a couple of things so far this weekend: Chevrolet is still the heartbeat of America and Danica Patrick has balls." Right on both accounts, it appears although the second Chevrolet of Tomas Enge never made the quarter-race bell due to gearbox problems.

Patrick was the sole driver to go to hospital after the eight-car melee but was released by 6:30PM EST the same evening. She had a mild concussion and no recollection of even racing on Sunday.

Hopefully she's gotten that saying about there being two types of Indy drivers out of the way now: those who have hit the wall and those who will hit the wall.

Another rookie Ryan Briscoe learned the lesson twice, crashing his Target Panoz/Toyota in the last practice before qualifying and again in the race. First time he entered the pits too hot - as did teammate Scott Dixon in the 2004 race here - and second time he overdrove. The only good thing is that Briscoe admitted to both mistakes, a rather unusual occurrence.

The sole rookie to finish his first IndyCar Series race, Paul Dana was eight laps down but used his mirrors all day in an initial drive for Ethanol Hemelgarn's Dallara/Toyota. Dana appeared to stay out of the pack, didn't race with the leaders (a common problem with rookies) and quietly made it through the morass in front of him.

In another bit of candor, two days after this race Patrick Carpentier admitted he was unnerved racing in such very close company. Having left the Champ Car World Series after being shuffled aside by Gerald Forsythe last year, Carpentier had a tough first IRL race with Red Bull Cheever Racing's Dallara/Toyota.

His gearbox stuck in fourth for qualifying, rendering the French-Canadian 19th on the grid. Carpentier worked up to seventh at the close thanks to the attrition. No doubt he now understands there's a longer "period of adjustment" than he originally thought.

Last season's Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice qualified well (fourth) but engine problems put Rice out after 92 laps. Dario Franchitti too suffered engine problems after lining up fifth. Is there a chink in Honda's armor?

Probably not but it gives good storylines to next week's Phoenix International Raceway contest on the fast and tricky mile oval, doesn't it? And in less than a month the world turns upside down as the Indy Racing League goes street racing.

How strange is that?

I guess we'll see.

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