Back to the Track at Last

There’s been a lot going on in American open wheel racing this past week and finally, there were cars on track.

The Indy Racing League’s IndyCar Series held its first open test of the preseason on the 2.21-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway road course for two days, then allowed teams a 24-hour period to magically transform their Dallara and Panoz chassis into oval race cars and run a final day on the south Florida 1.5-mile oval conceived by Ralph Sanchez.

For the first couple of days, the bust erected to honor Emerson Fittipaldi was missing from its familiar perch close to Victory Lane; come Saturday, when the track opened its doors to the public there was Emmo once again keeping watch over the flock.

Among the pleasant revelations at the League’s first test is the 2005 rookie crop: Ryan Briscoe driving a #33 Panoz/Toyota/Firestone for Chip Ganassi (in a three-car team); Tomas Enge in the #2 blue and yellow second Panther Dallara/Chevrolet; the third #16 Rahal Letterman Racing Panoz/Honda for Danica Patrick and an undisclosed (likely #91 Dallara/Toyota) Hemelgarn Indy car for Menards Infiniti Pro Series grad Paul Dana.

After two days of testing on the 12-turn Homestead road course, Andretti Green Racing’s Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon logged the best laps in their Dallara/Hondas, but there was Briscoe third and Helio Castroneves fourth (Team Penske #3 Dallara/Toyota).

With the first Indy Racing League road contest at St. Petersburg, FL in early April, these two days were extremely important. Different packages dotted the top ten as teams grappled with new brakes (steel rotors mandated) and stronger suspensions.

Testing times don’t tell everything. Some teams were making their first forays while others had previous testing times and were moving on to garner some speed.

The Cosworth arm of GM Racing was on hand with Bruce Wood, who managed Champ Car’s program and the exemplary 2.65-liter turbocharged, 750-horsepower engine that rarely has a hiccup, arrived to oversee just two Panther entries for Enge and veteran Tomas Scheckter. Other familiar UK-based elves were seen scurrying around the two Panther cars.

Notable by their absences: Kelley Racing, Patrick Racing, Mo Nunn Racing, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises. The latter turned up late Friday for the Saturday oval test with A.J. Foyt IV relegated to an unmarked green and white #14 Dallara/Toyota. Is this grandpa’s commentary on the IRL’s road racing?

As crews scurried to set up cars for the single-day oval test, the IRL took some time to talk about the three new road/street course venues and how they’re going to approach qualifying at those races. Practice and qualifying will be way different at these three events.

For the first time, the League is permitting tire warmers – for road and street courses only. Friday morning all-car practice will set dual Friday afternoon practices (slow group then fast group) to determine Saturday’s qualifying order with the top dog deciding whether to go first or last.

Seventh place and lower – in what looks like a 21-car field – will be determined by a single lap; green flag first time by and checkered next time ’round. The top six drivers will get an Euro-style ten minute shootout that will figure out who gets P1 through P6.

According to the IRL’s new president and CEO Brian Barnhart, they’ll let the fastest driver out first and the rest every ten seconds. Hare and hounds anyone?

Back to basics the Indy cars went on Saturday as they grappled with the 1.5-mile oval, site of the season opener. Top spot went to the same guy who took pole position here last year: Buddy Rice in the #15 Panoz/Honda from Rahal Letterman’s garage.

The Panoz, nee Panoz G Force has had its name shortened for simplicity over the winter and, while Rice was quickest of all, the second place car was a surprise. Anybody remember Scott Sharp? Now driving a Fernandez Racing Panoz/Honda after working with Tom Kelley over the last few years, Sharp has landed in the right spot it appears.

At the same time, the architect of Dan Wheldon’s success at Andretti Green Racing over the past two years won’t be there any more, we learned as the weekend waned. Tony Cotman, who Wheldon called “the brother”, left AGR for another job, after being with the team from its inception. Where did he go?

Cotman joined the Champ Car World Series to take the position vacated by John Lopes (VP Operations) who just joined AGR. Wheldon was one of my IRL championship picks for the 2005 season but without Tony’s guidance he might be just another good driver.

The innate racing knowledge Tony Cotman possesses is immeasurable and, if this swap of prominent players is tit for tat, my heartiest congratulations to Champ Car, who appear to have gotten the better end of the deal. I look for Cotman to make intelligent decisions as he works to put an officiating team in place that will ensure proper racing decisions.

It remains to be seen if Cotman’s change of venue will really make much of a difference for either Andretti Green Racing and/or the Champ Car World Series, but at least, as January 2005 wanes there’s the scream of racing engines in the south Florida air, the sweet smell of methanol and raging politics as usual.

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