Spring Classic on Tap

INDIANAPOLIS, May 10, 2005 – There’s a lot of anticipation and excitement for the 89th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race and why not?

Despite the continuation of the Great American Open Wheel Civil War the field is fuller than it has been in some time and offers more depth than any since the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series’ inception ten years ago.

There are two carpetbaggers on the grounds of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the form of Newman Haas Racing, the Lincolnshire, IL team bringing both of their Champ Car stars to contest the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

After trying to work out the logistics for the past two years, 2004 Champ Car titleholder Sebastien Bourdais is finally at IMS and handily passed his Rookie Orientation Program Monday.

NHR retains a satellite crew on Gasoline Alley to handle preparation of the Frenchman’s cars along with those for veteran Bruno Junqueira, the 2001 Indy 500 polesitter making his fourth Indy start and second with NHR.

Bourdais and Junqueira have a busy month ahead of them; they absolutely must qualify this weekend because the Champ Car World Series holds its second of 14 events in Monterrey, Mexico May 22nd, the traditional and fourth bumping day of qualifying. (More about that later)

Although there are only three previous winners in the field this year – Helio Castroneves (2001-2), Buddy Lazier (1996) and 2004 victor Buddy Rice – there are champions from the IRL and other open wheel series.

At least 34 drivers have passed physicals required to compete in this race, meaning the field might actually be full in 2005.

Sam Hornish Jr., the 2001-2 IndyCar Series titleholder is trying once again to make his mark on the Brickyard oval. After all, the primary reason he joined Marlboro Team Penske is to accomplish that goal, cut short in 2004 by the customary Greg Ray incident, in which the Texan made contact with Darren Manning and collected Hornish. Thankfully, Ray is not competing in 2005.

The League’s first co-champion Scott Sharp is back with a vengeance this year, enjoying the competitive nature of his Delphi/Fernandez Racing package of Panoz chassis and Honda engine. The veteran is almost giddy about his chances for this race as well as for the entire 17-race IndyCar Series season.

Tony Kanaan, the reigning IndyCar Series champion intends to move up one position this year after finishing second in 2004, when the race was halted after 180 laps for rain, tornados and hail. His Andretti Green Racing team has the strength of their traditional four entries, including current point leader and three-race winner Dan Wheldon, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta.

Not only does 1996 Indianapolis winner Buddy Lazier have a viable ride with Byrd Brothers/Panther Racing that will see the veteran perform in this race only with a Dallara/Chevrolet combination, Lazier is charged with assisting rookie Tomas Enge learn the proper line around the vaunted IMS 2.5-mile oval.

Rookie Enge also has skilled engineer Andy Borme and spotter Tom Sneva to assist him. He’s still feeling the effects of that nasty crunch against the Twin Ring Motegi SAFER barrier a couple of weeks ago and his ribs are bandaged for protection. Enge offered to sell his motorhome to help pay for damages to the car at Motegi; Panther Racing refused the offer.

Teammate Tomas Scheckter is in a silver Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevy this month and it feels strange not to see him in that bright yellow car. Wags in the media center are taking bets on how many laps will be run in the 200-tour enduro before Scheckter and the wall become intimate once more.

In addition to Bourdais and Enge among the crop of eight rookies, IRL regulars Danica Patrick, Ryan Briscoe, Patrick Carpentier and Paul Dana passed their rookie tests over the weekend with Patrick who finished fourth in Japan fastest on both rookie test days.

Yeah, Danica got a tow from Briscoe on Sunday and Enge on Monday, but when running alone, the lass from Roscoe, IL was still darn quick.

Dana did his rookie test quickly on Sunday and retired to his nearby home, nursing a bad cold he acquired on the trip to Japan. His Ethanol/Hemelgarn crew expects to return in time to ready for Pole Day Saturday.

The one-off drivers that come to Indianapolis every year like Buddy Lazier, who lost his ride with Hemelgarn a year ago, brother Jaques Lazier and Richie Hearn are all in place to make their 2005 attempts to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. The biggest difference is that they’re here now, on the track well before the first day of qualifying.

Jaques Lazier has teamed up with the new Playa Del Racing and has a brace of Panoz/Toyota machines at his disposal. Hearn, who hasn’t been able to run the complete schedule at Indy since 1996 is here with Sam Schmidt Motorsports again using the unique combination of Panoz/Chevrolet, wearing the colors of Meijer (supermarkets) and Coca-Cola, entities that previously backed Arie Luyendyk and Robby Gordon.

Because Indy has an hour later start this year we can forget the “double” of racing the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. But there is one driver aiming to win another type of “double play”: Canadian and rolling chicane Marty Roth hopes to win both the Futaba Freedom 100 and Indy 500. And pigs are flying, Marty.

Indefatigable A.J. Foyt Jr. has entries for grandson Anthony (A.J. IV), son Larry and Scott Mayer, who’s been having a bear of a time getting up to speed with a Dallara/Toyota and has been on the receiving end of verbal wrath from Super Tex, giving Anthony a break from grandpa’s harassment.

Chip Ganassi, at the behest of engine maker Toyota purchased Dallara chassis for evaluation and had Scott Dixon run the tub in Japan. The Kiwi was collected in rookie Jeff Bucknum’s first lap crashola so he’s sampling the Dallara again here.

2003 IRL champ Dixon is slower than both of his two teammates (again) who continue with the Panoz Ganassi’s Target team has utilized since returning to Indy and winning with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000.

Now, about those new qualifying rules: this year every day is “bump day” as 11 cars qualify on the first three days of time trials, this coming Saturday and Sunday along with May 21st.

Once 11 cars accept their attempts on those three days, bumping ensues. The objective in this exercise is to get more folks to the track as attendance has lapsed since IMS and IRL owner Tony George started the Indy Racing League. Sunday the 22nd is traditional Bump Day.

Whether this qualifying scheme will work well or not is anyone’s guess, but this year’s Indy 500 sure looks like it could shape up to be a classic. And open wheel racing sure needs a spring classic, doesn’t it?

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