The weeks of waiting and
wondering are nearly over. Indy Racing League teams have worked during the
offseason on every aspect of their programs. Engines. Chassis. Some have
added new drivers and crew members. Some are joining the league for the
first time. Most have turned hundreds and hundreds of miles of test laps.
But all that time, there still have been questions gnawing away at these
teams. And there's only one place where those teams can find answers - the
20th Anniversary Grand Prix of Miami on Saturday, March 2 at Homestead-Miami
Speedway, the inaugural event of the 15-race Indy Racing League season in
Test laps are useful, but nothing gives an Indy Racing team perspective like
a race. It's the truest barometer of performance.
Here are a few questions that may be answered on the 1.5-mile oval at
Homestead-Miami during the Grand Prix of Miami:
*Can Sam do it again? When Sam Hornish Jr. won this race last year for his
second consecutive victory of the season in as many starts, many Indy Racing
observers and teammates started to believe that he was capable of winning
the series title in just his second season of Indy Racing. Hornish did more
than win - he dominated. Hornish clinched the title with three victories and
11 top-five finishes in 13 starts during a dream season. Can Hornish repeat
that brilliance this year with Pennzoil Panther Racing and become the first
driver in league history to win two consecutive league championships? He
already has sent a message to his rivals, posting the fastest overall lap of
179.803 mph during the Test in the West Feb. 8-9 at Phoenix International
*How fast will Penske adjust? Marlboro Team Penske, the winningest team in
Indy-style racing history, will compete full time this year in the Indy
Racing League with drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. How quickly
will the team adapt to racing exclusively on ovals with an equipment package
that it's used in only two races? It probably won't take long, if preseason
testing is any indication. Two-time CART champion de Ferran and 2001
Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves were among the fastest drivers each day
of the preseason Test in the West Feb. 6-9 at California Speedway and
Phoenix International Raceway. de Ferran and Castroneves, both South Florida
residents, could launch their full-time Indy Racing League careers with
victories at Homestead-Miami, their home track.
*Is this Eliseo's year? Veteran Eliseo Salazar, a suburban Miami resident,
returns to A.J. Foyt Racing for the third consecutive year. That familiarity
with Foyt's operation could help Salazar contend for his first Indy Racing
League championship. He finished fifth in the series point standings last
season, helped by a third-place finish at Homestead-Miami.
*Who will win the power struggle? General Motors engines have won all five
season titles and all but two races since the Indy Racing League introduced
its normally aspirated engine formula in 1997. But this could be a
breakthrough year for Infiniti in the IRL, as the manufacturer will have at
least four cars using its 35A engine. Infiniti standard bearers Eddie
Cheever Jr. and Robbie Buhl return, and promising rookie Laurent Redon will
use an Infiniti engine. Cheever also will field a second car, with the
driver to be named soon. But Chevrolet is back in Indy-style racing starting
this year in the IRL, and its powerful engine will be used by nearly every
team and showed increased performance during preseason testing.
*Which Lazier will be fastest? Buddy Lazier has been a dominant star of the
Indy Racing League since the series debuted in 1996. He has a series-record
eight career Indy Racing victories with Hemelgarn Racing, including the 1996
Indianapolis 500. He won the 2000 series title and finished runner-up last
year with a league-record four victories. But Buddy's younger brother,
Jaques, will make a run for the title of fastest Lazier this year in his
first full season with Team Menard. Jaques Lazier earned a victory and pole
in just three starts with Team Menard last year and could contend for the
Indy Racing League title this year. There's little doubt that the Laziers
will be the fastest brothers on wheels this year in American racing.
*Will Blair and Mo Nunn make a seamless transition? Marlboro Team Penske
isn't the only team moving to Indy Racing from CART this year. Blair Racing
and Hollywood Mo Nunn Racing also will make their Indy Racing debuts this
year. Veteran Alex Barron, who has one career Indy Racing start, will drive
for Blair. 2001 Chevy Rookie of the Year Felipe Giaffone will drive for Mo
Nunn. How quickly will these teams get up to speed as they adjust to racing
full time on ovals with Indy Racing League equipment?
*Will a rookie win a race? A
rookie hasn't won an Indy Racing League event since Jim Guthrie stunned the
field in 1997 at Phoenix. Can that drought end this year? Rookies entered to
compete in the Grand Prix of Miami include Rick Treadway with Treadway and
Associates Racing, Anthony Lazzaro with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Laurent
Redon with Mi-Jack/Conquest Racing, George Mack with 310 Racing, Hideki Noda
with Convergent Racing and John de Vries with Brayton Racing. Tomas
Scheckter was among the five fastest drivers each day of the Test in the
West while serving as a test driver for Red Bull Cheever Racing and could
earn the second seat for the team owned by 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner
Eddie Cheever Jr.
Practice for the 200-lap, 300-mile race starts at 10 a.m. (EST) Feb. 28.
MBNA Pole Qualifying takes place at 12:30 p.m. March 1, with the race
getting underway at 1 p.m. March 2, live on ABC.
to discuss this article