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Friday, December 13, 2002
Ten questions surrounding Indy
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online
Indy starts this weekend. No, not the Indy 500, but all of the practice, preparations, qualifying and bumping that makes up the Month of May.
We at ABC Sports will be there in force to cover everything that is the Indy 500 with our qualifying shows, Bubble Day shows and, of course, the running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 26th.
Between now and then we will have answers to many questions. The top 10 are listed below.
1. Will A. J. Foyt's newest driver be a "500" factor?
Foyt gets more than a Texas neighbor with his hiring of Greg Ray. Greg's cousin, Thomas Knapp, who has been connected to much of Greg's success, quietly resigned from Kelley Racing following the Firestone 225 at Nazareth. They communicate well and seem to have a complete understanding of each other's foibles, strengths and weaknesses. When Greg signed with Kelley at the end of last season, part of the agreement was Kelley's adding of Knapp. Is Knapp headed to Foyt? You betcha! Look for an announcement this week.
2. Can Eddie Cheever Jr. win another Indy 500?
When the former F1 driver scored his "500" win in 1998, he was a one-car team with marginal funding but excellent personnel. Since then, Cheever has expanded to a full-time two-car IRL operation, adding rookie Tomas Scheckter. Cheever is the lead developer for Nissan's Infiniti engine project. What once was described as a small group of pirates is now aptly called a "navy" by Cheever.
Excellent funding from Red Bull Energy beverage, along with strong engine development from Tom Wakinshaw's Formula One team, gives Cheever all the components for another win. Just last week, the team expanded to a three-car effort for this year's 500 with the addition of Italian Max Papis from the FedEx Champ Car circuit.
3. Is Buddy Lazier ready for another 500 crown
|Eddie Cheever Jr. is hoping he can return to Victory Lane.|
Lazier's Coors Light team has struggled a bit in the first part of '02. That's nothing new. His Hemelgarn team always has teething issues early in a season, but always gets its act together during the month of May. Lazier has all the pieces for a spirited run at a win to bookend his '96 victory. Don't look for a lot of noise from the Vail, Colo., developer until Mary George gives the command to start the engines. This team spends the whole month working on race setups. They will start at the front, but they don't let the lure of sitting on the Indy 500 pole distract them from the ultimate prize.
4. Can Scott Sharp atone for last year's first lap gaffe?
Sharp says that was then and this is now. I don't believe him. His first lap spin after dominating qualifying and practice last year has gnawed at the talented racer since he was released from Indy's infield care center following the embarrassing moment.
Winning at Nazareth put momentum on his and Kelley Racing's side going into Indy. The addition of two-time Indy 500 Champ Al Unser Jr. makes Kelley a formidable team. Hell hath no fury like a man with a monkey on his back. These are two drivers who know Indianapolis is the key to silencing any critics and Tom Kelley has given them the best of everything.
5. Can Team Penske win another 500?
Is the Sky Blue? There is no one better prepared for the ups and downs that the Indianapolis 500 presents than Roger Penske. Roger's two drivers, Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, swept the two top spots in last year's race with only one Indy Racing League start under their belts. This year they are full-time on the IRL circuit and have an excellent feel for the high downforce and nuances that the cars have.
6. Is Sam Hornish Jr. ready?
Hornish has said for more than a year that his early race spin delivered the Indy 500 to Castroneves. Much the way last year eats at Scott Sharp, so too does it for the defending Indy Racing League champ. Pennzoil Panther has produced an incredible record since adding the former karting ace to its stable. This season all of its efforts are in Sam's camp. There are no distractions like last year's assist they provided to Michael Andretti. Should Hornish win, I wonder if his likeness on the Borg-Warner trophy will include his little goatee?
7. Will Andretti slow down the backstretch?
|Sam Hornish Jr. heads to Indy with the confidence he can earn the glass of milk.|
Outside of the legendary Bettenhausen family, I cannot think of another Indy Car family that has such a star-crossed relationship with the Indianapolis 500. When Michael Andretti's father, Mario, snared the 1969 Indy 500, few would have believed that it would be the first and last win by the first family of Nazareth, Pa. Michael comes to the Brickyard this season with his full-time CART family. Team Green will have his Motorola/Budweiser mount ready for 200 laps around the oval. And Michael recently told me that he doesn't buy into any of the "bad karma" talk that always surrounds his Indy 500 runs.
8. Will John Menard finally get a 500 win?
No guy has spent more or come closer than building supply magnate John Menard. His romance with the Indianapolis 500 is well chronicled. Before Nazareth, it looked like he would have an excellent chance to end his Indy frustrations. But the injury to his regular driver, Jaques Lazier, leaves the team scurrying for a replacement driver, while prepping for the addition of Robby Gordon.
Gordon is another who thinks Indy owes him something. The last time he and Menard were together, they came up less than a gallon short of the methanol they needed to replace Kenny Brack in the 1999 "500" winner's circle. Instead, Brack got the milk and the call from the King of Sweden.
9. Will Sarah Fisher make it necessary for the command to be "Lady and Gentlemen start your engines"?
Fisher showed the world when given a good car and a good team that she can run with the guys. This woman is no Lyn St. James. Gender is not an issue. What is an issue is whether or not Robbie Buhl's Team Purex can get all the pieces of the puzzle in place so that the 21-year-old Fisher can join them.
What was Fisher doing in Cambridge, Ma., this weekend touring Harvard University? Could there be an Indy Cahhh in Havahd Yahaad?
10. Will it be an IRL team or a CART team that wins?
Everyone carped about the absence of CART's top guns at some of the early Indy 500s run under the Indy Racing League. Now the top teams from all of Indy Car racing are set to unload in Gasoline Alley. There is no denying that the Indy Racing League wants one of its own to be victorious. It is not of paramount importance. It's a matter of pride and the spark to a rivalry.
These are just some of the questions that we will have answered by the first of June. As more and more miles are turned at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, other questions will find answers as well.
It's Indy. The month of May. A most glorious time to be "Back Home Again In Indiana!"
Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.