Ten newcomers spice IRL's Richmond return

Friday, June 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) _ With 21 cars entered in the SunTrust Indy Challenge, nearly half the field will be newcomers racing for the first time on the IRL's shortest track.

They would do well to listen to Sam Hornish Jr., the series champion and runner-up last year at Richmond International Raceway.

``You're running side-by-side most of the race, or you're going to be right near somebody almost all the race,'' Hornish said Thursday. ``You're just kind of waiting to see what happens next the whole time.

``You want to be up toward the front because that's where you stay out of problems, and just be ready to have to make some quick moves.''

The series made a wild debut at Richmond a year ago, when the three-quarter-mile oval proved too small for half the field. Nine of the 20 cars in the race crashed long before the finish.

Indy 500 winner Brazil's Helio Castroneves will be one of several newcomers in the field. He'll be trying to maintain his lead in the point standings by avoiding the tow truck fate that befell so many others last year.

``It's definitely going to be a handling situation,'' Castroneves said after two days of testing. ``It's not one of those tracks that you just stamp on it and forget about it. It's going to be very interesting.''

A year ago, Buddy Lazier took some of the interest away, leading an IRL record 224 of the 250 laps and beating Hornish by 4.88 seconds.

With 87 caution laps and all the damaged cars at the end, the race looked a lot like the NASCAR races Virginia fans have been supporting in huge numbers for a half-century. Track officials and the IRL were keenly interested in how the second open-wheel race will draw Saturday night.

Track officials have declined to say how many tickets have been sold, but president Doug Fritz hopes Virginians will show they are racing fans, not just NASCAR fans.

``It's a lot of speed, a lot of excitement,'' Fritz said.

Last year's race drew about 40,000. Crowd or not, the track has already become a favorite of drivers.

The D-shaped oval, said Eddie Cheever Jr., ``is like fighter planes in a gym. You never get to rest, to back off, or to sweep a mistake under the carpet. If you make a mistake at this place, you will spin. End of story.''

Cheever found that out last year when he challenged leader Eliseo Salazar in Turn 3 with 37 laps to go. The cars bumped and were finished for the night, allowing Lazier to retake the lead and win.

``It's ultra-exciting,'' Cheever said.

Airton Dare was challenging for the top spot when his right front wheel clipped the left rear of Felipe Giaffone's, crashing both cars.

The crash was Dare's first in 19 races, and he said Saturday night's race will again prove to be a test of driver skill and endurance.

``You need to be in better shape than the other (races), especially your shoulders and arms, because the only time you are not turning is a couple seconds on the back straightaway,'' said Dare, who had run 182 of the 250 laps before crashing in 2001.

Giaffone, the IRL's rookie of the year last season, said drivers can easily get into trouble on this track.

``If you get to the end of the race, you should be in good shape,'' he said.