Brazilian rookie Helio Castroneves made Roger Penske's return to
Indy a sweet one
Roger Penske was on the schneid in late May. He had gone six
years without one of his cars appearing in the Indy 500--a
nightmare year in 1995, when his two cars failed to qualify,
followed by a five-year absence because most CART car owners
boycotted the race in a dispute with the rival IRL. However,
Chip Ganassi's return to Indy last year and his win with rookie
driver Juan Montoya enticed other CART owners, including Penske,
to race at the Brickyard this year. "Roger pushed the whole
month [before the race]," says Gil de Ferran, who drives for
Penske. "To get cars built, to get engines built, pushing,
pushing, pushing." When Brazil's Helio Castroneves won the race
on Sunday, finishing 1.7 seconds ahead of de Ferran to give
Penske a one-two showing, the pushing paid off.
Penske wasn't the only big name to return to Indy. CART driver
Michael Andretti finished third in his first race at the
Brickyard since 1995. The CART boycott had been especially tough
on the 38-year-old Andretti, who has one of the longest lists of
near misses in Indy history. "Five really good years in the
prime of my career to win this thing, and they were taken from
me," he said on Saturday. "Last year was the worst. I was
watching the race, and I thought, What's going on? If Juan can
be there, why can't we? I was upset because I really pushed hard
to make it happen with [owner] Carl Haas, but he didn't want to
know about it."
After last season Andretti and Haas split up, and Andretti joined
Barry Green, who was amenable to a Brickyard effort. Andretti led
for 16 laps on Sunday, giving him 398 laps led in his Brickyard
career, the most of any driver without a win. Still, it was
Castroneves who led at the end, marking the first time since 1926
and '27 that rookie drivers had won at Indy in successive years.
Castroneves, 26, is known as Spiderman because he has a penchant
for climbing trackside fences following his victory. At Indy he
invited his crew to join him in his Peter Parker impersonation.
They all did, except Penske, who was in a more reflective mood.
"It's the best day of my life, redeeming myself like this,"
The win might have officially belonged to the guy scaling the
fence, but looking at Penske, you couldn't help but feel that
this one was his.
Chip Ganassi's Day
Six Cars and a Ton of Cash
On Sunday morning Chip Ganassi found something rare for a man
spending the weekend in a hotel with his wife and four-year-old
daughter: time to himself. He woke at six, and as his family
slept, he made a cup of coffee and savored the peace and quiet.
Combining serenity with caffeine wasn't a bad idea. The day ahead
promised to be long and hectic.
Four of Ganassi's cars would run in the Indy 500, and two others
would race in the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 that night in Concord,
N.C. Ganassi had planned to run only two cars at Indy, with
rookies Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian driving. But after
CART canceled two of its first three oval races, Ganassi sought
more experienced drivers.
His choices were Tony Stewart, a Hoosier with a serious Indy 500
jones, and Jimmy Vasser, who had driven for Ganassi for six
colorful years. In June 1999 Vasser said of his boss at the time,
"There is no I in team, but there is in Chip." In August 2000
Ganassi released Vasser. The two rarely mince words, which
explains why they still get along.
Once Stewart and Vasser had qualified, Ganassi gave his rookies
the opportunity to make the field, which they did. On race day
Ganassi focused his energies on Stewart, who fought off stiffness
in his right foot to finish sixth. Vasser came in fourth,
Junqueira fifth and Minassian, who had gearbox problems, 29th.
Following the race, Ganassi schmoozed in his hospitality tent
before packing his Lear with employees, friends and business
associates for the 55-minute flight to Concord for the NASCAR
race. He choppered to the track 100 laps into the race. After
spending three hours in Sterling Marlin's pit, it was back to
the chopper. (Marlin came in 15th for Ganassi; teammate Jason
Leffler was 30th.) On the flight back to Indy, which would have
him in town in time to catch the local news at the hotel, a
yawning Ganassi, whose cars had won a combined $846,765 in the
two races, looked back on his whirlwind day. "Any time you have
six cars racing and you can roll them all onto the trucks at the
end of the day," he said with a smile, "it's a good day."
IRL's Leading Lady
Fisher Is Making Her Mark
As something of a bookworm at Teays Valley High in Commercial
Point, Ohio, Sarah Fisher seldom, if ever, heard anyone describe
her as popular. It was funny, then, that at Indianapolis Motor
Speedway last Thursday, Fisher found herself facing a screaming
throng of fans--men, women, boys and girls--and a gaggle of
reporters. One writer asked her, tongue in cheek, if she was the
Tiger Woods of auto racing or if Tiger Woods was the Sarah Fisher
of golf. "Oh, Jesus, no," she responded.
Fisher drew plenty of interest at the Brickyard last year, when
she was a true novelty--a 19-year-old female rookie with no chance
of winning. (She finished 31st in that race, only the fourth of
her career in which she had to make pit stops.) "Last year [the
interest in me] was completely because of my gender," says
Fisher. "I don't think it had to do with racing talent at all."
At that point Fisher's best-known on-track exploit had been
earning the ire of Brazilian veteran Eliseo Salazar after a wreck
in Las Vegas the previous month. "This is not powder-puff
racing," fumed Salazar, who also suggested that Fisher "go race
with girls." She continued to race with the boys, however, and
two months ago exacted a measure of revenge at the Grand Prix of
Miami, passing Salazar en route to a career-best second-place
finish and prompting Salazar's boss, A.J. Foyt (a man's man if
there ever was one), to scream at his driver over the radio, "You
just got passed by a girl!"
When Fisher returned to Indy this year, she did so with two top
five finishes in her previous five IRL races, making her a
serious threat to run up front. On Sunday, however, her hopes
ended on Lap 9, when she drove too low on the track, spun out and
crashed. Still, Fisher remains just what the IRL needs--a
recognizable face. The one billboard near the Indy track
featuring series points leader Sam Hornish Jr. identifies him by
name, unlike the dozens scattered about town bearing Fisher's
With her success has come a newfound respect. "I can't think of a
driver who doesn't talk to me or respect me as a driver," Fisher
says. "Even Eliseo respects me now. What's better than that?"
Say what you will about Tony Stewart, the guy is honest and
tough. After a yellow-flag pit stop dropped him out of first
place in the Indy 500 with 48 laps left and rain clouds looming,
track control radioed him to ask about the condition of the
track. Stewart, who desperately needed the race to finish on
time because he wanted to drive in NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 that
evening in Concord, N.C., gauged the light drizzle and replied,
"I wouldn't go back to green with it like this." Officials
red-flagged the race, but the brunt of the storm missed the
Speedway by two miles. Stewart went on to finish sixth, and in a
repeat of his gutty performance two years ago, made the 5:45
p.m. start in Concord, where he finished third....
Sunday was a bad day for pole sitters. At Indy, Scott Sharp
lasted one turn before wrecking. In Concord, Ryan Newman
completed only 11 laps and, like Sharp, came in last. And in
Monaco, David Coulthard stalled on the formation lap for the
second time in the last three Formula One races and was
relegated to the back of the field....
With Richard Childress likely to expand to a three-car operation
next year, rumors are flying over the identity of the new
driver. Defending Busch series champ Jeff Green looks like the
front-runner, but Jeff Burton, who is 21st in the Winston Cup
points race after a third-place finish last year, is said to be
on the outs with owner Jack Roush and might be available. Burton
and Green (along with Kevin Harvick) could both drive for
Childress if Mike Skinner (25th in Winston points) is not
The most improbable turn of events at the Coca-Cola 600 took
place during qualifying. Dale Jarrett, who entered the weekend
with the Winston Cup points lead, wrecked his primary car and
had to use a provisional for the first time since the formation
of the number 88 team five years ago.