Early Sunday morning, sitting in his team's plush motor coach at
Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Roger Penske examined a chart
that depicted all possible outcomes of the IRL championship. The
Chevy 500, the season's final race, was hours away, and five
drivers--Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Sam Hornish
Jr. and Gil de Ferran--still had a chance at the points title. As
Penske, the owner of Castroneves's and De Ferran's Marlboro Team
Penske, studied the matrix, his mind wandered back through his 45
years in racing. He couldn't recall a tighter championship race.
"There have been some close Winston Cup finishes over the years,
but nothing compares to this," said Penske, also a NASCAR team
owner. "It shows how competitive the IRL has become."
Because of this mad dash to the title, many drivers and
owners--Penske included--feared the Big One on Sunday, a multicar
crash caused by overaggressiveness. With 12 laps to go, it
happened, though no contenders were involved. Kenny Brack, the
1998 IRL champion and a native of Sweden, was in fourth position,
running down the backstretch, when his car made contact with the
right rear tire of Tomas Scheckter's. Brack's car rose into the
air like a jet at liftoff and at 220 mph slammed into the
12-foot-high catch fence in front of the stands. The car
disintegrated around Brack, but the cockpit stayed intact and
skidded to a stop along the track. Amazingly Brack was alert
minutes later. On Monday he was at Parkland Hospital in serious
condition with multiple fractures.
At the time of the wreck De Ferran and Dixon were running
one-two. Because of the damage to the fence the race was
black-flagged, and so the 35-year-old Brazilian, De Ferran, this
year's Indy 500 champ who on Sunday retired from racing, was
declared the winner. But it was Dixon, a 23-year-old IRL rookie
from New Zealand, who claimed the season championship. He held a
30-point advantage over De Ferran entering the Chevy 500, and his
second-place finish was good enough to give owner Chip Ganassi
his first IRL title.
"It was sad to see the crash," said Dixon, who had three
victories in 2003, "but the racing in the IRL this season has
been extremely close. You had a feeling it was going to get ugly."