Originally created 06/28/02

Castroneves among newcomers as IRL returns to Richmond



RICHMOND, Va. -- The SunTrust Indy Challenge will provide many drivers in the Indy Racing League another chance to get it right on a short track. For others, Saturday's race will be an introduction.

The series made a wild debut at Richmond International Raceway a year ago, when the shortest track in IRL history proved too small for half the field. Nine of the 20 cars in the race crashed long before the finish.

Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves will be one of several newcomers in the field this weekend, 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. It's not one of those tracks that you just stamp on it and forget about it," Castroneves said after two days of testing on the three-quarter-mile oval.

"It's going to be very interesting."

For Castroneves and the nine other drivers making their debut at Richmond, 2001 IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. offered a primer.

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

"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."

A year ago, Buddy Lazier set an IRL record by leading 224 of the 250 laps on his way to a dominating 4.88-second victory over Hornish.

With 87 caution laps and all the damaged machines 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 here.

Track officials have declined to say how many tickets have been purchased for the race, but track president Doug Fritz said he's hopeful that 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, but the IRL has a history of fast starts in new markets, and then dwindling interest. NASCAR venues in Charlotte, Dover, Del., and Atlanta drew big crowds the first time the IRL visited, but all have since dropped off the series' 15-race schedule.

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 both wound up 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.

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 also 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 year, said the racing at Richmond is exciting, "but you can get into trouble really easily. If you get to the end of the race, you should be in good shape."

But, he added, "It's a tough track to get to the end of the race."