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Friday, December 13, 2002
Nazareth's turns will test IRL drivers
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online
Sunday's Firestone 225 at the Nazareth Speedway (ABC, 1 p.m. ET) is the final turn before the Indy Racing League sets up camp in Indianapolis for the 86th running of the Indy 500. It's the inaugural Quaker State IRL visit, though many of the drivers bring special agendas to the .9-mile tri-oval.
This weekend is special for Eddie Cheever Jr. It provides him with the opportunity to solve a long-standing laundry issue.
"Have you ever gone crazy about all the single socks you have stored away in a drawer at home?" asked the 1998 Indy 500 champion. "I have a lot of those. Winning at Nazareth would be like finding one of those lost socks."
The last time Cheever raced at Nazareth was in 1995. The Formula One veteran was driving for A.J. Foyt and commanded the event until he ran out of fuel with a lap and a half to go.
Cheever remained winless in Indy Cars until he captured the Disney World 200 in 1997. This time, Cheever will race at Nazareth for himself, as his Red Bull operation is one of the Indy Racing League's only owner-driver setups.
"I haven't tested there, so I am not sure what to expect," explained Tomas Scheckter, Cheever's rookie teammate. "Eddie drove there last week, and they made some good headway. Unfortunately, it snowed the day I was going to drive. I do think the team learned enough to give me a good car, and I can focus on learning the track and trying to go quick."
That is a tall order for any driver. Until last season, Nazareth was the shortest track to host Indy Cars, but when the IRL trekked to Richmond's three-quarter-mile bull ring, Nazareth gave up the title.
"In many ways, it reminds me of Richmond. In a flash, you are right back to where you started," Cheever said.
"With Nazareth's layout, you really have to hustle the car around the track," remarked Team Menard driver Jaques Lazier. "The track has so many different characteristics, which make it special. It looks like a perfect triangle, yet it's got three corners -- all drastically different. One is a flat-out kink, the other is an off-camber uphill and the last one a high-speed banked corner. It's about the only oval you'd go to with an off-camber corner."
It is that layout that has produced more than its share of furrowed brows. While this is the first visit for the Indy Racing League to the Nazareth plant, the track has hosted Indy Car races since Roger Penske resurrected the track in 1987.
Previously they were FedEx Champ car events. But several of the IRL regulars have Nazareth experience.
"Our IRL cars are so much different from the Toyota Atlantics I ran here," said current IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr. "With these cars, you have to let off a little bit and brake a little bit
going into Turn 3 and really set the car. It's quite a bit different, but having a little bit of time on the track doesn't hurt."
For Penske's drivers, Nazareth is certainly a place that offers a home-court advantage. Penske's racing operation is located in nearby Reading and Nazareth has always been a testing asset used by Team Penske to track test components and equipment.
"To do well, one needs a consistent car that works well in traffic," explained Gil de Ferran. "I have special memories for Nazareth because this is where I scored my first win for Marlboro Team Penske, giving Roger (Penske) his 100th career Indy Car win."
"I don't think Marlboro Team Penske will have an advantage because we raced at Nazareth in the CART cars," said de Ferran's teammate, Helio Castroneves. "The IRL cars are so different. They are actually more comfortable to drive because of the added downforce; whereas the aerodynamic package in the CART cars created more turbulence."
Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.
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