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Monday, June 24, 2002
Drivers must be aggressive on short track

By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

In less than six weeks, the Indy Racing League has gone from the biggest track to the smallest one on its 15-race schedule. Helio Castroneves' win in the Indianapolis 500 kicked off this speed journey that leads to the three-quarter-mile Richmond Raceway this weekend.

"We drive the 2.5-mile oval at Indy, and the 1-milers, but Richmond's three-quarter-mile is unique. It really complements the diversity of the ovals we run," explains Team Purex Chevy driver Robbie Buhl. "You're constantly using the brakes, shifting and aggressively on the gas pedal. It's great fun and really challenging as a driver."

What makes the challenge greater is the 16-second, 168 mph laps. There is no time to rest. Sweeping corners exert G-loads on the drivers for more than two-thirds of every lap. The short straights give just enough time -- at the speed traveled -- to set up for the next corner.

"Richmond is like fighter planes in a gym. You never get to rest, to back off or to sweep a mistake under the carpet," according to Red Bull Infiniti's Eddie Cheever Jr. "If you make a mistake at this place, you will spin. End of story."

That is part of the reason why Richmond's fans embraced the IRL in its first appearance there last season. Far more used to the lumbering, rumbling fender rubbing style exhibited by NASCAR Winston Cup cars when they run on the Old Dominion short track, the RIR fans left last year's IRL race with mouths agape.

Last year, Buddy Lazier climbed back from a pit miscue to snare the first SunTrust Indy Challenge by five seconds over Sam Hornish. He was so drained following his performance that he brought his uniform into the media center; drenched from perspiration.

Al Unser Jr., who has shown newfound muscle with his Corteco/Bryant Chevy thinks that part of Richmond's charm is in the entry list.

"I expect the racing to be even tighter than last year," he says. "The competition level has risen dramatically in the IRL. There is more talent top to bottom and more competition, which makes for even better racing."

This track is almost like a high-speed road course because traction and the car's ability to go into the corners will be important factors. I will definitely be able to use my experience from road racing.
Gil de Ferran

Part of that competition level increase is the arrival of Marlboro Team Penske to the IRL. Both Indy winner Helio Castroneves and the IRL's most recent winner Gil de Ferran will make their first-ever appearances this Saturday night at Richmond (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

They both tested at Richmond, but under dramatically different conditions than those that will certainly greet them for the two-day affair.

"The temperature was only 35 degrees when we tested, so we weren't able to simulate race conditions," says de Ferran. "This track is almost like a high-speed road course because traction and the car's ability to go into the corners will be important factors. I will definitely be able to use my experience from road racing."

The ultimate "X-Factor" for success at Richmond sits on pit road. The race winner will most certainly earn his trophy thanks to the performance of his crew.

"Pit stops will mean more and be more vital to the strategy to the race," says first-time visitor Alex Barron. Its track size and speed, according to the Rayovac/Blair driver, dictates the added emphasis upon quick, efficient pit work. "On smaller tracks, it's harder to overtake. Spots made up in the pit lane will be more beneficial than other tracks due to the tightness at Richmond."

So how do you prepare for Richmond? If you didn't race there last season, you turn to an assortment of tools. Tomas Scheckter drives the track on his computer simulation and studies all of the in-car footage from his bosses' drive there last season.

"'I'm planning to watch a tape of last year's Indy Racing League race before we arrive for this year's event," says current IRL point leader Helio Castroneves.

That might be a good thing for you to do as well.