The Indy Racing League IndyCar Series will gain another full-time entrant at the Indianapolis 500 when three-time Indy winning team owner Pat Patrick will begin to campaign popular veteran Al Unser Jr. The new-look Patrick Racing will use Chevrolet engines and is getting a helping hand from Walker Racing.
With Derrick Walker's Champ Car operation temporarily in mothballs, he was able to lease Patrick half of his shop space and enough personnel and equipment to get the effort up and running. The familiar No. 20 will adorn a Dallara/Chevrolet beginning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway open test April 28-29.
"We'll race the rest of the season and hopefully a while longer," said Patrick, who began fielding open-wheel cars in 1970. "We started talking to Junior probably last fall, at the Texas race, and we had several conversations since then. It was very difficult to put this deal together for all the players involved. We finally got everything together yesterday at 6 o'clock, and Al and I signed the contract this morning."
The man who named his cars "Wildcats" due to his ties to the oil industry, was most famous for fielding Gordon Johncock's Indy winners in 1973 and '82. Patrick returned to the track in 1994 after a short sabbatical as Firestone's tire development team. The Mark II Patrick Racing entered the CART IndyCar series in 1995 and won ten races before its assets were sold off earlier this year.
Unser was left without a ride when Kelley Racing cut back to one car for Scott Sharp in 2004. However, Kelley has announced plans to field a second car at some point for Sarah Fisher, who posed for publicity photographs at Phoenix in Bryant Heating and cooling gear.
After spending the winter rehabbing the broken pelvis he suffered in an October ATV accident, Unser kept faith and his campaign will kick off at Indianapolis, a race he loves more than any other. He won there in 1992 and '94.
"I'm extremely happy to be with Patrick Racing," Unser said. "I've raced against the 20 car pretty much my whole career and at times it has been difficult to beat. My physical condition is great. We would have been competing at Homestead and Phoenix and Japan had we been able to acquire the sponsorship, but it was difficult.
"I'm happy to have a Chevrolet engine," he added. "I won my first 500 with a Chevy engine. Once we hit Indianapolis we'll be at full-stride for the rest of the season. If we can win three or four races, we'll be right in the championship hunt."
Fernandez's brief debut
Adrian Fernandez said prior to the Copper World Indy 200 that his primary objective on the day was to get seat time in an IndyCar. But an uncooperative gearbox prevented that from happening.
Fernandez, who announced that his team would switch from Champ Cars to IndyCars just nine days ago, hadn't done any testing in an IndyCar prior to the Phoenix weekend. After playing himself in slowly on Friday, the 40-year old owner-driver qualified a respectable 13th and was looking forward to learning the tendencies of what to him was an unfamiliar racing car.
But the Mexican entered the pits at the end of the first lap and soon alighted from the cockpit of his Panoz G Force/Honda. He blamed his lack of experience with the IRL car's gearbox, which is less sophisticated than the one he was used to in Champ Cars.
"I think it was something I did to the gearbox," Fernandez stated. "When I shifted down to get the right gear for the start, I heard a noise in the gearbox. These gearboxes are a lot different, and I probably didn't do a complete downshift. The throw is a lot longer and it seems that you have to be a lot more positive with the gearbox when you are at very low revs, which was something I didn't know. I was in the right gear for the start, but when I went to shift from fourth to fifth, there was no gear there and I completely lost drive.
"It's unfortunate because today was the day that we needed to learn what to expect from the car."
Fernandez's rookie teammate Kosuke Matsuura qualified an impressive 10th and survived a brush with the wall to claim an 11th place finish.
Another early exit for Franchitti
For the second race in a row, Dario Franchitti's race ended in the wall. Unlike at Homestead, Franchitti's departure at Phoenix was partially his own fault.
The Scotsman was running fourth and pressuring Tomas Scheckter late in the 200-lap contest when Robbie Buhl crashed in Turn 4 about a quarter-lap ahead. Leaders Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon got safely past, but when Scheckter checked up, Franchitti's Dallara/Honda cannoned into the back of Scheckter's Dallara/Chevrolet. The two cars slid up the track right into Buhl's stopped car.
Scheckter was upset at Franchitti, who in turn wasn't pleased with the lack of warning he got from his spotter.
"Nobody told me it was yellow," Franchitti said. "I had no idea until I was under Tomas' gearbox between Turns 3 and 4 and I piled into the back of him. It was unnecessary and I'm upset for Tomas as well. It's a shame because I think we had the fastest car out there on long runs."
"I have a feeling it was a miscommunication from the spotter," said Franchitti's team owner Michael Andretti, whose other cars finished first, third and seventh. "Dario was so focused on the back of Scheckter that he didn't see the yellow light. The spotter didn't call it and he drilled him.
"I just feel so bad for Dario because he was driving the wheels off that car," Andretti added. "I know he would have passed Scheckter before the end of the race. I'm sure it appears to be Dario's fault, but in the circumstances it certainly wasn't all his fault."
Splash and Go
Tony Kanaan's performance Sunday in winning the Copper World Indy 200 was the second most dominant in open wheel history at the Desert Mile. Kanaan led 191 of the 200 laps, bested only by Bobby Rahal's flag-to-flag triumph in the 1992 Phoenix CART race. ... Sunday's event was the cleanest Phoenix race since the IRL began racing there in 1996. There were three yellows for 26 laps. ... The IRL changed its weekend schedule by running the Infiniti Pro Series support race on Saturday afternoon with the USAC Silver Crown cars taking the Sunday matinee slot. In 2003, several media reports noted that the Saturday afternoon crowd for the Silver Crown race appeared larger than it was for Sunday's IndyCar race, for which attendance was estimated at 40,000. But the 2004 twin-bill crowd was still disappointing, with the 57,000 grandstand seats in use around half full. Track owner International Speedway Corp. does not release attendance figures. "Ticket sales were up this year," confirmed track PR manager Mike Prusinski. The track makes 78,000 seats available for its NASCAR Nextel Cup event.
John Oreovicz covers open wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.