RIR could level horsepower advantages

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Indy Racing League heads to the shortest of the short tracks this weekend for the SunTrust Indy Challenge at Richmond International Raceway. It promises to be a busy weekend on and off the track for the IndyCar Series.

The question on everyone's mind throughout the weekend will be whether Champ Car and the Indy Racing League have come any closer to reunification. Having revealed his desire in a New York Times op/ed piece to unite American open-wheel racing, Roger Penske met with Champ Car's three owners earlier this week and they agreed to continue a dialogue. But IRL founder Tony George told the Indianapolis Star that he is not involved in the negotiations and insiders believe George will vigorously resist any kind of merger despite open-wheel racing's significant decline in popularity over the last decade.

Richmond is the IRL's first of several two-day meetings this season. And it could be even shorter: heavy rains, potentially with violent storms, are forecast to pass through the Richmond area Friday afternoon and evening. As such, the 11 a.m. Friday practice session could wind up setting the grid for Saturday night's 250-lap contest.

Last year, Scott Dixon led every lap from pole position before the race was stopped by rain after 206 laps. There should be more scope for passing this year because RIR has been repaved. Several drivers who tested there, including two-time IRL series champion Sam Hornish Jr., believe that the new asphalt will completely open up a second outside groove for racing.

"There's more grip on the bottom, plus you'll be able to go up higher and have more passing on the outside," Hornish said.

The new pavement has observers thinking there might be a track record in the cards if qualifying runs as scheduled. In fact, the IndyCars might get around the 0.75-mile oval in less than 16 seconds, with average speeds approaching 180 mph. If so, Richmond would be the first track in 2004 where the IndyCars have run faster than in the past, despite the IRL's efforts to slow them through aerodynamic modifications and horsepower reduction. Gil de Ferran holds the track record at 16.004 seconds for an average speed of 168.705 mph.

"Safety is always a concern, but we're comfortable with the information we got from the test -- even the pace," said IRL Vice President of Race Operations Brian Barnhart. "This is a physically demanding track and guys wouldn't be performing like they are if they were not comfortable with it. The drivers have always been comfortable racing at Richmond and as long as they are comfortable with it, so are we."

What makes the RIR oval so demanding is its sheer compactness. Drivers endure 5-G loading through the tight turns at either end, and only have about 3.5 seconds of straightaway to regain their equilibrium before the next left-hander.

"The speeds are not that high, but this is definitely the fastest track I've raced on in my life," noted IndyCar Series points leader Tony Kanaan. "The loads on your body are like taking a sharp corner on a rollercoaster -- except twice every 15 seconds."

Kanaan and his Andretti Green Racing teammate Dan Wheldon have been the class of the IRL field in 2004. Neither driver has suffered a bad break this year, though Wheldon was surprisingly uncompetitive in the most recent IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway, where Kanaan nabbed his second victory of the season. Dario Franchitti had the best race of his short IRL career at Texas to finish second, but the Scotsman will no doubt find Richmond to be a completely different cup of tea.

"It's amazing because the track is so short yet it has all the luxuries you would expect from a bigger oval," Franchitti said. "It's going to be a busy race, for sure. You really have to drive the car on the short tracks and that's an aspect I like."

Rahal-Letterman Racing has obviously been quick on the IRL's high-speed tracks in 2004, culminating in Buddy Rice's Indianapolis 500 victory, but the jury is still out on the bullrings. A strong showing at Richmond would enhance Rice's credentials considerably, while Vitor Meira is counting the races until Kenny Brack makes his return. Access Motorsports (hanging on race-by-race with owner/driver Greg Ray) and Fernandez Racing (Adrian Fernandez and Kosuke Matsuura, under the Super Aguri Fernandez Racing banner) complete the Honda runners.

Several drivers are looking to turn their seasons around -- as are engine manufacturers Toyota and Chevrolet, which have been shown a clean pair of heels by Honda. Hornish won the 2004 opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his debut for Marlboro Team Penske but hasn't threatened to make the podium since; teammate Helio Castroneves is in the same boat, hampered by a lack of Toyota horsepower.

The same goes for defending Richmond and IndyCar Series champion Dixon, who believes that he can make up for the power deficit on a handling track. His best race of 2004 came at Phoenix International Raceway, where he finished second.

"These shorter tracks are going to be a good chance for us to win, and hopefully we can make the most of the race, as we did last year," said the New Zealander. "We'll see how we fare. Toyota had a good test there with all of us guys and we should be right on top of it."

Manning has only run eight open-wheel oval races in his career, none of them on a bullring like RIR. He got to sample the circuit during an engine manufacturer test day several weeks ago.

"It's unlike any other short track that I've done," said Manning, who ranks fifth in the standings. "If you have a little bit of a problem there, you can go backwards very quickly, but if you have a good car, you can go forward. It should be really exciting."

If the Penske and Ganassi teams have had a relatively slow start to 2004, the year has been an outright disaster for Panther Racing and the other Chevrolet teams. Tomas Scheckter has struggled to fill Hornish's shoes, a situation not helped by Honda's dominance. And rookie teammate Mark Taylor has flat-out struggled, finishing only one race while crashing out of four others. Alex Barron delivered Chevrolet's best result of the season at Texas by finishing third, but Cheever Racing remains famously inconsistent and rookie Ed Carpenter has had his share of crashes as well.

Anyone else in the mix? Scott Sharp (Kelley Racing Dallara/Toyota) and Al Unser Jr. (Patrick Racing Dallara/Chevrolet) seem destined to run at the back, along with Tora Takagi (Mo Nunn Racing Dallara/Toyota) and Felipe Giaffone (Dreyer and Reinbold Dallara/Chevrolet). But they're bound to log some camera time -- albeit when they are being lapped by the Andretti Green, Penske or Ganassi cars.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.