Saturday, August 11, 2001

IRL drivers give green light to repaved Speedway




By Tom Groeschen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        SPARTA, Ky. — Kentucky Speedway got the all-clear from Indy Racing Northern Light Series (IRL) drivers Friday, after a tense week of concerns about track safety.

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Greg Ray prepares to take his car out to practice.
(Tony Jones photos)
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        The IRL drivers arrived Friday to practice for Sunday's Belterra Casino Indy 300 race. Kentucky Speedway workers had spent several days repaving bumpy areas of the track, and there were no major incidents Friday.

        “We all came here holding our breath, because we didn't know what it would be like,” said Eddie Cheever, Friday's fastest driver at 214.439 mph. “They've done a phenomenal job fixing things.”

        Last week, IRL points leader Sam Hornish Jr. and former IRL champion Buzz Calkins both had spinouts — at reduced speeds — on the 1.5-mile Kentucky oval. Their concerns mushroomed into media reports, including on ESPN.com, which questioned track safety.

        “The track is 200 percent better than it was when we tested here last week,” Hornish said.

        Speedway chairman Jerry Carroll said crews worked around the clock applying a smooth, adhesive sealer to the track.

WEEKEND SCHEDULE
  TODAY
  • 10 a.m. — Gates open
  • Noon — IRL pole qualifying
  • 2 p.m. — NASCAR Gatorade All-Pro “84 WHAS 150” race
  SUNDAY
  • 9 a.m. — Gates open
  • 10 a.m. — IRL fan brunch; Blessid Union of Souls concert
  • 1:30 p.m. — IRL “Belterra Casino Indy 300” race (ABC-TV).
  Tickets: 1-888-652-RACE or kentuckyspeedway.com.
        “Every track in the country changes over time,” Carroll said. “We put a new adhesive on so the tires can grip better, and the IRL has adjusted their cars to the track. We have every confidence that things are OK.”

        Kentucky's asphalt track surface has had bumps from the time it opened in June 2000, but IRL spokesman Ron Green said most speedways have bumpy areas.

        Kentucky has had a fairly typical number of racing accidents since its debut, but never a serious driver injury. But concerns were raised after a winter of freezing and thawing, the recent heat wave, and thousands of racing miles finally became too much.

        The IRL reacted by changing the wing alignment on its cars for better downforce, hence better grip.

        “I'm pretty pleased, after what I had heard about the track's condition,” driver Scott Sharp said. “It's still a little bumpy here and there, but that's a challenge we welcome.”

        “It's probably smoother in the corners now than it was last year,” driver Greg Ray said.

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Jacques Lazier talks with a team member on pit row.
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        The top practice speeds Friday were by Cheever (214.439 mph), Sharp (213.719) and Ray (212.925).

        Other notables included Hornish, seventh-fastest at 212.102 mph; defending Kentucky champion Buddy Lazier, eighth (211.960); Al Unser Jr. in 14th (210.395); and Sarah Fisher in 19th (208.764).

        Pole qualifying is today at noon. Favorites include Lazier, who won last year's Kentucky race and has won three of the last four IRL races this season. There also are Sharp, the 2001 Indy 500 polesitter, and IRL career pole leader Ray.

        Cheever was the 1998 Indianapolis 500 champion, one of three former Indy 500 champs in the field along with Lazier (1996) and Unser Jr. (1992, '94).

        “I think it would have been difficult to run this race in the condition the track was in before,” Cheever said. “You can tell they've done hundreds of hours of work.”

        FULTZ IN HUNT: Blue Ash native Jeff Fultz qualified third for today's NASCAR Gatorade All-Pro race (2 p.m.). Fultz won the All-Pro race at Kentucky in June and stands third in the series' points race.

        Matt “Spanks” Overbeck of Hyde Park qualified 29th for today's race, which will have 36 cars.

Special Kentucky Speedway coverage



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