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Doornbos Enjoys A Round At Kansas

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 25 2009

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Robert Doornbos

Robert Doornbos

Robert Doornbos knew the day was coming.

He knew when he signed on to drive for the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team in the IndyCar series that one day, he would have to drive in races in which he would have to run inches away from concrete walls and opposing-cars’ sidepods and slower-cars gear boxes – all at well over 200 mph.

That day is at hand.

Sunday, in the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway, Doornbos will race for the first time in his 27 years of life and 11 years of professional driving, on a high-speed oval.

And on top of that, he will help lead the field into the first turn because on Saturday afternoon he qualified to start the race on the outside pole.

Oh boy, Doornbos said after his qualifying run, his first high-speed oval race and his first high-speed rolling start from the front row all on the first day.

Then there is the good news; driving next to him on that rolling start will be teammate, Graham Rahal.

That’s right, two NHLR cars and drivers on the front row of an oval event. Who would have thought?

Actually, lots of people. Savvy people, too. Like Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti. He said nobody should be surprised that NHLR, which struggled on ovals after coming over from the Champ Car Series post merger, has gotten its super speedway act together.

“Anybody who has followed this sport,” Franchitti said, “they know how fast those cars have been since Carl Haas and Paul Newman teamed up and Mario (Andretti) was driving them back in the day.for them. So, I knew they’d figure it out.”

Rahal, after winning the pole, sat in the media center with a big smile on his face as he stated the obvious.

“We’re feeling pretty good right now” about the team’s speedway program, Rahal, who also won the pole at the season-opening race in St. Petersburg, Fla., said.

And, he said referring to team co-founder, Paul Newman, who died last year, “Obviously, in memory of Paul, it’s great for us to have this success early in the season.”

But qualifying is a lot different than racing on a high-speed oval.  Racing at 215 mph with 21 other cars also going 215 is, well, exciting.

In the past, thoughts about the level of that excitement, gave many veteran road racers the heebie jeebies.

Franchitti, for example, thought long and hard about moving over to the IndyCar series after speeding time in the formulas and in Champ Car.

Asked what Doornbos was in for at Kansas on race day, Franchitti said, “He’s in for a treat.”

Then there was the great Michael Schumacher, who, when asked casually about the possibility of racing in the Indianapolis 500 one time, issued, basically, a two-word response.

“Concrete walls,” he said. Enough said.

But Doornbos, just hours before his roundy-round debut showed no fear, hesitation or stress.

“It’s really exciting,” Doornbos, a native of the Netherlands, said coolly.

Besides, he said, “I knew the day would come.”

Doornbos, a veteran of the European formulas and a past driver in Formula One is quite aware of how serious “that day”, Sunday, will be. He knows about the things that have happened to people like Ryan Briscoe and Kenny Brack. 

That he knows that when things go wrong on an oval, they can go really, really wrong.

“At some tracks, you play with each other’s lives,” he said. “It can be quite dangerous open-wheel racing at that speed and so close to each other.”

The good news for Doornbos when it comes to oval racing in the IndyCar Series is that it is oval racing in the IndyCar Series. That is, he will be sharing the track with people who know how to drive a bit.

Trustworthy, is what he called his fellow drivers. All of them.

“The oval drivers you can trust,” he said. “And the guys who are strong on road courses have mega experience on ovals as well to you can trust them as well. It’s a matter of respecting the rules.”

Doornbos, a rookie, is expecting to be tested at Kansas and then again next month at Indianapolis. It’s what veterans do to the new guys.

“As a newcomer, they’re going to try me,” he said, “so that is going to be an exciting part. I’m not going to be a hero on my first oval race, just so the best job I can.”

While there are some very nasty negatives that go along with open-wheel racing on ovals, there are some positives. Big positives over Formula One, Doornbos said. He said he kind of likes that fact that there are chances in oval racing to actually improve upon your starting position before the race is over.

Explaining those positives, and other fine points of ovals, to Doornbos has been fellow Dutchman and Indy 500 winner, Ari Luyendyke.

“He said it’s so easy to get frustrated racing ovals when you have a bad strategy call or when the car’s not working for you,” Doornbos said of Luyendyke, who will be spotting for him. “But he said you shouldn’t be worried if you find yourself P15 halfway through the race because if the car is good at the end of the race, that’s when it counts.

“I’m used to, when I’m P15 in the middle of the race in Formula One, that’s it, that’s your weekend. You can finish maybe 13th, but you’re not going to go to the podium. Here, it’s a whole different story. It’s small tips like that (from Luyendyke) that help and will help more at Indy.”

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Saturday, April 25 2009
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