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Speed Adopts A Rookie Attitude At Indianapolis

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 13 2011

Scott Speed has a lot of years of experience in a lot of different cars, but he's still a rookie when it comes to the Indy 500. (Photos courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Californian Scott Speed’s star-crossed Formula One and NASCAR careers have featured an attitude that politely can be classified as “edgy.”

That apparently won’t be the case this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Speed exited the opening session of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie Orientation Program Thursday with a revised game plan.

“The way I’m approaching the weekend is very conservatively,” said Speed, one of seven participants completing at least three of four phases of the ROP around the 2.5-mile oval. “I don’t want to take any steps backwards. I don’t want to have any ‘moments.’ I don’t want to crash the car. We don’t have a backup that’s at the same level.”

Speed has been hired by team-owner Jay Penske of Dragon Racing to drive the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Dallara/Honda in the 100th edition of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, as well as the season-ender at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16. Opening Day practice at IMS is Saturday, a six-hour session that will see all IZOD IndyCar Series participants competing on an oval together for the first time in 2011.

“I have a lot of time to get up to speed, and I’m confident enough that I’m going to get there,” said Speed, a 28-year-old native of Manteca, Calif. “There’s no rush for me to be the fastest in practice. So I’m going to take it very easy and be fast when it counts.”

The ROP consists of consistent laps run at four speed phases _ 200-205 mph (five laps), and 10 laps each at 205-210 mph, 210-215 and 215 or more. Laps are run under the watchful eyes of Brian Barnhart, INDYCAR president of competition, and his staff of Indy 500 veteran drivers.

All ROP participants – Speed, Pippa Mann (Conquest Racing), JR Hildebrand (National Guard Panther Racing), James Hinchcliffe (Newman/Haas Racing), Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip

Ho-Pin Tung is strapped in for a run during the Rookie Orientation Program.

Ganassi Racing), Ho-Pin Tung (Schmidt Dragon Racing) and James Jakes (Dale Coyne Racing) –completed at least three phases. Jakes must complete the fourth phase any time before the opening round of qualifications on May 21. Hildebrand posted the quickest lap at 221.533 mph (Lap 59 of his 68), while Hinchcliffe recorded the most laps (101).

Should he qualify for the 500, Speed would become the third driver and first American to compete in the three major auto races at IMS  – INDYCAR’s Indianapolis 500, NASCAR’s Brickyard 400 and the FIA’s United States Grand Prix Formula One race. The differences among the cars are staggering, said Speed, who competed in F1 with Scuderia Toro Rosso in 2006 and part of the 2007 season.

“The Formula One car when I drove it had an unbelievable amount of grip and downforce and technology in it,” said Speed, who tested at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway earlier this week. “The stock cars obviously had really no technology and no grip in them. And the IndyCar was somewhere in the middle; obviously a lot more towards the Formula One car with the grip level. But running that around an oval was really strange because the only oval experience I’ve ever had has been in a real heavy stock car that did not have a lot of grip. Running around the white line at Chicago going 215 is quite a bit different than from the last time I was there in a Cup car.”

Speed was released from his Sprint Cup ride by Red Bull Racing in November 2010 to make way for the return of Brian Vickers. Speed said he had been looking at the IndyCar Series for an open seat since December.

“Yes, absolutely. I put a little bit…some small feelers out in that direction,” Speed said. “But it’s nothing I really tackled full, full force merely from the fact I don’t feel like I’m done proving what I can

IndyCar driving instructor Al Unser Jr. shakes hands with driver Pippa Mann at ROP on Thursday.

do in NASCAR. But certainly the Indy 500, it’s almost its own deal. It supersedes everything. Certainly very lucky to get the opportunity to run with something that appears to be a really good opportunity in competitive equipment at the biggest race in the world.”

Additionally, Speed will be eligible at LVMS for the $5 million “bounty” posted by Randy Bernard, INDYCAR’s chief executive officer, for any series non-regular who can win the season-finale. Speed plans to have his racing future firmed-up long before that one-off event.

“It’s certainly a crossroads in my career where it was a really tough situation at the beginning of this year with nothing lined-up, and having to search for something,” Speed said. “And you know, it’s one of those things where I need to take my time and pick a really good opportunity for next year and make a good decision and chase down the right thing. That’s something that I haven’t 100 percent decided on which direction I should go.”

Penske, youngest son of open-wheel mogul Roger Penske, indicated last week he would like to pair veteran Paul Tracy of Canada with Speed in fulltime IndyCar Series rides in 2012.

Asked if he had a “compelling need” to get back to NASCAR, Speed said, “I have a compelling need to get back into something that’s competitive enough to win, for one thing. Formula One is hard enough to be in when you’re not with a team that can win. And I really enjoyed the time that I raced in the (Camping World) Truck Series and Nationwide Series; we had a chance to win every weekend and I miss that.

“I can promise that wherever I go, it will be something that I can win races in, because I certainly have a lot more fun doing that race.”

Barrier-breaker Willy T. Ribbs –  first African-American to compete in the Indianapolis 500 – has formed a Firestone Indy Lights team that is poised to write another historic chapter at IMS this month.

Ribbs has formed Willy T. Ribbs Racing in a partnership with Starting Grid, Inc. principal Chris Miles to campaign 21-year-old Chase Austin in the 2011 Firestone Freedom 100. Austin will wheel the Willy T. Ribbs Racing/Starting Grid Inc./Brooks Associates Racing entry in the May 27 race.

Former NASCAR driver Chase Austin is going open wheeling.

With sponsorship support from American Honda Motor Company, Inc., the car carries No. 75 in homage to Ribbs’ number when driving for comedian Bill Cosby in 1993 and 1994.

By qualifying for the Freedom 100, Austin would become the first African-American to start a Firestone Indy Lights race. A previous starting attempt was made in 2003 by Lloyd Mack (younger brother of George), when he qualified but failed to race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Austin will be following the only two African-American drivers to have competed at IMS – Ribbs (1991, 1993-94) and George Mack (2002). Englishman Lewis Hamilton was the last person of African heritage to compete at the Speedway. Hamilton also is the only black driver to have won there, having claimed Formula One’s United States Grand Prix for McLaren/Mercedes as a rookie in 2007. Hamilton was crowned F1 World Driving Champion in 2008.

Ribbs’ 23 years of professional racing included milestones as the first African-American to compete in open-wheel racing with 47 Indy-car starts; three NASCAR Cup races and 23 Truck Series events, in addition to an F1 test.

“My first rodeo at Indy was 1991,” said Ribbs, a multiple race-winner in the SCCA’s Trans-Am Series. “It was without a doubt the greatest experience of my 23-year career. Without question, there is no bigger race on the planet; it is the biggest, most prestigious race in the world. To return in a team capacity, even for one event, is an honor and the direction I want to go long-term.

“I’ve known about Chase for a long time. I could tell from the first time I spoke with him that he was very talented and that he was committed. To be successful in this business, ultimately, you must have commitment. Having Chase a part of INDYCAR is great for the sport and our sponsors, and I’m honored to bring him into the fold. I’m really happy he’s doing it in INDYCAR, which is where he will have an opportunity to succeed.”

Austin tested at Chicagoland Speedway on Monday and Tuesday in preparation for the team’s Firestone Indy Lights debut.

“The test in Chicago went incredibly well,” Austin said. “It probably went better than expected, being that these cars are so much different from stock cars. However, I adapted very quickly and was able to accomplish the team’s goals for the test. As for competing at Indianapolis and for Willy T. Ribbs Racing, it is a tremendous honor. I have to thank Chris, Willy and American Honda for believing in me and providing this incredible opportunity.”

A native of Eudora, Kan., Austin was 15 when he became the youngest driver to sign a developmental contract in NASCAR with Hendrick Motorsports. He made history again in 2007 with Rusty Wallace Racing, becoming the first black driver to compete in a Nationwide Series oval event. Austin has spent the past two seasons competing in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck and Nationwide series.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, May 13 2011
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