Sharp Out To Take Opportunity For A 500-Mile Ride

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 9 2009

Scott Sharp is back at his favorite place in the whole world – Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Scott Sharp is back at his favorite place in the whole world – Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

By John Sturbin|Senior Writer

A single tenet has guided the professional racing career of Scott Sharp, the other half of an IndyCar Series gotcha question involving Buzz Calkins.

“You know, racing’s all about opportunity. I’ve always said that,” said Sharp, who shared the inaugural IndyCar Series championship with Calkins in 1996. The series’ career-leader in starts with 146 from ’96 to 2007, Sharp will attempt to qualify for his 14th Indianapolis 500 Saturday after re-acquainting himself with Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week during open practice.

“I simply love and cherish every lap around that track,” said Sharp, who officially has logged 1,980 race-day laps on the 2.5-mile oval dating to 1994. “I’ve dreamt about it so much over the years, I think I could do it in my sleep.”

Eyes wide open, Sharp hopes to compete in the 93rd Indy 500 on May 24 in the No. 16 Tequila Patron Dallara/Honda fielded by Panther Racing. Paired at IMS with 2005 Indy 500 and IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon, Sharp is juggling duties at IMS with his full-time job driving an Acura Prototype in the American Le Mans Series for Patron Highcroft Racing.

But Sharp suffered a serious setback during Friday’s practice involving an old nemesis, Turn 1. At approximately 2:30 p.m., Sharp experienced a quarter-spin to the left exiting Turn 1 and another half-spin to the right, leading to contact with the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2. Sharp’s car suffered extensive damage to the right side.

Sharp exited without assistance and later was cleared to drive by Dr. Michael Olinger, medical director for the Indy racing League.

“We were on a sticker (tire) run,” Sharp said. “It was the second lap, pretty easy. I rolled down in there and it just snapped on me. I’m not exactly sure what’s up.”

The incident will force Panther Racing into a long night of repairs. “I have to go back and figure all of that out with the Panther team,” Sharp said. “We’ve been struggling a little bit to gain more speed and didn’t really need this to happen right now. We’ll see what the plan is and find a way to rebound.”

Mike Griffin, one of Panther’s eight co-owners, said mechanics were preparing to transport the damaged car back to the team’s shop on Decatur Boulevard in Indianapolis for a major thrash.

“The tub appears to be OK. The engine is OK,” Griffin said from Gasoline Alley. “We don’t know the extent of the damage for the gearbox and bellhousing. We lost both right-side corners, a little of the underwing and sidepod. But with a little bit of luck and a lot of hours, we’ll probably have it out at noon (Saturday). We’re OK.”

Griffin said Sharp has been running his own setup.

“We’re not making twins out of the cars,” said Griffin, referring to Wheldon’s setup. Sharp has been running in the 221-and-change mph range, with a couple of laps cracking 222 mph, Griffin said.

“We still really don’t know what happened,” Griffin said. “Scott was really surprised with it getting away from him. It just kind of went.”

Sharp missed the 2008 Indy 500, ironically, one year after finishing a career-best sixth for Rahal Letterman Racing in an event shortened to 166 laps because of rain.

“Like I said, racing is all about opportunity,” Sharp said earlier. “I guess I felt my confidence has always been there on the IndyCar (side), especially on the ovals. I think it’s gotten back to where it needs to be on the road courses. Really, I guess I figured at some point I would go to sports cars. I didn’t think it was going to be that early (2008). But the right opportunity came along to be with a factory-backed team. It was something Patron really wanted to go do, feeling like the demographics of the ALMS would work well for them. And the whole opportunity just seemed like one of those you couldn’t say no to.

“I think at the time we did it, we hoped to come back and run the 500 last year, and for a variety of reasons that just didn’t pan out. I’m glad to be able to come do that now. We’ll take it from there and see where it leads.”

Panther Racing, led by the ubiquitous John Barnes, is the sixth team Sharp has driven for at IMS. Through all the ownership, chassis/engine and personnel changes, Sharp has emerged as one of Indy’s most consistent qualifiers. Sharp has qualified in the top 10 – recall that the top 11 positions will be locked-in during Saturday’s Pole Day runs – eight times in his 13 starts.

“There’s nothing like qualifying at the Indy 500,” said Sharp, a 41-year-old native of Norwalk, Conn. “Something I’ve always gotten really pumped up for.” 

Sharp qualified on-pole at IMS for Kelly Racing in 2001…when a wonderful Month of May went awry on the race’s first lap. Leading the field into Turn 1, the left-side wheels of his No. 8 Dallara/Oldsmobile dipped below the white line. The car lost traction and Sharp made contact with the outside retaining wall between Turns 1 and 2. He failed to complete a lap and finished a heartbreaking 33rd.

Sharp rebounded with a victory in the June night race at Texas Motor Speedway in his next start, small consolation for his faux pas at IMS.

Sharp has logged five top-10 finishes at IMS, having completed the full 200-lap distance in 2005 and 2006 with Delphi Fernandez Racing. At this stage of his career, Sharp reiterated that his only reason to return is to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“Frankly, absolutely,” said Sharp, who has led only three laps at Indy, all in 2002. “Panther doesn’t need to run another car just to run one. Patron is probably only going to get a really great return on investment and solid exposure if we’re running well and having a chance. 

“For me, I feel so fortunate. When someone said this is going to be my 14th Indy 500, it’s like there’s no way. To think I’ve been able to do it so many times. With that being said, I don’t need to come do the race just to run around 12th. 

“So certainly, it’s my favorite race, my favorite track. I think I’ve always felt like I’ve gotten where I wanted to be at some point in the month – whether that was in practice, whether that was in qualifying, certain stages of the race – but never was able to, for varieties of reasons, get it all together when I needed to for maybe the last couple stops and be able to really go challenge for the win.” 

With the exception of sensational CART rookie Juan Pablo Montoya in 2000, “one-off” drivers and teams have struggled to keep pace with series regulars at IMS. Sharp is fully aware of that, although he believes the combination of his experience and the depth of the Panther organization are huge advantages.  

“No doubt the series is really competitive,” Sharp said. “It looks like a lot of the teams have closed up on the top couple teams. And I imagine that the five through 15-type spots (during qualifications) are going to be really, really tough. It’s going to be a tenth-of-a-mile an hour over four laps that’s going to be the difference. 

“Certainly everything (at Panther) is open, everybody is working together, one big team. Dan and I have always gotten along really well, so no issues there. I have a lot of respect for him. He knows his way around the place really well. It’s just a matter of, you know, adjusting our cars every little bit we can to get the most out of them.” 

Sharp noted that Michael Andretti came out of retirement in 2006 and finished a stout third behind winner Sam Hornish Jr. and son Marco in one of the race’s closest one-two finishes – 0.0635 of a second. 

“I certainly think it’s very situational,” Sharp said. “Even then, it depends a lot on how the race goes. Certainly I’m excited to be at Panther and think that they want to see us equally do well. Obviously when you’re not running regularly, you really got to dot your I’s, cross your T’s. There’s less room for error from a competitive perspective. You can’t be letting down in any area. 

“I’ve always felt the 500, it’s a race from the moment you wake up it’s got to be your day and things have just got to fall into place. There’s enough elements going on during that race that things are out of your control, things have to flow your way. I think if we qualify strongly, get a good race car, we wake up, it’s one of those days, no doubt we can go win the race.” 

Sharp grew up in a racing environment as the son of accomplished Sports Car Club of America driver Bob Sharp, whose partnership with actor/racer Paul Newman propelled Scott to the SCCA national GT-2 title in 1986. Scott graduated to the SCCA Trans-Am Series fulltime in1989 and bagged his first professional championship in 1991. A second Trans-Am title followed in 1993, along with his CART debut with Bettenhausen Motorsports. 

Sharp was a regular with A.J. Foyt Enterprises when Foyt, the first four-time Indy 500 champion, opted to bolt CART and join Tony George’s Indy Racing League for the 1996 season. That inaugural, three-race IndyCar campaign ended in a deadlock when Calkins, of Bradley Motorsports, and Sharp each posted 246 points. Calkins made history by winning the first series race in January at Orlando, Fla. The Indy 500 served as the season-finale, with Sharp’s 10th-place finish and Calkins’ 17th-place run creating the tie.  

Calkins and his family-owned team last competed at Indy in 2001, the year of Sharp’s first-to-last nightmare. But the Indy Racing League endured through the bitter “CART Wars,” capped by last year’s merger with the Champ Car World Series. 

Sharp looks back on the IRL’s evolution as one daunting leap of faith. 

“I guess creating a brand-new (open-wheel) league out of nowhere would be like starting a brand-new NFL football league,” Sharp said. ”It was a lot of doubters early on. It gave a lot of – whether it was drivers or owners or certainly crew members – a lot of opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. You think of a lot of guys that qualified the first year at the 500 or the second year at the 500 that ended up really being their only chance probably as the league accelerated along. They got a chance to come run at Indy that otherwise they wouldn’t have had. 

“But certainly I think, as you saw, the big teams start to come into the IRL from Champ Car. You saw the manufacturers come. You just saw the whole level of the game and the intensity continue to rise. So I think it’s been fantastic in a lot of ways. Obviously it’s an incredible championship right now. It’s super intense competitively.” 

With that, Sharp can only imagine what it would mean to win The Big Race. 

“it’s something I’ve dreamt about since I was a little kid watching it with my dad on the couch,” Sharp said. “I never even knew if I’d have the opportunity to run at Indy. To be able to have done it as many times as I have, felt like I’ve had some success there, but certainly not the win. 

“You know, it’s something I think about every day. It would be truly, truly incredible. It doesn’t make or break your life, but it sure would be an incredible experience for all involved.” 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 9 2009
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