Penske prepares for Indy 500

Helio Castroneves and Penske Racing tested at Indianapolis on Wednesday as the team makes its next move toward competing in the 85th Indianapolis 500 in 2001

Penske prepares for Indy 500

Castroneves made his debut at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Fred Treadway's G-Force/Aurora Wednesday and reached 219 mph while running 300 miles.

"It's a great track and a very technical track, but I thought it was wider!" said the 25-year-old Brazilian. "I was pleased to be here and now I have a reference if we ever run here."

Roger Penske, the most successful team owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 10 victories, confirmed his intentions to return to the world's biggest race prior to the Miller Lite 225 at Milwaukee in June.

Penske has not entered the Indianapolis 500 since he failed to make the field in 1995. Since that time, he has remained loyal to the CART Series, which has stayed away from the race over the creation of the Indy Racing League in 1996. But when fellow CART team owner Chip Ganassi announced he was entering this year's Indianapolis 500 with drivers Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser, Penske decided to test the climate by sponsoring Jason Leffler at Treadway Racing.

Several Penske crewmen, including team president Tim Cindric and consultant Rick Mears - a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner as a driver - worked with Leffler throughout the month of May, and on race day.

Penske rented Treadway Racing for the test session, using one of the team's cars and members of its crew. Details of the test were not released, although team owner Fred Treadway said Penske Racing was quite pleased with the test.

"I'm very excited about it," Castroneves said last week in looking forward to the test session. "We're not going to do anything special, I'm going there to learn. I've never been there. I just know that I have to turn left. That is the only thing I know.

"The car is different from what we are running so I have to go there and learn. Rick Mears is going to teach me a few tricks and I hope to learn them."

Although de Ferran was unable to test because of his broken finger, he senses a great deal of excitement over a possible return to the Indianapolis 500 next year.

"I think it would be great," de Ferran said prior to last Sunday's Michigan 500. "I think it's an opportunity to get acquainted with the track again which I haven't been there since 1995. With the different equipment, we'll see how it is.

"Roger hasn't confirmed yet that he is running the Indianapolis 500 next year, but it is very much in his mind. I don't think anybody on the team has kept it a secret that we would enjoy going back to Indianapolis and we will eventually do it."

De Ferran said Treadway Racing is a top-line team in the IRL and will provide Penske Racing with first-class equipment to base their test on.

The driver from Brazil is one of the few drivers in CART who have actually competed in the Indianapolis 500. He competed in 1995 when he was with team owner Jim Hall in a Pennzoil-sponsored car.

"I feel fortunate to have raced there once," de Ferran said. "It's the biggest racing arena in the world. I had a little bit of taste of that in 1995. It's a wonderful place. In my mind, having everything come together in the Indianapolis 500, it's one of the biggest races in the world and I would therefore want to race there again."

When Montoya dominated this year's Indianapolis 500, it helped elevate the stature of the Indianapolis 500, while giving added lustre to CART at the same time.

"In my mind, there was very little point that Juan and Team Ganassi needed to prove," de Ferran said. "I always saw them as a world-class team and driver and that is why I enjoyed competing against them. I know they are the best that you can find. Running against them is a real pleasure."

Both de Ferran and Castroneves understand the heritage that Penske Racing has at the Indianapolis 500. Penske is the winningest team owner in Indy 500 history with 10 wins. Mears is a four-time Indianapolis 500 winner. The team's sponsor - Marlboro - has won the Indianapolis 500 with Emerson Fittipaldi in 1989, when he was driving for Patrick Racing, and in 1993 with Team Penske. Marlboro also sponsored Mears' winning effort in 1991 and Al Unser Jr's victorious car in 1994.

Marlboro will likely not be able to sponsor a car in the Indianapolis 500 in 2001 because the recent federal tobacco ruling restricts cigarette sponsorship to one team per one series. Marlboro has chosen CART for its sponsorship opportunities, which means Penske's Indy 500 cars would have to be sponsored by another company, or another division of Philip Morris, which produces Marlboro cigarettes.

It's a deep-rooted heritage to racing's greatest showcase, so even if Castroneves has never competed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he understands the lure of the facility that is a worldwide shrine to auto racing.

"When the Penske team goes for something, we don't go just to be there," Castroneves said. "We have proved this year, we are proving again and working very hard to achieve what we have done so far this year. There is still more to come, we hope.

"It will be the same thing with the Indianapolis 500. You know we will put in a lot of effort. It's so when I come there for the real race, I don't look around and say, `Wow.'

"It's still a long way off. Roger is doing this the right way. If you work hard, you will achieve what he wants and that is what we are expecting. We want to feel the excitement and the atmosphere there, but first we have to focus on the CART championship."

Castroneves said he does not have an interest in the IRL, but he has had an interest in competing in the Indianapolis 500.

"Just walking inside on the circuit is exciting," Castroneves said. "My heart starts pumping just thinking about it.

"No doubt about it, the Indianapolis 500 is the most famous race in the world. It is pretty exciting. It's special. It's great the opportunity has come now to test there, but let's keep our focus on the CART championship right now."

Long before Montoya won this year's Indianapolis 500, there was already a defending winner in the CART series this year. Ironically, that driver is a CART rookie.

Although Kenny Brack is in his first season in CART, he won the 1998 IRL title and the 83rd Indianapolis 500 in 1999 while driving for team owner AJ Foyt.

Brack is glad to see more CART teams taking an interest in returning to the Indianapolis 500 and he hopes to one day return as a driver in that race, himself.

"I think the more teams, the better for Indy," Brack said. "It's up to my team to decide if we are going to go there or not. I have my hands full with what we are doing right now, but I want to go back there if there is an opportunity."

Brack believes it is inevitable that the best of CART and the best of the IRL will eventually do battle in the biggest race in the world - the Indianapolis 500.

"I hope so," Brack said. "Indy is the biggest auto race in the world and every driver wants to be there. It's a question of making it happen. Next year, I know the scheduling is a bit difficult right now, but if that can be solved, I'd like to be there, too.

"I missed not being there this year, but I made a decision to do a new challenge in CART and that is what I'm focusing on. Once you have set the CART car up and drive it, it's very similar on an oval with the speeds compared to the IRL car. There is more technology involved in the CART car, so it puts a bigger task for the team to have the right resources to get the car right.

"In the IRL, the rules package is quite simple, which makes the competition equal."

Because the IRL rules package is more equal than in CART, it is important that Penske Racing learn the cars early in order to find a competitive edge in next year's race.

"If you asked me what kind of race I would like to be a part of, I would like it to be the best of CART against the best of the IRL in the Indianapolis 500," de Ferran said. "That's the way it should be."

And if Roger Penske has anything to say about it, that's the way the Indianapolis 500 will be in the future.

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