Wheldon should be fine; Danica could be awesome
Rusty Wallace Q&A on the opening of the 2006 IndyCar season.
Q: How hard is it on a driver like Dan Wheldon, who is coming off a series title and an Indy 500 title, but also switched teams. Isn't switching teams after so much success a huge risk?
A: I don't think it's that much of a risk. He's obviously a talented driver, and he's back with Honda engines again this year. Even though he's driving for Chip Ganassi this year, Ganassi's teams really look like they are up to speed. They won the 24 Hours of Daytona, and his [Nextel] Cup teams have been running fabulous.
We were down there in Homestead, Fla., for preseason testing, and Wheldon and Scott Dixon were solid as a rock. I don't expect to see Wheldon to have to go through hardly any growing pains because almost all the drivers are running the Dallara chassis with the Honda engines. They are running the Panoz chassis on the road courses only, which is kind of odd, but they feel real comfortable doing that. Wheldon ran great practice speeds on the oval and on the road course, even though in different cars. Preseason testing helped him a lot to get some of the bugs knocked out -- if there were any at all.
Q: The IndyCar Series is still struggling to draw fans from its heyday 20 years ago. What is the best reason to watch these cars go?
A: I was down there watching preseason testing, and these cars are incredibly fast. Plus, the cars are some of the coolest I have ever seen in my life. The pit stops are dramatic -- fast and loud. The wing package these drivers have in the cars lets them run side by side; they're passing like crazy every single lap.
At ESPN, we are going to have new technology for how the viewers are going to be able to watch the race. You'll see throttle position, fuel burn, how many laps they have left on their fuel; you're going to be able to see all the strategy, and see a lot of things going on in the car that you have never seen before. Also, we are going to be talking to the drivers under cautions and educate the viewers about these cars.
When I went down to Daytona to watch all the world's greatest drivers assemble under one big area to run the coveted 24 Hours of Daytona, the race was won by IndyCar driver Dixon. Not only did he win it, but he was solid all night long, as was Wheldon. This division has some talent that I've never seen in my life.
Q: Rusty, you drove in an IndyCar at Homestead earlier this month. What about the track changes in an IndyCar as opposed to a NASCAR car?
A: I drove Sam Hornish Jr.'s car in Homestead during preseason testing because I told everyone: When I report on the sport, I want to be able to report correctly. I got to drive his car, shift it, feel the acceleration, how it stops, turns and how the different loads of the steering form through the wheel.
An IndyCar has so much downforce that you can run all over the track -- you can run more places on the track than you can with a stock car. A stock car really needs a good racing groove where the track rubbers up and gets blacker and blacker. A stock car tends to run a real low line around Homestead and more in the middle of the track in Turns 3 and 4.
I noticed the IRL cars can run all over the racetrack. They have so much extreme downforce that they can make real late entries into the corners. They can run in the bottom, middle and top of tracks. That downforce, which enables them to get better grip, really makes for better racing. Whenever you have grip all over the racetrack, it means you can pass all over the racetrack.
Q: Is there anything different about this year as opposed to previous years in the ongoing split between the IndyCar Series and Champ Car Series?
A: What's different about this year is the new drivers, the new paint schemes [you aren't going to see Wheldon in a Klein Tool car, you're going to see more of a Target car] and everybody is in Honda engines. Nobody has any excuses this year; everyone has the same engine. Now, it's coming down to pit stops, who selects the right spring, the right shock, the right pit strategy. Honda has been really involved in the engine, and I don't know of any failures during preseason testing. That engine looked like it performed flawless, and when I drove it, it had incredible acceleration.
I expect big things out of Danica Patrick. I made a comment the other day which I really believe. When I was asked if she was going to win, I said, "Hell yeah, she's going to win." I drove with her at the 24 Hours of Daytona; she's really into the chassis of the car. She's deeply involved in the setup. I got firsthand knowledge of working with her at Daytona which proved to me she is the real deal. I've seen a lot of lady race car drivers, but she is the real deal.
I do wish both open-wheel organizations could get back together and create a bigger open-wheel sport, but that's up to the powers that be. That's something that probably desperately needs to happen, and I hope all the parties can come together and make it happen one of these days.
Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races.