Castroneves: Mixing up schedule a great move
Before last week's test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, I hadn't raced on a road course in nearly three years. For the record, it was Laguna Seca, Oct. 14, 2001, and I finished sixth. I haven't been on a street course in nearly as long -- Australia, Oct. 28, 2001, where I finished 20th. I haven't won on a road course since Aug. 12, 2001, at Mid-Ohio.
So, if you think I'm not thrilled about the IRL IndyCar Series decision to add road and street courses to the 2005 schedule, well, you just don't know me very well.
In case you haven't heard, we're going to turn right a few times next year -- along with braking and downshifting -- as the IRL adds three new venues to its growing schedule. First, we'll compete at a street course in St. Petersburg, Fla., on April 3. Then, later in the season, we'll visit two historic road courses -- Watkins Glen International and Infineon Raceway.
I've never been on any of those tracks, so I'm intrigued. And, like most of my fellow competitors in the Indy Racing League, I miss road racing. I cannot wait to do it again.
I'm especially excited about Watkins Glen and Infineon. The Glen is one of the most historic road courses in the United States. It was the site of the U.S. Grand Prix Formula One race from 1961 to 1980. Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jim Clark, Graham Hill and Nikki Lauda have won there, among many other famous drivers.
Infineon, formerly known as Sears Point, hasn't hosted an open-wheel race in more than 20 years, but it has a similar history. Mario, Al Unser, Dan Gurney and Dale Earnhardt are just a few of the famous winners at Sears Point. I've watched the NASCAR race there many times, so I know the course is hilly and winding. I like that type of track.
That isn't all. Team Penske has a long association with both tracks, which makes them even more important to me. Penske drivers won three consecutive races at Watkins Glen -- Bobby Unser in 1979 and '80, Rick Mears in '81. In fact, Mears' win was the last Indy-car race at the Glen.
The legendary Mark Donohue won the first Indy-car pole position for Roger Penske at Sears Point back in 1970. He also won at Watkins Glen. I want to continue that tradition.
It's not just tradition that interests me. It's about progress, too. This is an awesome change for our series and our team. Motor racing, especially open-wheel racing, is all about having the fastest combination, and the addition to road racing only adds to the challenges and the diversity of the series. The IRL is growing every year, and it's moving in the right direction.
When we made the switch from CART to the IRL before the start of the 2002 season, we knew the challenges of racing only on ovals. I wasn't afraid of that. My first oval win was the Indianapolis 500 in 2001. I said, "Hey, I can do this." I knew I could handle the format of all-ovals.
At the same time, I thought that eventually the league would add road racing. The situation in open-wheel racing in the U.S. is still confusing and scrambled with two series, but I always felt that, in time, we'd be back on road and street courses.
When we tested at Homestead -- the first time any of us had been in an IRL car on a road course -- everyone was thrilled. There was speculation that the cars, designed primarily to run on ovals, would not run well on a road course. But the changes in the brakes and the differential worked wonders. The cars were stable and fun to drive.
I haven't met many drivers who aren't excited about the IRL's move to road racing. Almost all of us have road-racing in our backgrounds, whether from karts or training series or past experience in CART. I cannot tell you how excited I am at the prospect of getting back to this type of racing, all the while enjoying the challenges of a wide variety of oval tracks. This rounds out the IRL's schedule nicely.
That's not all that I find interesting. The placement of the new races on the 2005 schedule also provides some drama. The two road races are near the end of the season, so they will affect the championship. Some drivers aren't as good on road courses, and others are very good. It creates an interesting battle at the end of the year and makes the championship even more exciting.
This is a positive step. The next positive step will be unification of the two series. Let's get all of us back together on the same page -- and the same tracks. That, my friends, will be an even happier day.
Helio Castroneves drives for Marlboro Team Penske in the Indy Racing League. He is providing a diary to ESPN.com throughout the 2004 season. Castroneves' Web site can be found at www.heliocastroneves.com.br/.