Panther Racing continues to set pace


FORT WORTH, Texas – Panther Racing qualified 1-2 for the Bombardier Learjet 500, then backed it up by running 1-2 race trim Friday evening in the final warm-up session. Tomas Enge took the honors from Tomas Scheckter in the intra-team battle, turning a 215.622-mph lap in the Rockstar Energy Drink Dallara-Chevrolet.

"I'm happy, obviously," said Enge, a 28-year-old Czech. "The car is very good in either groove and everything is going well so far. But we're just practicing for the big night, which is tomorrow. I don't want to talk about success because we need to finish a race. Hopefully this can be the weekend the luck turns around."

"I wish tomorrow was today because we're ready to go right now," chipped in Scheckter.

Enge's profile was boosted when he met with fellow IndyCar Series rookie Danica Patrick in the Texas Motor Speedway media center for a photo-op. Patrick and Enge posed with the broken front wing from Enge's car that was a product of their on-track clash in the Indianapolis 500 two weeks ago. Panther Racing is auctioning the wing on Ebay, with the proceeds set to go to the Indiana chapter of the Best Buddies charity. On Friday evening, it was going for $36,600.

Dan Wheldon also topped 215 mph in the final practice session, while Patrick was 17th fastest in her first experience running in a Texas-style 20-car draft.

Wheldon's strong words
Dan Wheldon has never been short on hubris, and now he's got the title of Indianapolis 500 winner to back up his words. The glib 26-year-old Englishman held court Friday at Texas Motor Speedway and fired salvoes at NASCAR and Danica Patrick, all while constantly reminding the assembled press that the Indianapolis 500 is the biggest and best race in the world.

"There are guys out there other than Danica, probably some better," Wheldon commented. "It wasn't just Danica pushing up the television ratings by 40 (actually 59) percent, it was all 33 drivers. I keep telling the IRL that we need to be pushing all the personalities more in front of different people. She's not the only driver that has a fan base."

Wheldon went on to say that thanks to the sudden attention that Patrick brought to the IndyCar Series, he can visualize it matching or exceeding NASCAR's popularity in America.

"If people come to one race, they are back for more," he said. "Everybody likes change now and then. The product we're putting on the track is best in the world and slowly people are starting to see that.

"With help of Danica and the races we've been having lately, people are starting to get attracted to these particular personalities," Wheldon added. "We blew NASCAR's numbers up in the last race. Every driver in this series is loving being part of it right now and if I was a NASCAR official I'd be scared."

No magic formula
The IndyCar Series has still not determined technical specifications for its future engine formula, set for introduction in 2007. For the better part of the last year, IndyCar Series founder Tony George has hinted that he would like the series to mandate much simpler engine architecture in an effort to reduce costs.

However, he has encountered resistance from Honda and Toyota, which would prefer to maintain a relatively high level of technology and the manufacturer lease-and-service engine programs that have been successfully used in CART (now Champ Car) and the IndyCar Series for the better part of 20 years.

"We've been in a series of meetings with the IRL in the last year or so talking about future engines and a lot of the talk was about having to get back to outside engine builders," said Toyota racing development vice president (and IndyCar Series program manager) John Faivre. "Some of the guys who were around in the early days of the IRL said, 'Don't glamorize that because that was really a bad deal. We had four or five engines blow up every race and that would cause accidents.'"

From Honda's perspective, the current engine costs in the IndyCar Series are quite reasonable. "We weren't involved then, but in 2002, my understanding is that an IRL engine program cost teams somewhere between $1.0 and 1.5 million," said Honda Performance Development president Robert Clarke. "Our standard lease right now is $1.7 million, so if you take inflation into consideration, we're right where they were. And that's about half of what a CART program cost in 2002.

"They are getting a very competitive, very reliable, professionally serviced and supplied product for basically what they were paying before," Clarke continued. "So I think the engine cost to the team is quite reasonable, though the manufacturers are eating a huge cost. On the other hand, it's pretty difficult for the IRL to control development. That is driven more by the need for the manufacturer to compete and win and the value they feel they get out of it."

Toyota's Faivre said that costs have also been reduced by the sheer dependability of the factory engine programs common to the IndyCar Series since 2003.

"The main difference you see is the reliability," he remarked. "I think there was only one engine failure I saw in the Indianapolis 500, and there weren't more than four or five engine failures in the month, which is fairly incredible when you think about the miles. Our engines alone did more than 20,800 miles."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.