Commentary

Merger learning curve about to get a whole lot steeper

Things have gone well for the newly merged IndyCar Series as drivers with little oval-racing experience have blended in nicely. Unfortunately, Indianapolis can be a whole different story, writes John Schwarb.

Updated: April 28, 2008, 7:01 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- So far, so good on the ovals for the former Champ Car regulars and other road-racing-accustomed newcomers to the IndyCar Series.

But the 1.5-mile ovals of Homestead-Miami and Kansas Speedway are one thing. The 2.5-mile racing cathedral at Indianapolis is something else.

The unification of open-wheel racing kicks into another gear Sunday when rookie orientation begins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a humbling thought to some who crawled out of their cars at Kansas and realized their next laps will be at Indy.

"It's something that's been so far away that you don't think about it, but in less than a week, we'll be out there doing 220 miles an hour or whatever it is," said Newman/Haas/Lanigan's Justin Wilson. "It's so different from the ovals I've run so far, different to any racing I've done in the past. So I'll feel like a rookie."

Wilson didn't play the part of the timid oval newcomer at Kansas, finishing in ninth place, one lap down, to lead all non-IndyCar-bred rookies (Hideki Mutoh, sixth at Kansas, is a rookie but came up through the Indy Pro Series, now Firestone Indy Lights). He led five laps in the early going and duked it out with the veterans when he had the opportunity.

"I was able to go with people and make moves on restarts, things like that. On my own, I couldn't keep up," said the 29-year-old Englishman. "If I lost the draft, I just fell back. I'd hope somebody would make a mistake and I could get the draft back.

"I was pleased that we got a top-10; it's positive, and hopefully we can get a bit more speed out of the car and get up to the front. It's fun when you're in the mix of it, but as soon as you start to lose that draft and people pull away from you, it's frustrating. You don't like being in that no man's land in between."

That's where, understandably, many of Wilson's peers have been in two oval races. While the IndyCar Series was contesting a third oval race at Japan two weekends ago, Champ Car ran its farewell race at Long Beach, Calif. None of the "new" folks finished within six laps of the lead at Homestead, and a few had problems at Kansas.

Will Power, twice a winner in 2007 in Champ Car and the winner last week at Long Beach for KV Racing, finished last at Kansas after spinning into the wall on Lap 23. Mario Moraes, a 19-year-old who last competed in the F3 series in Britain before joining Dale Coyne Racing, crashed in practice, and his team had to scramble to get him into the race; he finished 17th. Another former F3 driver, Enrique Bernoldi, spun in the second turn of the first lap and damaged his front wing. He lasted 54 laps before departing in 25th.

EJ Viso got the most attention but for the wrong reasons, finishing 14th and making few friends in the process. He hooked up with IndyCar veteran Tomas Scheckter on Lap 98, sending both spinning into the frontstretch grass. Scheckter's day ended, but Viso continued and tussled with a few more drivers, including Danica Patrick and Wilson.

"There was one person who was moving around a lot and making it hard for everyone to pass him," Wilson said, not naming Viso but leaving no doubt to whom he was referring.

Other midpack cars completed the event with less incident. Graham Rahal, the 19-year-old toast of the IndyCar Series earlier this month with his milestone win on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., continued his oval education with a 12th-place run for Newman/Haas/Lanigan. Kansas was his first IndyCar Series oval race; he crashed in practice before Homestead, and his team didn't have a backup car.

Graham Rahal

The biggest thing today was to learn who you can trust, who you can't, where you could run and where you can't. To get confidence to run on the high line takes quite a bit of guts. It takes some heart to run up there and know that the thing is going to stick and you'll be all right.

-- Graham Rahal

"The biggest thing today was to learn who you can trust, who you can't, where you could run and where you can't," Rahal said. "To get confidence to run on the high line takes quite a bit of guts. It takes some heart to run up there and know that the thing is going to stick and you'll be all right.

"I'm just glad we finished. I had a vibration in my right-rear, and I can assure you it makes you nervous at 220 [mph] and feeling the thing wiggle around."

Overall, the newcomers have done their learning without adversely affecting the outcomes of the races. Their presence will be magnified at Indy, with the higher stakes of the 500 and the fact that the race is preceded by some three weeks of on-track activity, plenty of time to learn -- and to get in trouble. But at least one IndyCar veteran has offered his blessing, saying, in effect, bring 'em on.

"Look at Homestead and look at this race. We've had, you know, bickering stints, crashes and single-car crashes. I think I saw Scheckter and [Viso] get into it, but that was the only one I saw," said Scott Dixon, third at Kansas and a winner at Homestead for Chip Ganassi Racing.

"You know, very early in my IndyCar career, there was a lot more crashes than that just from us guys being involved in them. So I think they've kept it very clean. They've done a bloody good job."

Now it's time to see whether they can continue at Indianapolis.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.

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