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The Callahan Report: Stewart Wins; IRL Safety Improvements Tested and Passed

25 January 1998

Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart
Lake Buena Vista, FL: The Pep Boys Corporation announced last week they would be the title sponsor of the Indy Racing League (IRL). With that announcement, they obligated a ton of money to the IRL. If Pep Boys sold carbon fiber Indy Car body parts instead of just passenger car auto parts, they could have made back most of their money at the conclusion of the IRL season opener at Walt Disney World Speedway.

By the end of the Indy 200 at Walt Disney World, twelve of the twenty-eight cars which started the race were heavily damaged. The race saw nine crashes involving twelve cars. On the upside, there were no injuries (unless you count wallet damage for the IRL car owners).

The Rushville Rocket, Tony Stewart, came away with the victory. Stewart took the lead for the last time on lap 195. He passed Mark Dismore with five laps remaining in the race. Dismore ran out of fuel and coasted to the pits on lap 196.

Stewart was not the fastest car at on the track. He stayed out of trouble to earn his win. "I could write a book about the crashes we could have been in today," Stewart said.

The track owed Tony Stewart a victory. Stewart dominated the race here two years ago and had problems that kept him out of victory lane. Last year, Stewart spun in his own oil while leading the race late. The defending IRL champion now has two IRL victories under his belt. His racing team is strong and well funded, but with the IRL formula, he will not dominate the series. Top-five finishes are the key to winning championships in the IRL. Tony Stewart and the Menard Team are definitely capable of doing that.

The temperatures at race time were cooler than they had been in all the practice sessions leading up to the race. The IRL drivers know about the dangers of trying to make daring moves on cold tires. Those who forgot about the dangers got a refresher course at the "Mickyard" in Central Florida. Brian Barnhart, the director of racing operation for the Pep Boys Indy Racing League commented, "I'm pleased with the fact that we didn't hurt anybody. But I'm not pleased with the number of crashes. I'd like to reduce that number to make sure that nobody gets hurt in the future.''

The IRL made significant safety improvements over the winter months. Those improvements were proven at Walt Disney World. The main areas of improvement were in the transmission, bellhousing and driver cockpit. Design changes helped components in those areas absorb more impact and dissipate more force during the accidents, providing more protection for the drivers involved.

Jeff Ward
Jeff Ward
The cold temperatures were just part of the problem. The fearlessness and bravado which is characteristic of race drivers also contributed to some of the crashes. It is all part of racing. Jeff Ward, who finished second to Stewart, commented, "To make passes on this track, you've got to take chances. At some tracks, you like one turn and don't like another. At this one, I don't like any of them."

Davey Hamilton, who finished third in the race and second in the championship standings last season added, "It's a tough racetrack, and with the close competition you have to take some risks out there to get by guys."

Although the race was marred with several crashes, there was some great racing going on during the brief "sprints" under the green flag. If the show put on during green flag racing at WDW is any indication, this IRL season will be very competitive.

Roberto Guerrero
Roberto Guerrero
Roberto Guerrero looked as though he was going to run away with the show. In the early laps, Guerrero "checked out" from the rest of the field. He was lapping cars within nine laps of green flag racing. Guerrero was passing a pack of cars exiting the long turn one when Eliseo Salazar, the winner at Las Vegas last year, spun in front of the tight pack. Marco Greco went high to avoid the spinning car. Guerrero had no place to go except into the wall. Both drivers acknowledged it was a racing incident, but were disappointed. Guerrero was counting on a good finish in order to secure sponsorship for his Pagan Racing Team.

Another strong contender was Buddy Lazier. The winner of the 1996 Indy 500 was leading at WDW when he also went on the "crash list". Lazier came up on a slower car which disturbed the air on his bright purple racer. The back end snapped around and Lazier went into the infield fence.

Scott Sharp was blazing through the pack when a car suddenly slowed in front of him. Sharp darted to the right and almost cleared the slowing car. Almost wasn't good enough. Sharp nipped the rear tire of the slower car and ripped off his left front wing in the process.

The IRL teams have a couple of months to think of the lessons learned at WDW speedway. They also have time to repair equipment. The next race date for the IRL drivers will be in Phoenix, AZ in March.

Terry Callahan - The Auto Channel

Editors Note: The images displayed in this article (plus many more) can be viewed in the Racing Image Galleries from The Callahan Racing Page.