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IRL president reiterates desire for Daytona race after first testing session

By BRANT JAMES
Published September 27, 2006


DAYTONA BEACH - Vitor Meira became one of the first in nearly a half century to drive an open-wheel race car on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway on Tuesday when he fired off pit road at 10 a.m. to begin an Indy Racing League "compatibility test" at the legendary home of NASCAR's Daytona 500.

Meira's traffic cone-orange Honda was followed quickly by Scott Dixon's car onto the 10-turn, 2.73-mile road course, winding through the massive, empty infield, then onto the 31-degree slopes of Turns 3 and 4.

Whether they ever traverse the course or one similar for a race remains a farther-off decision, but IRL president Brian Barnhart again expressed hope his series will one day compete at what open-wheel racing feels is motorsports' second-most important speedway.

"I think the ultimate goal is toward racing there, but we're a long way from that," he said, noting that NASCAR's 1994 incursion into Indianapolis Motor Speedway was preceded by testing in 1992. "It's taken a long time to get to this point, and we're going to take the necessary steps before we even consider racing again."

Barnhart said even if the test was successful (signs were good Tuesday) and Daytona became a winter test venue next season, a race could not be held before 2008. Track president Robin Braig insisted International Speedway Corp. has had no queries official or otherwise from the IRL about a race but hedged with, "We are always open to hearing about new events."

The angry-bee whine of the IRL's 650-horsepower engines and the low-slung sleekness of the IndyCars was in stark contrast to the stock cars that have made the monstrous tri-oval famous.

"I was up in race control (above the track) and I heard that sound and I was worried about the neighbors," Braig said. "They tolerate the Richard Petty driving school, (but) that was not a Richard Petty driving school noise, that was quite amazing."

Five drivers participated, including defending and three-time series champion Sam Hornish. His Penske team and Andretti Green Racing used the test to begin work for next season, using 3.5-liter engine packages and the 100-percent ethanol fuel blend that will become standard. Dan Wheldon will replace Dixon for Ganassi Racing today.

Hornish and Dixon spun off the course during an afternoon session, but the high banks - unlike anything on the IRL schedule - were the main topic of discussion.

"Running an IndyCar and going through that banking feels like we're on a rollercoaster every lap when you get into that corner," Tony Kanaan said. "They said 30 degrees of banking. It looked like 60 to me."

Machines capable of more than 220 mph - they have lower horsepower but less than half the weight of Nextel Cup cars - were held to speeds around 185, said IRL senior technical director Les Mactaggart, because of the wings used to make them handle on the winding course.

Reduced speeds were welcomed considering the tragic history of open-wheel racing at Daytona. In 1959 Marshall Teague and George Amick, reaching unexpected speeds in excess of 170, were the first fatalities at the then-new facility within 52 days of each other, and stock cars have monopolized Daytona ever since. The track hosted a Formula One tire test in 1984.

Mactaggart said IndyCars would approach 230 mph running full out on the oval, a situation he called undesirable because of the extreme wear on parts and prolonged G-force loads on drivers.