Track: Walt Disney World Speedway
Date: Saturday, January 29, 2000
Start time: 12:05 PM EST
Weather: Partly cloudy and mild
Serial: #1 of 10 in 2000 season, #35 overall
History: IRL race #5, Indycar race #5 at this track
Config: 1-mile triangular, flat track
Wing package: Short track
The Indy Racing League opened its season with the first major motor sports events of the 2000s. A new rules package had mandated changes to the chassis, and decreased engine displacement from 4 liters to 3.5. For the first time, the 180-degree crankshaft was allowed, but many teams were concerned about vibration (due to a number of drivetrain failures in testing) and some teams, notably Foyt, were sticking with the 90-degree crank for the time being. There had been many driver and team changes over the winter. Foyt had replaced both of his drivers, with Jeff Ward and Eliseo Salazar being the new pilots; last year's Indy winner Kenny Brack had gone over to CART and an attempt by Billy Boat to launch his own team had failed. Robby McGehee had signed to drive a second car for Treadway, but that had gone back to being a one-car team a few weeks before the race as Sam Schmidt had been tragically paralyzed in a testing accident. Several name drivers arrived with last-minute rides. Billy Boat was making a one-race start for Team Pelfrey, whose rookie driver Sarah McCune had not been able to finish her rookie test in time for the race. Tristar had made a deal with Robby Unser, who had some sponsorship money in hand, and team co-owner Tony Stewart had appointed himself as Unser's engineer. Unser was paired with Jaret Schroeder, who had regained his IRL rookie status owing to a rules change and was running for the Rookie of the Year award. On this note, a considerable rookie crop was in evidence, with four drivers making their first IRL starts. Among these was "rookie" Al Unser Jr., who had finally abandoned his CART aspirations for another shot at Indy with his old team owner Rick Galles. This race was to be Little Al's first time ever racing in a pro-level event against his cousin Robby. The Riley & Scott chassis firm was back with an alliance with Reynard and a new design, and looking for redemption after a poor showing in 1999. Conventional wisdom was aghast as they had sold cars to Hemelgarn and Cheever, both top teams.
Railbirds were curious to see if the new, smaller engines could beat the track record. They didn't get to find out, however, as rain on Friday washed out both qualifying and all but one practice session. Only one group got to practice before the rain came, and there was a definite negative effect on drivers such as Jeff Ward and Scott Sharp, who didn't get to practice. For the second time in five races at WDW, the starting order was set by the previous year's entrant points, putting defending champion Greg Ray and Ward (in Brack's former ride) on the front row. This procedure resulted in some anomolies; Stephan Gregoire, who had been fastest in practice in the strange new G-Force chassis, was placed 14th on the grid. Worse off were Al Unser and Robbie Buhl, the latter driving for the Dreyer & Reinbold team which had formed only weeks before the race. Because their teams were deemed new entries by the IRL, they had to start in the back of the grid even though both had been fast in practice.
The start was clean, but on the second lap Jacques Lazier spun in turn 2, fortunately with no contact, to bring out the first yellow. Big brother Buddy, looking racy in the new R&S, had really hustled the start and was up to 3rd after the first lap. The caution was short and at the green Ray ran off from the field. By lap 8, he already had a 1.3 second lead on Ward and Lazier. Meanwhile, Al Unser was already up to 16th. On lap 10, McGehee tried to make a pass below the yellow line in turn 1; his car got loose and he slid through the infield, but saved it in the warm-up lane. McGehee kept going and there was no yellow; he had to pit for new tires, and his slide through the grass had cracked the left front wing.
Some surprises were working their way up. Buzz Calkins moved into the top-5 on lap 11, and three laps later B. Lazier passed Ward for 2nd. Ward began to slide back due to handling problems which his team would not be able to correct all day. John Hollansworth was also having handling problems and he hit the wall in turn 2 on lap 16, but kept going. There was no caution for that, but on lap 22 a yellow flew when Davey Hamilton backed his car into the wall (perhaps due to a fluid leak) in turn 1.
None of the leaders pitted during this caution (with the exception of Scott Sharp, whose gearbox became jammed in 4th gear), but several cars further back decided to go off-sequence including Buhl (who had had little luck advancing from his 24th starting position), Boat, and Donnie Beechler (back with the much-improved Cahill team). Boat had managed to advance to 10th before pitting, just behind Schroeder. On the restart Nic Jonsson spun in turn 1, but gathered it back up and no caution resulted. McGehee was moving back up through the field after his unscheduled pit stop, and as he was challenging Salazar for 8th, a caution flew on lap 47 for debris in turn 3. Unfortunately, it was a bit too late for Tyce Carlson, who ran over the debris and had to pit for a nose change, losing two laps. Schroeder also lost a lap when he stalled his car; when the Tristar pit crew tried to restart it, they found that their starter didn't work; they had to borrow the one from Robby Unser's pit to get Schroeder going again. At this point pit strategy really came into play. All of the lead cars pitted, and Ray got out first, but he emerged to 5th position as Buhl, Beechler, Boat, and Sam Hornish Jr. (making his first IRL start for the revitalized PDM team) stayed out to claim the first four positions.
The green flew on lap 49, with the crowd waiting to see of any of the pit stop gamblers could hold their positions. Hornish began to fall back and Ray quickly got around him and Boat, but while this was going on Buhl and Beechler drove away. Boat continued to hang on to 4th, and by lap 60 the top six were Buhl, Beechler, Ray, Boat, B. Lazier, and McGehee, while Al Unser had finally cracked the top-10 and Robby Unser was 16th, the last car on the lead lap. But the hoped-for Unser family duel didn't get a chance; on lap 65 Junior slowed with smoke from the rear, and pulled into the pits for a quick diagnosis of a blown engine and an early exit from the race. On the next lap, first-timer Jon Herb (driving for the new partnership of Johnathon Byrd and Dennis McCormack) suffered a front suspension failure exiting turn 1 and slowed abruptly in front of the leaders; Ray (who had just passed Beechler for second) had to take to the grass to avoid a crash and his car left a large donut on Herb's left sidepod. Herb couldn't get the broken car back to the pits, necessitating a caution.
On the caution, the Dreyer & Reinbold team decided to press their luck further and left Buhl out as most of the other leaders pitted. Beechler got a slow pit stop and dropped back, while McGehee and Mark Dismore got good stops, advancing into the top-5 behind Buhl, Ray, and B. Lazier. Gregoire, who had been so fast in practice, was struggling with handling problems and made several unscheduled stops, losing three laps. On the subsequent green, Lazier made a radical pass on Ray on the outside of turn 1 to take second, and suddenly the Hemelgarn team's gamble in switching to the Riley &s Scott chassis over the offseason was looking pretty good. It was only a partial victory, though; while Buhl held on to his lead, Dismore was marching through the field and he took second from Lazier on lap 90. Ray ran fourth at this point followed by Calkins and Scott Goodyear, working his way up.
By lap 95 Buhl appeared to be in trouble on fuel, since he hadn't stopped since lap 28. But then he caught a break: on lap 96, Robby Unser lost the back end of his car as he entered the midstretch and crashed hard. He walked away while his erzatz engineer Stewart explained Unser's handling misadventures to ABC's Jack Arute ("tight on, loose off" in his newly learned NASCAR parlance). The pit stops shuffled the order quite a bit, as Dismore got quick service from the Kelley crew and got out first, but not into first place since the Cahill team had chosen to stay off sequence and so Beechler had assumed the lead. Lazier emerged in 3rd, followed by Buhl and then Eddie Cheever, moving up in his Infiniti-powered Riley & Scott, the first time that combination of chassis and engine had ever been entered in an IRL race. Buhl reported back to his crew that his clutch was becoming balky and he was having difficulty leaving the pits. On the green, Buhl had further trouble and lost several positions, and it looked like his day would perhaps come to an early end.
Dismore and Lazier quickly passed Beechler to take the first two positions, as Beechler reported that his car had developed a bad understeer and he was running a noticably higher line exiting the turns. Only four laps later Lazier's brother Jacques crashed on the front stretch. He had to be removed on a back board with what turned out to be a cracked vertabra in his back, a disturbing trend since Hamilton had earlier been sent out with the same problem. During this caution, the Treadway team finally decided to change McGehee's nose as the crack in his front wing was propagating and the whole wing assembly was threatening to fall apart. They did the nose change in two stages, sending him out without a nose to regain time during the caution, and completed the operation without losing a lap. Other than this, none of the leaders pitted.
On the green on lap 123, Cheever and Salazar jumped Beechler to take 3rd and 4th, as Dismore tried to stretch out a lead. It was short-lived, however; on lap 131 he got caught behind a lapped car and Lazier reeled him in. Meanwhile, Dismore's teammate Sharp was suffering further misery as he had had contact with another car, costing him his left front wing and forcing him to the pits for a green-flag nose change. On lap 136 Hornish spun into the infield on the backstretch. He had no contact but his car became stuck in the soggy grass and a yellow was forced. At this, most of the leaders pitted for what they figured to be their final pit stop, but McGehee (who had just made the unscheduled stop for the nose replacement) stayed out and assumed the lead. Dismore took only a partial load of fuel and emerged in second, followed by Lazier and Cheever. The stop was disasterous for Ray, whose gearbox jammed as he tried to leave the pits. The Menard crew had to change it and Ray was knocked out of contention. Hollansworth also had trouble exiting the pits; he had been running with a non-functioning alternator and his battery had finally given out.
Although no one realized it at the time, the restart on lap 144 was a preview of the sort of thing that would occur at the end fo the race. McGehee got into the marbles in turn 1 and almost crashed, while Dismore's gearbox cooler blew and dumped all his gear oil on the track. A very surprised B. Lazier shot into the lead on the back stretch, as McGehee (whose last set of tires apparently did not suit his car at all) lost positions and Dismore pitted, out of contention. Cheever moved up to second and the Riley & Scott contingent were beside themselves as their make ran 1-2 for the first time ever in an IRL event. By lap 161 Lazier had a 3.4 second lead over Cheever, who was being hotly pursued by Buhl. However, Cheever's car was better on old tires and he began reeling Lazier in. On lap 168 the gap from Lazier to Cheever was 2.2 seconds, with Buhl right on Cheever's tail. McGehee had regained his form and was back up to 4th, followed by Goodyear and Salazar. Meanwhile, Schroeder had pitted with the same gearbox cooler problem that Dismore had suffered.
On lap 168 McGehee got very loose and almost wrecked in turn 2; he made his second great save of the day and no contact occurred, but he again lost several positions. Meanwhile, the leaders began staring each other down on pit strategy. Owen Snyder told ABC that Cheever would not stop again, and soon Ron Hemelgarn made the same pronoucement on behalf of Lazier. For Buhl there was no choice; his clutch probably wasn't going to survive another stop. They were all going to be in trouble on fuel without another caution, but that caution occurred on lap 176 when Doug Didero (making only his second IRL start) spun on the midstretch. The yellow laps were just enough to provide some relief on the fuel situation, and none of the leaders pitted. On the restart on lap 183, Lazier, Cheever, and Buhl pulled away from Goodyear and the rest of the field. Lazier immediately began building a lead and it looked like the R&S chassis was going to score its first IRL victory. Meanwhile, Buhl hung in close with Cheever. By lap 190 Cheever was beginning to gain on Lazier again, but it looked like he would run out of time. However, on the next lap Lazier got hung behind a lapped car; Cheever daringly split the two cars exiting a turn and took the lead, forcing Lazier into the marbles and allowing Buhl through the hole to take second. Now both the R&S and the Infiniti people were on the edge; was Cheever going to break Aurora's dominance? Alas, for the Infiniti folks it was not to be. Incredibly, on lap 199, Cheever made the same mistake Lazier had, trying to pass a lapped car on the outside of turn 1; he got up high and lost momentum, and Buhl shot through to lead the last lap and take the win, while Lazier retook second. Cheever had to fight off a last-second charge from Goodyear, who was followed by Salazar and Beechler.
It was a sense of bad deja vu for Cheever, who had lost a race to Buhl in New Hampshire in 1997 three laps from the end, that race being Buhl's only previous IRL victory. It was an amazing victory for the D&R team, which had been in existence for only a month and had received their car the week before the race. Buhl set an IRL record for winning from the farthest-back starting position, breaking the previous record ironically held by Cheever. Beechler's 6th was the best of his IRL career to date. The Riley & Scott crew, despite losing the win, had to be ecstatic at by far their best showing to date; never before had they placed even one car in the top-5 in an IRL race, much less two. Calkins had handling problems in the latter half of the race but brought his car home 8th to extend his record finishing streak to 13 races. The ten cars finishing on the lead lap set an IRL record.
Fin St Qual Car C/E/T Driver Entrant Laps Status Laps Pts Spd # Led 1 22 Points 24 G/A/F Robbie Buhl D&R 200 Running 49 52 2 5 Points 91 R/A/F Buddy Lazier Hemelgarn 200 Running 47 40 3 6 Points 51 R/I/F Eddie Cheever Cheever 200 Running 8 35 4 8 Points 4 D/A/F Scott Goodyear Panther 200 Running 32 5 10 Points 11 G/A/F Eliseo Salazar Foyt 200 Running 30 6 15 Points 98 D/A/F Donnie Beechler Cahill 200 Running 9 28 7 2 Points 14 G/A/F Jeff Ward Foyt 200 Running 26 8 11 Points 12 D/A/F Buzz Calkins Bradley 200 Running 24 9 9 Points 81 D/A/F Billy Boat Pelfrey 200 Running 6 22 10 4 Points 55 G/A/F Robby McGehee Treadway 200 Running 5 20 11 25 Points 88 G/A/F Airton Dare Xtreme 199 Running 19 12 21 Points 27 G/A/F Nic Jonsson Blueprint 198 Running 18 13 23 Points 20 D/A/F Tyce Carlson Hubb-Immke 197 Running 17 14 20 Points 43 D/A/F Doug Didero MidAmerica 195 Running 16 15 7 Points 8 D/A/F Scott Sharp Kelley 186 Running 15 16 3 Points 28 D/A/F Mark Dismore Kelley 183 Oil Cooler 30 14 17 1 Points 1 D/A/F Greg Ray Menard 180 Running 46 13 18 13 Points 7 G/A/F Stephan Gregoire Simon 174 Running 12 19 16 Points 6 D/A/F Jaret Schroeder Tristar 174 Oil Cooler 11 20 19 Points 18 G/A/F Sam Hornish PDM 172 Running 10 21 14 Points 42 G/A/F John Hollansworth Xtreme 136 Electrical 9 22 26 Points 30 G/A/F Jon Herb Byrd-McCor 114 Handling 8 23 12 Points 33 G/A/F Jacques Lazier Truscelli 110 Crash FS 7 24 18 Points 9 D/A/F Robby Unser Tristar 93 Crash MS 6 25 24 Prac.Spd 3 G/A/F Al Unser Galles 64 Engine 5 26 17 Prac.Spd 44 D/A/F Davey Hamilton Sinden 22 Crash T1 4
Laps under green: 135 of 200 laps (67.5%)
Caution flags: 8 for 65 laps (32.5%)
#1: lap 3, spin (J. Lazier), T2, 3 laps
#2: lap 24, crash (Hamilton), T1, 11 laps
#3: lap 44, debris, FS, 5 laps [during caution: stalled car (Sharp), FS]
#4: lpa 67, stalled car (Herb), FS, 8 laps
#5: lap 95, crash (R. Unser), MS, 11 laps
#6: lap 111, crash (J. Lazier), FS, 13 laps
#7: lap 136, spin (Hornish), BS, 8 laps
#8: lap 176, spin (Didero), BS, 6 laps
Red flags: 0 for 0 minutes
Lead changes: 11, number of different leaders: 8
St: Ray 1-25
#1: Boat 46-49
#2: Buhl 50-96
#3: Ray 97
#4: Boat 98-99
#5: Beechler 100-108
#6: Dismore 109-138
#7: Cheever 139
#8: McGehee 140-144
#9: Lazier 145-191
#10: Cheever 192-198
#11: Buhl 199-200
C/E/T finish averages (# started / avg finish):
Dallara: 12 / 14.3
G-Force: 12 / 14.6
Riley & Scott: 2 / 2.5
Aurora: 25 / 13.9
Infiniti: 1 / 3.0
Firestone: 26 / 13.5