Track: Phoenix International Raceway
Date: Sunday, March 18, 2001
Start time: 2:05 PM MST
Weather: Mild, bright sun
IRL historical: #1 of 13 in 2001 season, IRNLS race #44 overall
Track historical: IRNLS race #6, Indycar race #59 at this track
Track configuration: 1-mile peculiar oval, flat track
Wing package: Short track
One of the rookie class of 2000 made an unexpected mark in the IRNLS's newly-annointed series opening race at PIR. For the first time, the IRNLS ran at Phoenix as the headlining race of the fabled Copper World Classic, and Davey Hamilton attempted all four races, winning the Supermodified race the day before. Hamilton was driving the IRNLS car of new car owner Sam Schmidt, the former driver who had been paralyzed in a testing crash the previous year.
The later season opening made for some interesting team lineups and changes, besides Schmidt and Hamilton. Jaret Schroeder emerged with the PDM team, while Tristar and Jim Immke joined forces to field a car for Tyce Carlson. Treadway had a car for rookie Filipe Giaffone (cousin to former IRNLS driver Affonso Giaffone); Galles also had a famous relative in a car in the form of rookie Casey Mears (nephew of the great Rick Mears), plus another rooke, Frenchman Didier Andre. Panther had hired Sam Hornish to replace the semi-retired Scott Goodyer, and Jeff Ward turned up with a new team founded by himself and Mitch Davis. But the big news was the two-car entry of Penske Motorsports, for the first time in an IRNLS race. The Penske team planned to use the race as a warm-up for their Indy entry with their regular drivers, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves. And for the first time the famed Ilmor engine shop entered IRNLS competition, building engines for Penske, Kelley, and Schmidt.
For the 2001 season, qualifying bonus points were eliminated to remove the incentive for teams to build special qualifying engines. This didn't stop Greg Ray from dominating qualifying as usual, winning the pole and breaking his own Phoenix lap record for the IRNLS new cars. Hornish qualified a surprising second in his first start with the Panther team. The long-awited Infiniti 35A engine finally made its debut, with Robbie Buhl and Eddie Cheever putting two examples on the grid 8th and 12th respectively; Cheever said that the engine had more but its 30-lb. weight reduction from the old Infiniti engine had upset their handling and they hadn't yet figured out to take advantage. The Galles team made an unexpectedly poor showing with Al Unser, the highest-qualifying of their three cars, only in 23rd position.
The race began with slick track conditions owing to incompatible rubber laid down by the Silver Bullet cars that raced just before the IRNLS event. It nearly began without Ward, who had problems getting his engine started; fortunately, he did get going just in time to join the field on the pace lap. The surprises began when Hornish blew off Ray on the start and took the lead using the outside groove in turn 1. It was a sign of things to come. Stephan Gregoire, who had ran well at Test in the West, pursued Ray with surprising ferocity. Meanwhile, Buhl dropped back with handling problems, which was to be the story of his day. While Ray, Gregoire, defending IRNLS champion Buddy Lazier, Ward, and de Ferran pursued, Hornish quickly drove away to a 4-second lead, slowed only momentarily by a caution for a spin by rookie Brandon Erwin, making his first IRNLS start. The Galles cars continued to sruggle; both Mears and Andre were in and out of the pits with handling problems, as was Shigeaki Hattori. After the green, it took Hornish only ten laps to regain his four-second lead, while Gregoire passed Ray for second on lap 40 and Eliseo Salazar moved up through the field. Hornish's car slowed some on old tires and by lap 50 he was fighting off Gregoire, while Ray ran third followed by B. Lazier, Ward, de Ferran, Salazar, Scott Sharp, Cheever, and Billy Boat (driving for the newly reconstituted team of Greg Beck). The race continued under green and on lap 59 Ray retook second from Gregoire.
Since few drivers had taken advantage of the early caution to top up on fuel, green flag pit stops began on lap 62. Hornish pitted, on lap 69, giving the lead to Ray, who led until he pitted on lap 73. At this point de Ferran took over. The cars with the Ilmor engines, although somewhat down on power, were getting excellent fuel mileage and the Penske team was planning on running the race with only two pit stops. However, de Ferran was having problems with his radio, and distracted, he missed the pit entrance on lap 75. The next lap, with his fuel light on and still struggling to talk to the crew, he missed entering the apron in turn 3 and then tried to dive into the pit entrance directly from the racing groove in turn 4. The abrupt braking surprised Jaret Schroeder who was following closely, and he rear-ended de Ferran and both cars spun into the wall, collecting Mark Dismore. No one was hurt but all three cars were out.
The caution came at a bad time for several faster cars who had just stopped: Hornish, Lazier, and Ward were all caught a lap down to the surprise leader, Helio Castroneves. However, a new rule came into play at this point which would prove to make a difference in the outcome of the race. After the pit stops, with Ray having assumed the lead, several cars including Hornish, Lazier, and Gregoire were in line in front of Ray and hence at the tail end of the lead lap. Under the new restart rule, just before the restart the pace car picked up the leader and all of the cars in line in front of him were waved around, putting Hornish and Lazier back on the lead lap. The green waved on lap 82 with Ray leading Castroneves and all of the others trying to pick their way through traffic.
While Hornish worked his way back towards the front, Ray set off into the lead. Shortly he had built a 4-second lead and the Menard team was looking dominant. But starting around lap 100 (while Al Unser went to the pits with an engine failure), the surprising Gregoire began reeling him in, and Stephan made a daring outside pass in turn 1 on lap 118 to take the lead. There proved to be a good reason: Ray's engine was running lean due to a fuel pressure problem, and three laps later it blew. The race continued under green for a few more laps unitl a yellow was thrown for the oil. That caution was short; so was Gregoire's time up front. As the green flag waved, Gregoire moved up in turn 1 to pass Buhl but suddenly found himself balked by the slower car of Lazier, who couldn't find a gear. Gregoire cut to the inside but his left rear hit Buhl's right front; Gregoire spun into the wall and crashed. Buhl continued but the damage made his car even more ill-handling than it already was. Many teams took advantage of this caution for pit stops, and Hornish emerged with the lead again and a few handling adjustments.
The green finally came back out for a while on lap 139. Hornish was closely pursued by Castroneves at the start but shortly began pulling away, followed by Lazier, Salazar, and Sharp. Immediately Salazar took third from Lazier, and then as he went to work on Castroneves, the Penske driver's engine expired. A few laps later Sarah Fisher had to bail out of her car in turn 1 as it caught fire after an engine failure; fortunately she was not hurt. Hornish almost lost the lead to Salazar in traffic but built up his margin again after lap 150 as he got clear track. On lap 158, Stan Wattles (in the first race of his new deal driving as a teammate to Lazier at Hemelgarn), pinched his car down exiting turn 2, spun, and backed hard into the inside wall, knocking out a large chunk. Wattles was taken off on a backboard as a precaution, but no back or neck injuries were found, and he returned to the track to be interviewed near the end of the race. The rest of the race was anticlimatic as far as the lead went, but a good duel for second shaped up between Salazar, Lazier, and Sharp. Lazier might have been the fastest of the three, but he was handicapped by a gearbox stuck in fourth gear that had his engine on the rev limiter nearly all the way down the straights. Several times Sharp nearly passed Lazier only to get picked in traffic, and both were catching Salazar when the checkered flag flew.
It flew on the yellow Pennzoil car with 21-year-old Sam Hornish at the wheel, the youngest winner of an Indy car race ever, according to IRNLS publicity. It was the second win in a row for the Panther team, following Scott Goodyear's win for them in his farewell at Texas the previous year. Salazar posted his best finish since his win at Las Vegas in 1997. Lazier set an IRNLS record by finishing on the lead lap for the fourth race in a row. Giaffone was the top-finishing rookie, in sixth. Airton Dare was robbed of a lead-lap finish by a late engine failure, while Boat, Ward, Robby McGehee, and Hamilton all put in credible finishes with their new teams. Erwin kept himself out of further trouble after his early spin and made the checkered flag in his first race, in twelth.
Fin St Qual Car C/E/T Driver Entrant Laps Status Laps Pts Spd # Led 1 2 176.801 4 D/A/F Sam Hornish Panther 200 Running 140 52 2 13 172.623 14 D/A/F Eliseo Salazar Foyt 200 Running 40 3 6 173.942 91 D/A/F Buddy Lazier Hemelgarn 200 Running 35 4 10 172.996 8 D/A/F Scott Sharp Kelley 200 Running 1 32 5 7 173.162 98 D/A/F Billy Boat Beck 200 Running 30 6 9 173.049 21 G/A/F Filipe Giaffone Treadway 199 Running 28 7 3 175.710 35 G/A/F Jeff Ward Heritage 199 Running 26 8 16 172.196 10 D/A/F Robby McGehee Cahill 198 Running 24 9 11 172.785 12 D/A/F Buzz Calkins Bradley 197 Running 22 10 18 169.661 88 G/A/F Airton Dare Xtreme 197 Engine 20 11 8 173.114 24 G/I/F Robbie Buhl D&R 196 Running 19 12 20 169.318 99 D/A/F Davey Hamilton Schmidt 192 Running 18 13 24 165.413 55 D/A/F Shigeaki Hattori Cunningham 192 Running 17 14 26 160.864 30 G/A/F Brandon Erwin McCormack 185 Running 16 15 19 169.568 6 D/A/F Tyce Carlson Tristar 162 Handling 15 16 14 172.612 92 D/A/F Stan Wattles Hemelgarn 157 Crash T2 14 17 21 168.848 15 D/A/F Sarah Fisher Walker 145 Engine 13 18 17 172.014 68 D/A/F Helio Castroneves Penske 142 Engine 4 12 19 12 172.661 51 D/I/F Eddie Cheever Cheever 133 Thrtl Link 11 20 25 164.696 31 G/A/F Casey Mears Galles 133 Engine 10 21 4 174.442 7 D/A/F Stephan Gregoire Simon 131 Crash T1 9 9 22 1 177.663 2 D/A/F Greg Ray Menard 121 Engine 43 8 23 23 165.988 3 G/A/F Al Unser Galles 101 Engine 7 24 5 174.000 66 D/A/F Gil de Ferran Penske 76 Crash T4 3 6 25 15 172.525 28 D/A/F Mark Dismore Kelley 75 Crash T4 5 26 22 168.594 9 D/A/F Jaret Schroeder PDM 74 Crash T4 4 27 27 Prov. 32 G/A/F Didier Andre Galles 53 Handling 3
Laps under green: 163 of 200 laps (81.5%)
Caution flags: 5 for 37 laps (18.5%)
#1: lap 20, spin (Erwin), T2, 4 laps
#2: lap 77, crash (de Ferran, Dismore, Schroeder), T4, 13 laps
#3: lap 125, oil on track, 6 laps
#4: lap 132, crash (Buhl, Gregoire), T1, 6 laps
#5: lap 159, crash (Wattles), T2, 8 laps
Red flags: 0 for 0 minutes
Lead changes: 7, number of different leaders: 5
St: Hornish 1-67
#1: Ray 68-73
#2: de Ferran 74-76
#3: Castroneves 77-80
#4: Sharp 81
#5: Ray 82-118
#6: Gregoire 119-127
#7: Hornish 128-200
C/E/T finish averages (# started / avg finish):
Dallara: 19 / 13.7
G-Force: 8 / 14.8
Aurora: 25 / 13.9
Infiniti: 2 / 15.0
Firestone: 27 / 14.0