Track: Gateway International Raceway
Date: Saturday, August 26, 2001
Start time: 1:58 PM CDT
Weather: Sunny and warm
IRL historical: #11 of 13 in 2001 season, IRL race #54 overall
Track historical: IRL race #1, Indy car race #6 at this track
Track configuration: 1.25 mile oval, flat track
Wing package: Short track
The IRNLS made its first visit to St. Louis a memorable one, with a surprise winner and some unusual action taking place on Gateway's asymmetrical oval. Heavy rains in the area the week of the race scrubbed most of the practice sessions. When qualifying time came on Saturday with only one full practice session under the teams' belts, the League elected to cancel qualifying and instead use the time to give the teams additional practice on the unfamiliar track. As expected, it proved impossible for teams to set up a car to be perfect in both the very tight turns 1-2, and the sweeping turns 3-4, even though the IRNLS specified the short track wing package for this race -- the first time the shovel-nose front wings had been used at a track longer than a mile. Much experimenting took place and several teams set their cars up for a downshift going into turn 1, followed by an upshift on the back stretch, in order to keep their engines in their happy zones. Several changes in driver lineups were evident: Jaques Lazier had replaced Greg Ray with the Menard team. To replace Lazier, Sam Schmidt chose Alex Barron, an Indy Lights veteran who had been in a few CART races but had never started an IRNLS event before. Schmidt surprised everyone by also fielding a second car, a G-Force purchased from Dick Simon and crewed by the Treadway team. This was for his long-time associate Anthony Lazzaro, also making his first IRNLS start. And, retired driver Stan Wattles returned to the IRNLS as a car owner: his Metro Racing, in conjunction with Hemelgarn, fielded a car for another Lights veteran, Chris Menninga, also making his first IRNLS start. With Felipe Giaffone and Didier Andre, this made five rookies including three first-time starters in the field of 23. All of the newbies started at the back after qualifying was washed out.
Fortunately, the weather cleared for race day and most teams were happy. One that wasn't was the Hemelgarn team of Buddy Lazier, in hot pursuit of Sam Hornish for the IRNLS championship. They had to change their engine just before the race due to overheating in the morning practice. With qualifying being cancelled, the field lined up in order of entrant points with the championship contenders Hornish and B. Lazier sharing the front row. Some good cars started near the back, including Robbie Buhl in 14th, Donnie Beechler in 16th, and Mark Dismore in 19th. At the start of the race, an event occurred which would seriously impact the championship chase -- while Hornish pulled out into the lead, Lazier didn't get up to speed and lost seven positions on the first lap. Initially this was believed to be just the result of a missed shift, but quickly it became apparent that the probem was more serious; the fuel pressure was sagging and the pump wasn't delivering enough fuel to get the engine up to full song. Fans recalled that the Hemelgarn team had changed the engine after the morning warm-up and there was much questioning, never answered, about whether everything had been connected properly. While Lazier limped around at reduced RPM, the field pulled away. Another soon to be disappointed driver was Giaffone. He took advantage of Lazier's problems to shoot into second place after one lap, but on lap 8 he slowed and reported that his car's handling had become diabolical and the car wouldn't go straight on the straights. When he came in, his crew found a burned out wheel bearing and faulty half shaft on the right rear wheel. They changed the wheel and shaft but continued to encounter problems and soon retired the car, for Giaffone's first ever DNF in IRNLS competition.
Hornish quickly began building a lead over Scott Sharp and Eliseo Salazar, while several others moved up through the field including Buhl and Dismore. Airton Dare was really flying and had moved up to just outside the top-10 by lap 10. And fans were encouraged to see Al Unser staying in contact with the leaders; while Hornish built a bit of a pad, Unser moved up to 5th behind Billy Boat. On lap 20 the running order was Hornish, Sharp, Salazar, Boat, and Unser in the top-5, followed by Dare, Buhl, J. Lazier, Dismore, and Jeff Ward. Hornish continued to lead despite some moments in turns 1 and 2 including a great save on lap 22. Most cars were sticking to the low groove in the turns, but J. Lazier got the high groove working in turns 3-4 and used it to make several passes, moving up into fifth by lap 29. Meanwhile, B. Lazier was getting lapped and watching his championship hopes dwindling away. By lap 40, Hornish had built a 9-second lead over Sharp. On that lap, a caution was thrown for debris.
Everyone pitted on this yellow. Hornish got out first, but the Galles team gave Unser a great stop and he emerged in second, ahead of Sharp and Salazar. Barron's first IRNLS race unfortunately ended at this point; as he exited his pit box, he moved over to the rightmost lane of Gateway's narrow pit road too soon and ran into the side of Buzz Calkins, who was already up to speed. A grinding crash too place, putting Barron out; Calkins made it back around to his pit but his car couldn't be repaired, and the DNF he took prevented him from tying his own IRNLS record for most consecutive races finished. After cleaning up pit road, the green finally flew on lap 49 with Hornish leading Unser, Sharp, Salazar, Buhl, and J. Lazier. The latter again took to the high groove and passed Buhl and Salazar to move to to fourth, before Menninga spun and crashed in turn 2 and caution came out again. Having just stopped, most of the leaders stayed out, but a few cars on the end of the lead lap took the opportunity to top up, including Dismore and Robby McGehee. (The hometown boy McGehee had his car brightly painted like a baseball for the occasion, thanks to a one-race sponsorship from the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.) B. Lazier's crew also took the opportunity to make some changes including changing the engine computer, but failed to make any improvement. On the restart Unser passed Hornish to move into the lead, and J. Lazier again used the outside move in 3-4 to take third from Sharp. Unser held on to the lead but couldn't get away from the pack, and by lap 70 he had in trail Hornish, J. Lazier, Buhl (who seemed to be biding his time), Sharp, Salazar, Beechler, Eddie Cheever, Ward, and Boat. With Barron out, all of the Schmidt teams' hopes were pinned on Lazzaro, but this came to an end on lap 77 when his engine failed.
Unser continued to lead, but with Hornish at his heels. The two began to open up a bit of a lead on a second pack led by J. Lazier. Hornish continued to take Unser's measure and on lap 99 he made a move to the inside on the front stretch, but couldn't make it stick. For several laps Hornish got a run going down the back stretch and attempted to use his speed to carry him under Unser on the front stretch, but each time Unser outbraked him into turn 1. Green flag stops began on lap 104, with J. Lazier pitting; Hornish came in on the next lap, and Cheever and Salazar on the lap following. Most of the rest of the leaders including Unser pitted on lap 107. Dare momentarily assumed the lead, but he pitted on the next lap and Dismore took command. Having made the later stop on the last cycle, Dismore was able to stay in the lead until he pitted on lap 116 and the regularly scheduled program resumed with Hornish pursuing Unser.
On lap 128 Salazar's engine abruptly shut off as he ran down the front stretch. He pulled to the apron and tried to coast it around, but his car stopped just short of the pit entrance and a yellow became necessary to tow it in. (Car owner A. J. Foyt attributed Salazar's problem to a failed crankshaft trigger, a part used by the engine computer to measure ignition timing. Foyt stated that this was the second week in a row his team had suffered this unusual failure; the same thing had robbed Beechler of his qualifying attempt at Kentucky. Needless to say, Super Tex was not very happy with the Roush shops at this particular moment.) Despite the fact that only about 25 laps had elapsed since the green flag pit stops, most of the leaders pitted. Unser got out first followed by Hornish, but Buhl did not pit and he assumed the lead. J. Lazier's pit stop was not nominal; his engine went flat during the caution and he remained in the pits an extended time while the team changed various components. Ultimately, however, it turned out to be an engine failure, ending Lazier's debut with the Menard team in an all-too-familiar fashion. The Foyt team made major changes to Beechler's car to try to get him less drag and more straightaway speed. The race restarted on lap 137 with Buhl leadng Unser, Hornish, Sharp, and Dismore. Hornish went underneath Unser right away and after a lap took over second by finally beating Unser into turn 1. Meanwhile Buhl held off Hornish by doing a better job of working traffic. The running order remained static until lap 169; on that lap Buhl finally had to pit, handing the lead to Hornish. Meanwhile Dismore was going well and moved up to 3rd. On lap 175 the running order was Hornish leading Unser, Dismore, Cheever, and Beechlerm all on the lead lap, with Dare, Sharp, Buhl, Boat, and Ward all one lap down.
Unser and Dismore had leaned out their engines and were trying to stretch fuel. This allowed Beechler to have moved up to third when, on lap 188, his gearbox apparently locked up as he shifted going into turn 1. He spun and backed into the wall. This was quite dramatic as the gearbox broke off on contact, flew into the catch fence, and then bounced down the track towards the passing traffic. Fortunately everyone missed it. Yellow came out and Hornish and Cheever pitted for timed fuel-only stops, while Unser and Dismore stayed out and assumed the first two positions. Unser was heard having a very animated conversation with car owner Rick Galles about their pit strategy, but Galles was adamant that they had enough fuel to go the distance thanks to the caution. The accident was cleaned up quickly, but only six laps remained when the green came out on lap 194. With two lapped cars between himself and Dismore, Unser got a good jump and sped away. Dismore negotiated the traffic but ran out of time, and Al Unser notched his second IRNLS victory. Dismore's 2nd was the best of the season for the hard-luck driver whose ride was rumored to be in jeopardy. Hornish finished third to B. Lazier's 13th to take a commanding points lead. Cheever, after getting a slow start on the last restart, cruised to 4th, the last car on the lead lap. Buhl, who had one of the fastest cars at the end of the race, led the one-lap-down cars with a good but disappointing 5th place finish.
Fin St Qual Car C/E/T Driver Entrant Laps Status Laps Pts Spd # Led 1 8 3 G/A/F Al Unser Galles 200 Running 75 50 2 19 28 D/A/F Mark Dismore Kelley 200 Running 8 40 3 1 4 D/A/F Sam Hornish Panther 200 Running 81 37 4 9 51 D/I/F Eddie Cheever Cheever 200 Running 32 5 14 24 G/I/F Robbie Buhl D&R 199 Running 35 30 6 5 98 D/A/F Billy Boat Beck 199 Running 28 7 12 35 G/A/F Jeff Ward Heritage 199 Running 26 8 3 8 D/A/F Scott Sharp Kelley 199 Running 24 9 10 88 G/A/F Airton Dare Xtreme 199 Running 1 22 10 18 10 D/A/F Robby McGehee Cahill 197 Running 20 11 15 15 D/A/F Sarah Fisher Walker 195 Running 19 12 20 32 G/A/F Didier Andre Galles 193 Running 18 13 2 91 D/A/F Buddy Lazier Hemelgarn 190 Running 17 14 16 11 D/A/F Donnie Beechler Foyt 186 Crash T2 16 15 11 55 D/A/F Shigeaki Hattori Cunningham 185 Running 15 16 13 2 D/A/F Jaques Lazier Menard 139 Engine 14 17 4 14 D/A/F Eliseo Salazar Foyt 127 Crank Trig 13 18 23 44 G/A/F Anthony Lazzaro Schmidt 77 Engine 12 19 22 92 D/A/F Chris Menninga Hemelgarn 50 Crash T2 11 20 6 21 G/A/F Felipe Giaffone Treadway 44 Half Shaft 10 21 17 99 D/A/F Alex Barron Schmidt 41 Crash Pit 9 22 7 12 D/A/F Buzz Calkins Bradley 40 Suspension 8 23 21 81 G/A/F Billy Roe Zali 32 Handling 7
Laps under green: 171 of 200 laps (85.5%)
Caution flags: 4 for 29 laps (14.5%)
#1: lap 40, debris, 9 laps [during caution: crash (Barron, Calkins), pit lane]
#2: lap 52, crash (Menninga), T2, 6 laps
#3: lap 129, stalled car (Salazar), T3, 8 laps
#4: lap 188, crash (Beechler), T2, 6 laps
Red flags: 0 for 0 minutes
Lead changes: 8; number of race leaders: 5
St: Hornish 1-58
#1: A. Unser 59-107
#2: Dare 108
#3: Dismore 109-116
#4: A. Unser 117-132
#5: Hornish 133
#6: Buhl 134-168
#7: Hornish 169-190
#8: A. Unser 191-200
C/E/T finish averages (# started / avg finish):
Dallara: 15 / 12.1
G-Force: 8 / 11.9
Aurora: 21 / 12.7
Infiniti: 2 / 4.5
Firestone: 23 / 12.0