Team Penske tops at both preseason Open Tests Wheldon confident of success with Panther Lucas Oil returns as sponsor with Sam Schmidt Motorsports Team PBIR signs Charlie Kimball Three drivers pass Firestone Indy Lights rookie test
1. Team Penske tops at both preseason Open Tests: After finishing second and fifth in the IndyCar Series championship last season, Team Penske went to work in the offseason to make itself better. If the results of the two preseason Open Tests are an accurate indication, Team Penske will be the team to beat in 2009.
Ryan Briscoe, who drove the No. 6 car to two victories last season and fifth place overall, topped preseason preparations on the 1.5-mile oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February. The test, with 21 cars on track, was the only tune-up open to all cars to prepare for the 10 ovals on the schedule.
Briscoe turned in the third-quickest lap at the Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park that teams used to prepare for the seven road/street course races on the schedule, yielding the top spot to teammate Will Power.
“It was a very successful two days of testing,” Briscoe said. “Both of our Team Penske cars were fast over both days, and we got a chance to work on a lot of setup changes. We’re looking forward to St. Petersburg. It’s obviously a different kind of track and a different style of driving with the bumps of the street circuit, but hopefully some of what we learned here over the last few days will carry over.”
Power, who was seventh on the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway, topped the test at Barber by three-tenths of a second over Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti.
“I haven’t spent much time with this team, so I spent the two days gelling with my engineer,” said Power, who drove the No. 3 Team Penske entry. “We’re really working well together now. We found some good things in the car, and we found a car that suits me. We’re happy and we’ll be pretty confident going into St. Pete.”
While the test results were promising, team officials know that results only start to count once the green flag drops on the season-opening race April 5 at St. Petersburg.
“The preseason Open Tests have provided us a great opportunity to go through quite a few setup changes as well as get Will better acclimated to our team,” team president Tim Cindric said. “I appreciate the way our team has responded under difficult circumstances as our test times have demonstrated that we have continued to make the cars better and we are looking forward to having the chance to achieve similar results when it really counts.”
2. Wheldon confident of success with Panther: Dan Wheldon and Panther Racing officials echo the sentiments. They are all excited to see the veteran driver return to the team in 2009.
Wheldon, 30, made his IndyCar Series debut with Panther in 2002, making two starts before signing with Andretti Green Racing. Panther officials watched with interest as Wheldon:
- won Bombardier Rookie of the Year honors in 2003
- won the Indianapolis 500 in 2005
- won the IndyCar Series championship in 2005
- won two races each in 2006, 2007 and 2008 with Target Chip Ganassi Racing
When the opportunity arose to bring Wheldon back to the Panther fold, there was no hesitation, signing him in late August to drive the No. 4 National Guard entry. The challenge is to get a team that has 15 IndyCar Series victories and won back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002 back to championship contention after two seasons finishing outside the top 10.
“Re-joining Panther is something I’m very excited about,” Wheldon said. “The team seems to have a good energy right now. It seems to be heading in a very positive direction. They’ve come off a couple of lean years. I think everything is there with some additions that have been made over the winter period to be hopefully what I would consider a very competitive year.”
So competitive in fact that Wheldon believes Panther can compete with his two former teams and Team Penske for the 2009 championship.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could win it,” he said. “It’s going to take some hard work. I think the team finished 13th in the championship last year, so it seems like a big jump, but it’s not somewhere that is certainly out of the realm of possibilities. The team has shown that they can win championships before, and so have I, and I think with the combination and hard work and determination we can definitely do it.”
The team has shown improvement during the two preseason Open Tests. Wheldon was eighth overall on the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway and 11th on the road course at Barber Motorsports Park. The season begins April 5 on the streets of St. Petersburg where Wheldon won the inaugural race in 2005.
“Are we as prepared as we would like to be? Probably not,” Wheldon said. “Do I think that we’re in a reasonable position? Yes, I do. I think we’re going to get better as the season progresses. Our program really ramped up at Homestead. With these two days (at Barber), and we’ve done some (private) testing at Sebring, there’s been very limited running, so I think you’re going to see us get better and better and better.”
3. Lucas Oil returns as sponsor with Sam Schmidt Motorsports:Sam Schmidt Motorsports announced that long-time sponsor and supporter Lucas Oil Products Inc. has signed on to return to the championship-winning team for the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season. The announcement continues a partnership that started in May 2003.
"I can't express how pleased I am to see Lucas Oil return to our team for 2009," team owner Sam Schmidt said. "They've been a terrific supporter of our team over the years, and I'm excited that we'll continue on our relationship heading into the 2009 season. Lucas Oil is a fixture in many different sporting series throughout the world and we're honored that Forest and Charlotte (Lucas) place their trust in our team to represent the company in major open wheel racing."
Lucas Oil originally partnered with Sam Schmidt Motorsports for the 2003 Indianapolis 500 and driver Richie Hearn. Beginning in 2005, Lucas Oil partnered with the team in Firestone Indy Lights with great success.
The combination of Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Lucas Oil has produced 14 race wins in the last four seasons of competition, by far making it the most successful team/sponsor combo in the history of Firestone Indy Lights.
Two drivers, Jay Howard and Alex Lloyd, won the championship carrying the Lucas Oil banner in Firestone Indy Lights. Other drivers in the No. 7 Lucas Oil machine have included race winners Travis Gregg and Richard Antinucci.
"We're a big fan of Sam Schmidt," Lucas Oil founder Forest Lucas said. "We appreciate everything Sam does on an off the track, and we couldn't be happier to continue our relationship with he and his team."
4. Team PBIR signs Charlie Kimball: Team PBIR has signed Charlie Kimball to drive the team’s No. 35 car during its first season in Firestone Indy Lights.
“I’m really excited,” said Kimball, a native of Southern California who competed in junior series in Europe. “It’s a great opportunity for me, and I’m just getting ready to work with everybody here. It’s coming together really late and though this is a new team, the people working with the team and infrastructure they have built have been around for years and years. Hopefully, I can use their experience to lead through the season and get results.”
The 24-year-old has forged a high-profile open-wheeled racing career including wins in British Formula 3, Formula 3 Euro Series, U.S. Formula Ford 2000 and British Formula Ford.
"We are very excited about the partnership between Charlie and Team PBIR," said Kane Williams, vice president of motorsports for Palm Beach International Raceway. "He is a talented driver and will be an asset to our team both on and off the track."
Kimball’s career in Europe was sidetracked two years ago when he was forced to stand down from the World Series by Renault after he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. He worked with a team of diabetes specialists to return to optimal physical form and to the racetrack. He returned to the Formula 3 Euro Series in 2008, finished second in his first race.
“One of the driving forces for me to race in the U.S. in 2009 is the chance to touch the diabetes community more affectively and educate people with diabetes that there’s no reason to limit what you do in your life,” Kimball said. “Having diabetes has changed my life most definitely but not added any limitations to what I can do.”
5. Three drivers pass Firestone Indy Lights rookie test: Three Firestone Indy Lights drivers successfully completed rookie oval testing March 24 at Kentucky Speedway.
Jonathan Summerton of RLR/Andersen Racing and Gustavo Yacaman of Sam Schmidt Motorsports were cleared to compete on ovals after completing their evaluation under the supervision of Firestone Indy Lights officials. French driver Richard Philippe also passed his oval testing in a car prepared by series newcomer Genoa.
“The drivers demonstrated they had the ability to drive our cars at high speed on oval tracks,” said Tony Cotman, vice president for competition for the Indy Racing League, sanctioning body of Firestone Indy Lights. “All three will be welcome additions to the series in 2009.”
The 2009 IndyCar Series season opens April 5 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The race will be telecast live in High Definition at 2 p.m. (EDT) by VERSUS. The race will air live on the IMS Radio Network. The radio broadcast also will be carried on indycar.com. The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season begins with a doubleheader race weekend April 4-5 at St. Petersburg. The races will be telecast at 6 p.m. (EDT) on April 6 by VERSUS.