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Young stars emerge on IRL series

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

HAMPTON, Ga. -- After two races on the Indy Racing Northern Lights Series, it's clear there's nothing Sam Hornish Jr. can't do with a car.

Except rent one.

At 21, Hornish isn't yet trusted by the big rental car companies, but he has the freedom to drive one of John Barnes' Oldsmobile Aurora-powered Dallara IndyCars. Not only has Hornish been fast this year, but he also has made it look easy.

Hornish is the beginning of a youth movement on the open-wheeled circuit. The series, just 6 years old, has been a work in progress from the start. The series that specializes in oval racing and U.S. drivers has become the front-runner in the feud with Championship Auto Racing Teams, and it has spawned the racing careers of younger drivers who never might have had the chance to break into the big leagues.

Hornish is one. So is Sarah Fisher, Felipe Giaffone, Didier Andre and Casey Mears. All are 26 years old or younger.

''It's great to see the young drivers come up and do this well,'' Hornish said as his Pennzoil Panther Racing Team prepared for Saturday night's Atlanta 500 Classic at Atlanta Motor Speedway. ''This is what the Indy Racing League was started for to give us young drivers a shot at driving open-wheel cars. And I think we're making the best of that shot.''

Hornish has won both races on the IRL schedule this year. He can tie Kenny Brack's record of three-in a row with a win Saturday at the ultra-fast 1.56-mile raceway.

If Fisher, who finished third at Phoenix and second at Homestead, Fla., earlier this year, becomes the first woman to win an IndyCar race, she won't be allowed to sip champagne in Victory Lane. She's still six months short of her 21st birthday.

''I used to drive for Herb Porter, and he used to hammer at me, and tell me if we can finish in the top three, we can win,'' said legendary IndyCar driver Johnny Rutherford. ''Sarah has had two podium finishes, a third and a second. So I think she's due for a win.''

The IRL was developed because Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George felt the CART circuit had become too stale. The majority of the drivers were from outside of the United States, and victories seemed limited to a select few.

George also liked the idea of racing on ovals. It's a venue, unlike the street and road courses utilized by CART, which promotes fast, wheel-to-wheel racing. It took a couple of years for the IRL to catch on, but fans now buy into brand of racing and the people that make the IRL so different.

The young drivers are fearless. They seem more concerned with racing to win than racing for points. That, added with the kind of personality that George has required of his race teams, is the same formula that helped develop the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

''These young kids show what the Indy Racing League is all about,'' Rutherford said. ''That's developing young drivers, and we've got some of the best there are, and we've got a lot of them, a lot of great, young drivers. It's another gold star for the IRL in that they've come here and found a whole new, fresh race organization and racing situation. I think it says it all right there.''



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