'Spiderman' holds on under Hornish assault
26 August 2003
Reigning Indy Racing League champion Sam Hornish Jr came close to racking up back-to-back victories in the 2003 series, but met with stiff resistance from his erstwhile title rival, Helio Castroneves, who got to continue his tradition of climbing the safety fencing in celebration.
In holding off the American, Penske driver Castroneves assumed control of the IRL points table, taking over from countryman and friend Tony Kanaan, who crashed out in an early race incident with Tomas Scheckter.
Castroneves featured at the front of the field throughout the 225-lap distance, giving best initially to another title hopeful, Scott Dixon, and then assuming a better position when the young Kiwi was forced to take a long pit-stop for repairs that dropped him to the rear of the field. In all, the Brazilian led the final 173 laps, holding on through several yellow flag and pit-stop windows to fend off that determined assault from a fired-up Hornish. Bryan Herta finished third for Andretti Green Racing after running solidly all afternoon.
"It was a great win today and I'm extremely happy for everyone at Marlboro Team Penske - to be able to win in the team's backyard made it even more special and I'm glad I was able to do it for my guys," an ecstatic Castroneves bubbled.
"Today was a real team effort - my Firestone tyres held up all race and the Toyota engine was incredible. When I needed to conserve fuel, I could and, when I needed the horsepower, it was right there. My engineer did a great job in setting up the car and the crew's pit-stops were excellent.
"Nazareth is a very tough track and nothing is ever easy here. Sometimes it comes down to mileage, sometimes it's the yellows and sometimes its traffic, but today everything came together for us and it was perfect.
The 'hometown' race for Pennsylvania-based Penske proved to be a good one for Castroneves and team-mate Gil de Ferran, who now first and second in the point standings respectively, after the older Brazilian finished fourth on the road. 'Spiderman', however, was taking nothing for granted in his quest for a first championship.
"It's awesome to be in the points lead and I'm going to enjoy it, at least for the next two weeks," he said, "This championship is like the stock market - one week you're up and the next you're down. It's not over until the fat lady sings, so we have to keep working, keep focused and keep finishing races."
Hornish was all over the back of Castroneves' car in the final stages but with his handling starting to go, was just not able to make a move stick on the Brazilian.
"I was pushing as hard as I could without putting it in the wall," the champion said, "That's what everybody had to do today - it was a constant battle to find the right set-up on the car.
"The two times I thought I had him in traffic, the yellow flag came out as soon as I got a run. We're happy to come out of here with a second-place finish, however."
Castroneves' route to the head of the standings was aided by early race misfortune for two if his main rivals. Dixon led confidently from the start, opening out a slight lead over the rest of the field, but hit trouble at his first pit-stop. Although the refuelling and tyre change went without a hitch, the Ganassi driver ground to a halt as he tried to pull away. A failure in the drivetrain was diagnosed, and the new Zealander lost over 40 laps while repairs were effected in an attempt to gain points from any incident on track.
"It's so disappointing to have a day end like this," Dixon sighed, having pulled out out of the running when it became apparent that there was nothing to be gained from staying on track, "We had such a strong car at the beginning of the race, I thought we had a chance to win it, but we broke a half-shaft on the first pit-stop.
"The guys did a great job to get it fixed and get us back out there, and we got a few more points by doing that. We'll just have to go out there and try to win the last three races."
Kanaan started the race leading the point standings, but left holding third place after his clash with Scheckter allowed both Castroneves and de Ferran to edge ahead of him. The AGR and Ganassi cars were running in close contention with the leaders during the early stages, but came together in turn two with just 26 laps when Scheckter made contact with the left rear of Kanaan's car and pitched both into the wall. Predictably, there were conflicting views over whose fault the accident was.
"I had been trying to get around Tony for several laps but, when we went into the corner, everyone just checked up and I ended up in the back of him," the South African, who initially appeared to have not noticed Kanaan slowing, said, "It was a bad ending to a good weekend for us."
“I really don't know what happened," Kanaan insisted, "When you race close to each other, sometimes that happens. Somebody hit me from behind. Helio was trying pass Kenny [Brack] and we all slowed down to get into the corner. It looks like Tomas must not have seen me and hit me from the back. It's a tough break because this is when we need the points.”
Through the confusion came Herta, de Ferran and Alex Barron, all of whom looked likely candidates for the final podium position inn the closing stages. Barron's interest faded, however, after he, too, hit the wall.
“We were definitely poised to make a run for the win in the closing laps, and I feel terrible about what happened," the series' resident 'supersub' admitted, "I thought I felt something a little funny in the back of the car the lap before the accident and, on the next lap, I was moving to get around the lapped car of Buddy Rice and the rear got away from me coming around turn three. That was it - it's a shame.”
The incident, when Barron was tracking down Hornish, allowed Herta to return to the podium.
”That was a good run for us," the veteran admitted, "We didn't have the same speed the top two guys had, but we still got a great result today. This team keeps getting close and, pretty soon we're going to win another one.”
Fourth went to another veteran but, amid rumours that he may be considering drawing a veil on his lengthy, and successful, career, de Ferran admitted that the event had taken its toll.
"This was one of the most difficult races I've had in a long time," the Brazilian confessed, "The car was really loose all day and I was just trying to survive out there. We made changes to the car during our pit stops and it was handling better at the beginning of the last stint, but started to go loose again at the end of the race. To bring it home in fourth place was actually a good result for us."
The remainder of the top ten was completed by Al Unser Jr, Dan Wheldon - who was largely anonymous all afternoon - Roger Yasukawa, Robby Buhl and Buddy Rice, who failed to make the most of his GenIV Chevy engine and is rumoured to be under pressure to keep his drive at Cheever Racing next year.
AJ Foyt IV, Scott Sharp and Buddy Lazier rounded out the finishers, while Tora Takagi - who switched from Dallara to Panoz G-Force the night before the race, headed a short list of retirements that also included Greg Ray. Jaques Lazier and Sarah Fisher did not start the event due to accidents in practice.