For the second year in succession, Greg Ray and Team Menard were a class apart from the rest of the IRNLS field at the 1.5-mile, steeply banked Atlanta Motor Speedway in a race that saw one of the most memorable open-wheel crashes in recent memory.

Team Menard Dallara-Aurora driver Greg Ray led all but 16 laps of Saturday nights 200-lap Zmax 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway as he cruised to his first victory of the 2001 Indy Racing Northern Light Series Championship and his first since Atlanta last July.

In control almost from the green light, Ray's luck and car held out for the first time this season and his 19 second margin of victory over Scott Sharp would have been increased to well over a lap but for his decision to dramatically cut his pace in the closing laps in an effort to avoid making a late race splash and dash for fuel as almost every one of the surviving cars dived onto pit-road inside the last 20-laps in order to ensure they had enough fuel to get to the finish.

Related Articles

Not that there were many survivors after a lap 53 accident eliminated eight cars on the spot and reduced several others to the class f walking wounded although thankfully no-one was seriously injured after a truly frightening pile-up. The only driver to require medical attention was Dr Jack Miller who was airlifted to a local hospital with suspected concussion after his Cahill Racing Dallara-Aurora barrel-rolled over the top of Al Unser Jr's Galles Racing G Force coming off Turn Four.

With speeds of over 215-mph commonplace at the 1.5-mile track and visibility under the sophisticated lighting system at the track not quite perfect it was perhaps unsurprising that when IRNLS debutant Cory Witherill slowed dramatically in Turn Four, the resulting chain reaction saw cars flying (literally) in all directions as car after car piled into the wreckage.

Most seriously damaged were the cars of Miller, Unser Jr, Witherill, Robbie Buhl, Davey Hamilton, Casey Mears, Jeret Schroeder and Robby McGehee who were eliminated on the spot as a spectacular ball of flame briefly enveloped the front stretch with both Miller and Unser Jr becoming airborne and a clearly shaken Unser Jr showing off the scuff marks on his severely battered helmet (yes that is correct) showing just how close the series came to a major disaster.

Also involved in the crash were Billy Boat, Jon Herb and Sarah Fisher with Fisher's Walker Racing Dallara receiving damage to her left front suspension as lumps of carbon fibre were thrown all across the track. All three were able to continue after taking in the necessary repairs although Herb's race would last just two laps after the field finally went back to green flag racing on lap 89 when his engine blue.

Both Boat and Fisher made it to the finish, albeit many laps in arrears with Fisher just missing out on a place in the top ten such was the level of decimation despite her 20 laps stay in the pits.

Despite the track looking decidedly empty throughout the second half f the race, the action was as close and entertaining as ever with Buddy Lazier and Eliseo Salazar going side by side for a full ten laps as they squabbled over third place, behind Ray and Sam Hornish Jr while Shigeaki Hattori and Didier Andre emulated their feat in their battle for fifth.

However Hornish Jr, Salazar and Lazier all had to pit near the end of the race dropping them to fourth, fifth and sixth respectively a lap down on Ray although Lazier was lucky to finish the race at all after his left front wheel parted company under caution on lap 85 causing the defending IRNLS Champion to candidly remark "Oh Shit" as his Hemelgarn Racing Dallara did its best to impersonate a Reliant Robin.

Finishing on the same lap as Ray by virtue of excellent fuel mileage and a rather pedestrian finish by the 1999 IRNLS Champion were Sharp and Buzz Calkins who were both lucky enough to be running just ahead of the accident when it happened. Sharp and Calkins both ran with the pack of eight cars disputing second to ninth positions after the lap 89 re-start and although they sacrificed a certain amount of pace they, like Ray were able to complete the race on just three fuel stops as opposed to everyone else's four.

Jeff Ward finished a disappointing seventh in the Heritage Motorsports Dallara after leading the opening lap and looking the most likely challenger to Ray before the elongated period behind the pace car sapped his battery causing him to stall when he made his second stop for fuel when the fourth and final caution period came out on lap 91 to retrieve Herb's stranded machine.

Hattori, Airton Dare and Felipe Giaffone completed the top ten even though the last named lost 18 laps late in the race when his Treadway-Hubbard G Force developed a fuel pressure problem and had his team not worked solidly to get him back on track for some valuable extra points, Fisher would have been rewarded for her efforts with a top ten finish even though she only completed 178 laps.

The 34-lap stay under yellows reduced the levels of stress on the engines but also allowed the cars to drop below working temperatures, which caused a rash of retirements amongst those who were not involved in the accident.

Didier Andre looked like a real IRNLS driver for the first time this year and looked set to salvage something for the Galles team as he ran in third spot for a while before a clutch failure put him out while Stan Wattles and Stephane Gregoire also fell by the wayside during the second half of the race with mechanical problems believed to be caused by running at road car speed for over half an hour while the clean up operation was completed.

Several contenders for victory were taken out of the equation even before lap 53 with second row starters Eddie Cheever and Mark Dismore both suffering engine failures inside the first 35-laps and with Hornish Jr and Salazar both notching up another sackload of points at the head of the Championship standings, both Cheever and Dismore now face an uphill task if they are to challenge for this year's title.