by Lynne Huntting

Having a pair of test cars already at Infineon Raceway has turned out to be one bright note in a dramatic week for Team Penske, and should allow both Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe to take part in this weekend's IndyCar Series event at the California circuit.

On Wednesday, while en route to Sonoma, the Penske transporter - complete with two primary race cars, all the team's pit and garage equipment, as well as team clothing and firesuits - perished in a fire outside Cheyenne after a suspected right rear wheel bearing failed.

The two drivers, Keith Goslin and Greg Shuker, escaped unharmed and had the presence of mind to detach the tractor unit from its trailer, which turned out to be a total loss. With cell phone coverage minimal, contacting the team proved to be problematic, and president Tim Cindric only got the call at midnight, before having to contact owner Roger Penske.

Although his first reaction was 'you're kidding me', Penske quickly shifted into what Cindric described as 'technical mode', methodically figuring out the logistics and a plan to get up and running with replacements for the weekend. Cindric added that, at this point, Penske was without emotion in an effort to not to fail, despite the financial cost of the fire likely to reach anywhere between $1-3 million.

While the transporter drivers hung out at a payphone at the nearest rest stop so that calls to and from the team could be made every 30 minutes, Cindric got the rest of the team out of bed at 5am for a 7am meeting at the workshop. The key members met at a conference table and made a plan, setting a 1pm deadline for a second road trip to California.

The team went through the 'shop looking for things to be included on the payload, which Cindric admitted was a good process for learning just what was around. However, there were still some extras still to be procured, such as a timing stand, and the 'third' Penske team - Luczo Dragon Racing, run by Jay Penske - was raided. There were already some extra firesuits and team livery available, as they had been replaced mid-season, but Cindric admitted that it would be 'basics versus luxury' weekend for the team, with some members maybe having two shirts instead of four, and others expected to swap around.

There has, however, been an enormous outpouring of support from the other teams, both in the IRL and the Grand-Am, which shares the same bill at Infineon. The track manager at the circuit also revealed that the many workshops based at the venue had offered use of equipment and help.

The Penske truck eventually left Charlotte, with whatever equipment and gear could be found, with two oval track cars on board. The two machines already at Infineon are 'test' cars, with Briscoe's car the closest to race trim as it was the one used in last week's two-day session. The changes to that car will include moving it from test to race mode, with work on set-up and a 'freshening up' required. By 5pm Thursday, however, Castroneves' car was already on the set-up pad, which was a good sign.

The Brazilian's Dallara will get a new engine and gearbox, and further set-up changes, while the oval track cars will have suspension and gearbox changes, and changes from oval to road course set-ups.

Penske, meanwhile, flew his 50-seat jet to Laramie with extra drivers and crew members. A triage was done on the carnage, with some parts able to be retrieved from storage cabinets inside other cabinets. A Penske Leasing truck was loaded up with salvage and headed to California, while a second will be taking what's left back to the shop in North Carolina.

Penske's driving school in Reading provided two transporter drivers to add to the mix, while the 'shop truck and the rental truck should be arriving Thursday night. The IRL has granted the team dispensation to work late and come in early, with everyone working together to get the two cars on track in time for Friday morning's 11am practice session.

Castroneves, in particular, will want to be in the mix as he attempts to close the growing gap between himself and points leader Scott Dixon. Penske has a good road course reputation, even if Infineon hasn't been that kind to the team, but the Brazilian will be boosted by knowing that the IRL will use a revised layout this weekend.

While the Grand-Am sports cars will run the usual 2.47-mile configuration, the IndyCars will run a new layout designed to provide more passing. The course length is slightly shortened, from 2.26 to 2.245 miles, but the change will see the cars come out of the Carousel at turn six and drive straight up the drag strip, instead of taking the chicane which had been configured specifically for them in the past races.

Points leader Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay critiqued the new configuration last December, and the teams had a two-day open test last week to learn how the changes might affect set-up. Both Castroneves and Briscoe took part - before leaving their cars at the circuit until race weekend....