DOVER, Del. -- Dover Downs International Speedway sits back from Route 13. It is nestled among strip malls and restaurants and its sign can get lost among the many that line the highway. And so A. J. Foyt drove right past the entrance when he arrived here to begin preparing his two race cars for tomorrow's Pep Boys 400, which marks the halfway point in the Indy Racing League's season.
"The last time I was here, this track was way out of town, in the country," Foyt said, laughing in the heat yesterday. "There wasn't nothing here except a few rickety stands. Now, look at it."
Dover Downs has grown. A full 107,000 seats circle the place and offer a bird's-eye view of the mile oval that is playing host to the IRL series for the first time this weekend.
The track and its high-banked oval have spawned diverse reactions from drivers who have never raced here before.
Scott Goodyear, who drives for the team co-owned by Baltimore Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh, is anticipating a flat-out drive that will produce many exciting moments for drivers and fans.
"For the drivers, it's like being in a tea cup, in a little bowl," said Goodyear. "It's going to be very difficult and drivers are going to have to use great judgment.
"The track has a 24-degree banking like Michigan, but Michigan is two miles long, which means you have a longer distance between turns. Here, it feels like you are turning all the time. It's very demanding, as you are physically holding the car up on the straightaways."
On the other hand, said IRL points leader Tony Stewart, this is not a fun place to race for drivers.
"You put your foot down to the floor all the way around," he said. "There's no challenge in that. Anyone can do that. The challenge here is for the guys in the garage like Larry Curray, my crew chief. He's the one who has to find the set-up that makes the car go faster than anyone else's."
Indy cars haven't raced here since 1969. Unlike now, all the open-wheel cars were under the same umbrella, that of the United States Auto Club (USAC). In those days, men like Art Pollard, Gordon Johncock, Mario Andretti and Foyt were the sport's stars.
Bobby Unser set a world qualifying record of 155.259 mph at that Delaware 200, a mark that stood as a track record until May 29 of this year, when Rusty Wallace set a new record of 155.898 in a Winston Cup stock car.
Today, with the IRL Indy-style cars turning lap speeds well over 180, another record is expected.
Foyt, 64, is the only one here for today's qualifying session who actually participated in the last Indy Car race at Dover.
"It was a pretty nice track, even back then -- fast," said Foyt, who finished 19th in 1969 and won here in a USAC stock car in 1970. "But it was dangerous, too. I remember several [Indy car] guys got hurt real bad in accidents and driver Lloyd Ruby [long retired] got burned.
"Now the cars are better designed and it makes sense to come back."
Goodyear said it is the "ground effects" that make it possible for IRL cars to race safely here -- and even faster than the Winston Cup stock cars.
"The underside of the car is built like an inverted airplane wing," Goodyear said. "When you're flying, it's the air getting under the wing that lifts it into the air. With these cars, there are 3000 to 4000 pounds of air pressure on top of them, making them stick and making it possible for us to run side-by-side."
The track also has made several modifications, including widening the track apron to make getting in and out of pit road safer.
It is the car design that will have the most impact, however, Goodyear said. Unlike the Winston Cup cars that depend on a groove to develop on the track to help them with traction, the Indy cars are not "line dependent," he said.
"When we've run at the banked stock car tracks at Texas and Charlotte, we've been able to put on very good shows because of our maneuverability," he said. "We scramble from one side of ** the track to the other. People are amazed."
NOTES: This is the IRL's first appearance in the mid-Atlantic region and no one is quite sure how race fans will take to the open-wheel racing. "Ticket sales have been steady," said track spokesman Al Robinson. "If we have a good walk-up on Sunday, we should meet or exceed our projections [of about 53,000], but I don't want that to be misconstrued. It's a start-up event and we certainly don't need that many for it to be a success." During yesterday's practice, Tony Stewart clocked the fastest speed at 184.464 mph. Running as a companion event today is NASCAR's Busch North Series. In the Delaware 200 field that takes the green flag at 2 p.m. is Lanham's Kenny Kagle, son of Reds Kagle, a long-time favorite among Maryland race fans.
IRL Pep Boys 400
Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.
9 a.m.: Pep Boys 400 practice.
Noon: Pep Boys 400K IRL qualifying.
2 p.m.: Delaware 200 Busch North Series race.
4: 30 p.m.: IRL final practice.
Noon: Pep Boys 400K IRL race.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Pub Date: 7/18/98