A right turn for IRL's Goodyear

Auto racing: Veteran open-wheel driver Scott Goodyear is leading the increasingly competitive IRL's point standings heading into the MBNA Mid-Atlantic 200 in Dover, Del., on Sunday.

July 29, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Scott Goodyear is sitting in a seafood restaurant in the Inner Harbor. Surrounded by a tableful of reporters, he is promoting the Indy Racing League's MBNA Mid-Atlantic 200 in Dover, Del., on Sunday.

But while the IRL still may be trying to find an audience, Goodyear, 39, already has one.

He made his name in open wheel racing when Indy Car racing was whole, before the split that sent Championship Auto Racing Teams and the Indy Racing League in opposite directions.

A lot of fans can still picture the two most important and frustrating days in Goodyear's racing life.

In 1992, he chased Al Unser Jr. to the finish line of the Indianapolis 500 and lost by the smallest margin in 500 history -- .043 of a second.

"Fifty percent of the fan mail I get still concerns that race," he said. "People send photos, wanting my signature and Al's."

And in 1995, in the last 500 run with CART drivers, Goodyear seemed positioned to win. He had the fast car and he was the leader with 10 laps to go. Heck, he even crossed the finish line first -- but, he didn't win.

On lap 190, he was in the lead and the race was under caution. As he came through the fourth turn for the re-start, Goodyear burst past the pace car before it could leave the track. Jacques Villeneuve won and Goodyear was penalized and finished 14th.

On that day, Goodyear was in disbelief. The pace car he said was too slow, failing to do the required 100 mph after the green came on on the backstretch for the restart.

Now, more than four years later, he says he still doesn't agree with the penalty, but he no longer believes he won.

"I think they made a wrong call, a bad call, but two wrongs don't make a right," he said.

Tomorrow, Goodyear and his IRL competitors will be at Dover International Speedway to begin practicing for Saturday's pole qualifying run and Sunday's MBNA Mid-Atlantic 200. The IRL race is the first half of a doubleheader that day. The second half will be the Greased Lightning 150, an American Speed Association (ASA) AC Delco Challenge Series race for stock cars.

As seasons go, this is perhaps the best of Goodyear's career. He has two victories in his Pennzoil Panther Oldsmobile/Aurora. The team, partially owned by former Ravens quarterback Jim Harbaugh, has won at Phoenix International Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway. The win at Texas propelled him into first place in the IRL points standings.

Currently, he is 28 points ahead of Scott Sharp, who won the inaugural Dover race last year.

"It's a very competitive series," said Goodyear. "There are still a handful of guys with a chance of winning the title. And that's totally different from three years ago."

Three years ago is when Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George decided to create this purely oval racing series. Racing experts and fans criticized its technology and talent.

But these days, there are only two names in CART with long-time name recognition -- Unser Jr. and Michael Andretti. The IRL has Goodyear, Eddie Cheever and Sharp, former CART competitors now helping to establish this series.

"When we started the IRL, you could be a little off with your set-up and finish fifth in a race," said Goodyear. "Now, if you're a little off, you're going to find yourself five laps down. That's how much the competition level has increased."

And the series is growing. Cleveland has just been added to the schedule and a new track in Kentucky is expected to join.

"We've got a good product now," said Goodyear. "And now the people at Indianapolis are learning how to market it. You know, the staff at Indy has never had to sell a ticket for the Indy 500. It sells itself. So it has been a learning, growing process for everyone."

Goodyear, too, has been growing. His highest finish in the CART points standings was fifth. Now, for the first time, he has a shot at an Indy Car championship.

Considering that title possibility, Goodyear paused and a slight, self-deprecating smile played on his face.

"But even if I win the series title," he said. "it still won't be all I want it to be, because I haven't won Indy."

Still, he does race in the IRL, which means that next year he'll have another chance.

MBNA Mid-Atlantic 200

What: Indy Racing League race

Where: Dover Downs International Speedway, Dover, Del.

When: Sunday, 12: 30 p.m.

TV: Fox (tape delay, 3 p.m.)

Pole sitter: Will be determined Saturday beginning at noon (TV: Speedvision)

Defending champion: Scott Sharp

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