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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Briscoe scores Penske's 300th win

by Gordon Kirby
Sunday at Milwaukee was a good day for IndyCar racing. On a perfect late-spring afternoon Ryan Briscoe scored his first major open-wheel win and the 300th win in all categories for Team Penske after a fierce battle with Scott Dixon. The Indy 500 winner led most of the race but Briscoe was irresistible in the closing stages as he held off everything Dixon could throw at him. And too, the place was as full as we've seen it in many years with some eighty percent of the grandstands filled so that everyone was in good mood after the race about the longterm future of IndyCar racing at the world's oldest racetrack.

There were plenty of other good performances to savor too. Oriol Servia drove a superb race to stay unlapped after an incident at the end of the opening lap and Oriol was able to finish an excellent sixth behind Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves. Graham Rahal also drove a very strong race after qualifying on the outside of the front row beside Marco Andretti. Rahal ran with the leaders in third and fourth place until crashing just after half-distance as he tried to lap Darren Manning.

Winner Briscoe has been through the wars over the past three years trying to get himself properly established in IndyCar racing. F3 European champion in 2003, Briscoe worked as a Toyota F1 test driver in '04 then broke into IndyCar racing the next year with Chip Ganassi's team. But he was dropped by Ganassi at the end of the season following a series of accidents and ran only a dispiriting handful of races for Dreyer & Reinbold in '06. Briscoe's career took a turn for the better when he was hired by Roger Penske to drive one of the pair of ALMS Penske/Porsche Spyder LMP2 cars. With Sascha Maassen he won two races last year and also did the Indy 500 with Jay Pensek's Luczo Dragon team, finishing a very competitive fifth.

This year, Briscoe replaced Sam Hornish in Penske's IRL team but the season got off to rough start after hitting the wall in St Petersburg and then crashing in the pitlane in a much-publicized collision with Danica Patrick at Indianapolis last week. So it was a big relief for the Australian to finally score his first IndyCar win and to do so in convincing style.

"It's huge!" Ryan grinned. "It feels good to get the first win. We struggled in practice and qualifying but we made some changes overnight. We said, let's go back to basics and go with something we know. It was spot-on. It wasn't the best on new tires but was we got those long stints the car just got better and better."

In the closing laps with Dixon continuing to attack, the leaders came fearfully close to being taken by a multi-car shunt featuring Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter and Vitor Meira. This trio crashed directly ahead of Briscoe and Dixon who were able to avoid the debris and thread their way through the scene. As they emerged and the yellow light came on, Briscoe knew the race was over.

"A million things went through my mind," he remarked. "I was pretty comfortable. I knew how to keep Dixon behind me and I was like, let's just bring this home. Then, all of a sudden, I'm seeing smoke in front of me and I'm seeing cars flying. I'm like, this is not what I need. I was just on the brakes, locked up, trying to avoid and thinking this is not good. And then, wheeoww, and a huge relief that was it. It was close, though. I think I would have been in tears if I would have been hit.

"To win is just amazing. Since Indy and the incident and a lot of media and so on, the one thing I always said was I wanted to put it in the past and move forward. There's no better way to do that than to win on the following weekend."

Briscoe crashed at Milwaukee in both 2005 and '06. He failed to make the start in '05 and pulled out complaining of poor handling in '06. Briscoe thanked Rick Mears for so much valuable advice before and during the race over the radio.

"To get this win means a lot for many reasons," he commented. "My history here at Milwaukee has not been very pleasant and, for sure, I wouldn't have been able to run so strong in the race without the help and advice of Rick Mears. He was the best observer I ever talked to. He just talked about lines and so on in traffic, things I need to keep my eye on, and I really put a lot of that to use today, especially in the closing stages with Scott. Anything that Rick says is invaluable and this one definitely goes to him."

The race was the 300th win for Team Penske over forty-two and a half seasons in Indy cars, Can-Am, Trans-Am, long-distance sports car racing and Formula 1. RP appeared at the post-race press conference wearing a '300 wins' hat and was effusive in his praise for Briscoe.

"Today really got the monkey off his back," Penske remarked. "He ran for us in the Porsche program last year and he ran consistent and seemed to get better as the race went on. I think he had a great car today. He was patient and he had to start back in thirteenth after the first lap accident and he worked his way up through the field.

"I think from a standpoint of his confidence, there's no question that this was exactly what he needed to break the ice. We know how good he is on road courses and I think you're going to see a real good race driver come out of this going forward."

Penske talked about his decision to replace Hornish with Briscoe.

"His equipment wasn't exactly the best and he got himself into trouble and had a bad accident," Roger commented. "We had him come back and we gave him a thorough physical and he passed everything. There were no issues from his accident. He was feeling good and confident and we decided to try him at Indy last year with my son Jay and of course he finished fifth. That was the first test and then we put him into the ALMS series last year and he won two or three races with Sasha Maassen.

"This was a good day for him. For us, it gets the monkey off our backs. To win the first race in any series is so important when there's just inches between winning or losing. It only takes one slip-up."

Penske made a key call late in the race to bring Briscoe into the pits a little early and it was this move which got him to the front ahead of Dixon.

"At the end," Penske observed, "what I decided to do was I knew we had to fuel and we were coming up into traffic and we had to pit in the next four or five laps. So we just rolled the dice and decided to come in now and put fresh tires on. We had five or six or maybe eight laps on fresh tires, so that gave us the chance to get ahead of those guys when they came in."

Penske also commented on the Indy collision between Briscoe and Patrick. He said he personally bore the brunt of the fault for the accident.

"Last week I went through the overhead shots and this was a racing accident," Penske said. "You could have had either one of the two drivers say, 'Look, this is what really happened.' I take the blame. If anyone gets the blame, it's me for sending him out.

"The good news, when they introduced him [before the race at Milwaukee], they didn't boo him. So today wasn't as bad as we thought there at Indy. I think he's taken the high road and that's what he's supposed to do."

Meanwhile Dixon continues to pad his championship lead over Castroneves, Wheldon and Kanaan. He also led 147 of the 225 laps at Milwaukee and said the race was one of the most enjoyable he's ever experienced.

"That was fun!" Dixon declared amid a big grin. "It was the most fun I've had in a long time and the hardest race I've had in a long time. It was a hell of a race towards the end. It was almost cashing and saving us, and the way that we were jostling going through lapped traffic made it hard work and a lot of fun. "The car was really good early on. The stint where we struggled was towards the end but it didn't seem to be a problem because a lot of other guys were falling off as well. You have to give Briscoe credit. He drove the wheels off that thing and he took advantage of the high lines where I tried a few times and nearly ended up in the fence."

Dixon also expressed his pleasure at racing on a flat one-mile track like Milwaukee.

"At Milwaukee, there's more driver input," he said. "You can manipulate the car, you can try to run high, you can try to set-up the car to run on the bottom. There are so many things you can decide on during the race and through the pitstops."

Despite the Andretti-Carpenter-Meira accident which brought the race to a close, winner Briscoe complimented his fellow drivers on their good manners and clean driving.

"It's really exciting coming to Milwaukee with the most numbers of cars on the track since I think '96," Briscoe remarked. "I was expecting a few more yellows today and it was great to see how well everyone drove in traffic and in difficult conditions. It just proves the level of experience out there in this field at the moment. There are a lot of rookies but they are guys with immense experience.

"It was a great day, a lot of fun," Briscoe added. "It was one of the funnest races I've ever had and it was great having so many cars out there. The traffic is part of the game but everyone behaved pretty good."

It was a pleasure to enjoy a fine spring afternoon at the Milwaukee Mile this year. Here's hoping for a long and healthy future for IndyCar racing in the beer city by the lake.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2008 ~ All Rights Reserved

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