Jeff's Formula One Detour

INDIANAPOLIS, IN.- - Jeff Gordon knew what he was facing. Comparing the jump from stock cars to Formula One cars was equated to making the jump from go-karts to stock cars. Whereas the technology on a stock car is basic and somewhat rudimentary, a Formula One car has often been called a fighter plane with wheels. Appearing undaunted, Gordon looked forward to the demonstration with a sense of eager anticipation. On Wednesday morning he stopped by to pick up his parents at their hotel before heading to the track. "I don't think I've seen him with a smile that big on his face for a long time," Carol Bickford, Jeff's mom, said. "He knocked on the door and had a huge grin on his face. He couldn't wait to get over to the track." But could her son adapt quick enough to turn some fast laps in the F1 car?

Gordon and Juan Pablo Montoya traded places at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on June 11 as they took turns driving speed demonstration laps around the 2.606-mile road course. Montoya drove Gordon's DuPont Chevrolet stock car while Gordon handled Montoya's BMW WilliamsF1 FW24 car. This was the first time that Gordon and Montoya were behind the wheel of a Formula One car and NASCAR stock car, respectively. Montoya started off the event with three practice laps before taking some full-speed laps. After one practice lap, Gordon followed with nearly seven laps at speed. The traction control, barred in NASCAR but legal in F1 racing, was put to good use by Gordon coming off the corners. He went off course, albeit briefly, on his first speed lap under braking on the infield straightaway but was turning consistent 1:17 (one minute, seventeen seconds) laps by the end of the run.

To put Gordon's laps in perspective, the pole at last year's U.S. Grand Prix was 1:10 while the slowest speed in the field was 1:13. Montoya then turned a few more laps in Gordon's Chevrolet, clocking in less than a second slower than Gordon's fast lap on the Indy road course during preparations earlier in the day. On his second run, Gordon performed a launch start, the task to begin an F1 race. On his second lap he toured the road course in 1:16:5, his fast time of the day. According to Gordon's crew chief, Robbie Loomis, Montoya ran a top lap of 1 minute, 39.9 seconds in the stock car, which was a mere 1.1 seconds behind what Gordon did in a shakedown session an hour prior. Gordon's aforementioned fast lap (1:16.5) in the F1 car was only 1.3 seconds slower than Montoya's shakedown lap earlier in the day.

So is Gordon going F1 racing? After all, his talent in taking to the F1 car was uncanny. "No, I can see where getting that last second is really tricky," Gordon said. "I'd love to sit here and play with the car-- yeah it feels a little bit tight... yeah I'd like to take some front brake bias out of it. But that experience in itself is what I came here for. What a fun, awesome experience and I can't thank everyone enough for pulling this together."

For Gordon's team, it was a look at a Formula One car. "That car is awesome," said Dave Smith, the rear tire changer for Gordon. "I never thought I'd get to see one that close. It's good to see Jeff drive one and run as fast as he did. Those cars are unbelievable." Car chief Steve Letarte saw the advantages of both the F1 car and the stock car. "It's interesting to see Juan get in this and be impressed with the power and the grip, but at the same time, you go 30 seconds faster in that other car. It seems like they both like driving them both," Letarte said. Both Smith and Letarte agreed they wouldn't mind having Montoya's car for the NASCAR events at Sears Point and Watkins Glen. "That sounds good to me," Smith said with a laugh. Mario Theissen, BMW motorsport director, also enjoyed watching the swap. "I think it is a fantastic event for the two teams and for the people that are here at the track," Theissen said. "If you look at the drivers' faces, it's like Christmas for them. It's completely different, but if you look at how much fun Juan had driving, you understand that it's a different type of racing, but fascinating as well."

Crew chief Robbie Loomis worked firsthand with Montoya by making changes to the stock car based on the driver's feedback. Though Loomis wanted to attend the U.S. Grand Prix on September 28, he'll be working the pits for Gordon at Talladega that day. Or will he? "We'll probably have to field a car in it now for Jeff, he might take that weekend off now at (Talladega)," Loomis joked. "It is a great race. Indianapolis has so much history, it's just a special feeling when you walk in here. Jeff's always wanted to drive one of those cars and I've seen him more excited about this test than I've seen him for any race since I've been with him in three and a half years. His confidence and his seriousness- he wanted to know everything about the steering wheel, everything he needed to know about a Formula One car. His excitement and carefreeness has been really good." Loomis also was impressed with Montoya. "To see Juan drive Jeff's car and be as smooth and consistent as he was is a tribute to what a great road racer he is," Loomis said. "The laps he's had at Indy I'm sure contributed to that. He had a lot of fun driving the car. The car's got a lot of acceleration and really tails out. He said in his Formula One car that if you tail it out, you're gone. Time for a new car. That's probably the biggest thing for Juan, was driving the car loose and still being able to hang on to it."

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