Yahoo! Sports: Indy 500: Back on top?
INDIANAPOLIS – When Paul Dana was killed in a crash before the IRL's season opener in Homestead, something else unfortunate happened: critics came out of the woodwork saying Dana represented everything that is wrong with open wheel racing.
He shouldn't have been in an IndyCar and was more a marketer than a race car driver, they claimed. Dana was just another of many open wheel drivers in America who have their rides not because of their talent, but because they brought money to their team owners, in essence buying their rides.
Some have gone as far as asserting that open wheel racing is on its last legs and that team owners were so desperate for money that buying a ride in IndyCar racing had become the only way a driver could make it onto the grid.
Ironically, the driver who was tabbed to replace Dana on the Rahal-Letterman team got his ride the old-fashioned way – he earned it.
Jeff Simmons' journey to an IRL ride is an all-American racing story, one which isn't being told as often as it used to.
A trip with his family to a car show that featured race cars led to four-year-old Simmons and his seven-year-old brother Chris to ask their father if they could race.
"Him being the loving father and with my mother probably having gone to the bathroom for a minute and not being able to say no, he said 'Yeah,'" Jeff Simmons said.
Chris started racing quarter-midgets while Jeff attended novice racing school.
Both brothers continued racing into their teens, and one part of their racing education was an annual trip to Daytona for the Daytona 500. But despite the regular dose of stock car racing, what really captured Simmons' imagination were the brilliant on-track battles fought in Formula One between Alain Prost and the legendary Ayrton Senna.
"I think I liked the technology and how the cars looked," said Simmons, who also followed Indy cars, admiring the Andrettis, A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears. "They looked like little fighter jets."
Simmons' own road racing career began at 16 when he started a seven-year stretch of competition in the Skip Barber Racing Series. In 1998, he captured the Barber Dodge Pro Series title as a rookie. The following year he was named the "Most Promising Road Racer of the Year" by RACER Magazine.
Then in 2000, Simmons found himself one step away from a Champ Car seat while driving one of Barry Green's Team Green Indy Lights cars. Simmons finished seventh in the championship. But at that time, both open wheel racing series were struggling to stay alive, and talent wasn't enough.
"It became more and more apparent, especially around 2000, when it was harder to find money for open wheel racing, that money was the biggest factor," Simmons said. "If you had money you didn't need to be that good of a driver to get a ride.
So Simmons moved to New York City and began a pursuit for sponsorship backing he could bring with him to a potential team. But Sept. 11, 2001, changed the landscape of corporate America and several potential sponsors withdrew their offers.
Simmons found himself sitting on the sidelines for the next 18 months. And though it was tough for the young man who really hadn't thought about doing anything else for a career, he made it through.
"I was able to make some money all along," Simmons said. "It wasn't much, but I was able to survive."
Then in 2003, Simmons found a ride with the Western Union Speed Team in the Indy Pro Series. He scored two wins and three second-place finishes and ended the season second in the standings.
But despite his success, he was without a ride at the start of the next season as the Western Union team decided to go with a driver who brought money to the team.
"At some point I said, 'I don't really have any money to bring,'" Simmons said. "'I need to get paid in order to do this.'"
Along came businessman Kenn Hardley, who had an Indy Pro Series team whose driver had moved on to another team.
Ironically, that driver was Paul Dana.
Simmons won the Hardley team's first pole position in his debut with the team at Pikes Peak and finished second at Chicagoland in the very next race, accounting for the team's then-best result.
"The best thing that ever happened was that I got to know Kenn Hardley," Simmons said.
Simmons finished second again in the IPS points in 2005, leading all drivers with four victories and establishing himself as the only driver in the series to win on a road course, a short track and a speedway.
But it was the relationship with Hardley that led to his being hired by Bobby Rahal.
As part of a program put in place by the IRL for 2006, many IPS teams began forming alliances with IndyCar teams in an effort to establish a driver development ladder system that would use IPS drivers as test drivers for the IRL teams.
Although a potential deal between Hardley's team and Rahal-Letterman fell through, the existing line of communication between the two teams made it a bit easier when Bobby Rahal found himself in need of a driver following Dana's fatal crash in March, and one of his first calls went out to Simmons.
Simmons thought about calling Rahal first, but he decided to wait. He didn't want to be considered one of those drivers who jumped at the chance to get into a top ride no matter the circumstances.
But even when the call did come, the team sponsor's, the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, wanted both a good driver and a good spokesperson, and Simmons had to undergo vigorous scrutiny before being hired.
And he was hired.
The 29 year-old Connecticut native now finds himself about to make his second career Indy 500 start (he started 29th, ran as high as ninth and finished 16th in a Mo Nunn car in 2004), this time on a high-profile team with two very high-profile teammates: 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice and 2005 IRL and Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick.
Simmons is grateful that the spotlight shines more on his teammates than himself.
"I think it's great to have Danica on the team because in some ways she takes the pressure off," Simmons said.
But in some ways, the entire team is feeling the pressure, as Rahal-Letterman finds itself in quite a different position than last year at this time when they had some of the fastest cars in the field. The Penske and Ganassi cars are leading the way this time around while Rahal-Letterman has struggled to find speed.
Simmons has consistently been the fastest of the three in practice. But just after running his quickest speed of the month, 225.287 mph last Friday, Simmons' car got loose and he hit the Turn 1 wall, forcing him to qualify for the race in his backup car.
As a result, he'll start Sunday's Indy 500 from the 26th of 33 starting positions. But starting from the back at Indy isn't new for Simmons.
"I have a few things I can draw on from the first one," he said. "I've experienced the start from the back of the field.
"I've had more time in the car [than in '04] and I'll know more about how the car will handle."
His previous race with the team at Motegi ended after only 40 laps when Simmons was the victim of an incident involving Scott Sharp.
And with another wrecked car at Indy, Simmons knows that the least expected of him on Sunday is to bring his race car to the finish line in one piece.
But that's not his focus. He's confident that he can do much more than that and would like nothing more than to outshine his more illustrious teammates.
"I'm going to try to do the same race I did two years ago," said Simmons, who lost a potential top-10 finish to poor pit stops in 2004. "If I can drive the way I did two years ago, then I'll have a good finish."