Indy Driver's Comeback Full Circle at Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Ryan Briscoe's comeback story came full circle at the same place that nearly derailed his racing career: The Milwaukee Mile.
Before Briscoe's breakthrough victory there last year, the historic track nestled in the gritty fairgrounds just west of downtown had been the backdrop for two of the most humbling moments of the 27-year-old Australian's career.
He crashed before the 2005 race, forcing his team to withdraw. The following year, Briscoe had to park his ill-handling car after just 13 laps because, in his words, it was "just scary to drive."
But after proving he could make a good car go fast at Milwaukee in a tryout for the powerhouse Penske Racing team in 2007, Briscoe recorded his first win at the Mile a year ago. And going into Sunday's race, his confidence is surging.
"That's when we really made things happen, from Milwaukee and on," Briscoe said. "And Milwaukee for me was just such a huge achievement, just because of how bad I'd done at that track in the past. It had been a nightmare for me."
Milwaukee's tight, flat-banked, bumpy turns make passing difficult and mistakes hard to recover from -- something Briscoe found out the hard way.
"It's challenging," he said. "You certainly have to treat it with respect. Even though it's a one-mile oval, and in the grand picture might not seem like a fast oval, I've hit that wall and it's pretty fast."
After struggling at Milwaukee with the top-tier Chip Ganassi Racing team in 2005 and the middle-tier Dreyer and Reinbold team the following season, Briscoe naturally wondered if he, not the cars, was the problem.
A similar thought might have occurred to Penske president Tim Cindric and the rest of the team's brain trust. So they decided that before they would bring Briscoe back to the IRL -- he was out of a regular ride in the series, but had been driving for Penske's sports car racing team -- he'd have to prove he could conquer the Mile.
This time, Briscoe would have every chance to succeed. The team would give Briscoe top-notch equipment, and ace driver Helio Castroneves would shake down the car beforehand.
"I think it was just to sort of see that I was capable," Briscoe said. "And, what Cindric was telling me, they wanted to bring me here so that I could build my confidence at this track with a good car. They knew they had a good car at this track, Sam (Hornish) and Helio had always done well at the track. And so we saw it as a good opportunity to give me confidence."
The confidence boost was much needed, as Briscoe hadn't had a regular ride in the IRL since his fiery crash at Chicagoland Speedway in 2005 and was beginning to doubt himself.
"Yeah, for sure," Briscoe said. "You don't have a solid ride, you're not with a top team and you think, 'I wonder how my career is going to keep going.' There are always sort of backup options, maybe back in Australia and stuff, but it was a bit premature really for what my original plan would have been."
Less than a year later, the confidence Briscoe gained in the Milwaukee test had translated into a regular ride with perhaps the series' top team -- and, finally, a victory.
"It's just incredible," Briscoe said. "You know, I don't know how to put it into words. You can never really give up, because you never know what might come around the next corner. But it just really comes down to Penske just picking me up when I was doing this or that, nothing solid. And they put me in their sports car program and it's led to this. So I'm very grateful to Tim and Roger (Penske) for that."
Briscoe certainly was overshadowed by his more famous teammate, Castroneves, in last week's Indianapolis 500. Castroneves won at Indy for the third time in his career, while Briscoe finished 15th.
But Briscoe still comes into Milwaukee third in the championship points standings, only eight points behind leader Dario Franchitti and three behind Castroneves, who missed the season opener at St. Petersburg -- a race Briscoe won -- because his high-profile trial for tax evasion charges was still unfolding.
Castroneves eventually was acquitted of the most serious charges -- one remaining charge was dropped earlier this month -- and returned to racing. But Castroneves' absence from the team forced Briscoe to become more of a leader off the track, a position Briscoe said he enjoys.
"Yeah, I like it," Briscoe said. "I always enjoy leading a race, and it was kind of that feeling. I'm definitely keeping that going. I think we've really got a good thing happening with the team."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)