Indy pole finally brings Sharp notoriety
INDIANAPOLIS (CNNSI.com) -- Paul Newman knows about potential.
It was 1989, and Newman looked across a cramped motor home at his 21-year-old Trans-Am Series teammate Scott Sharp and said, "That kid has star quality."
He knows talent when he sees it. The CART team Newman co-owns has won championships with Mario and Michael Andretti, and Nigel Mansell.
It just took Sharp a while longer than expected to emerge from the pack. But he's there now.
The 33-year-old Sharp is under the biggest microscope of his life -- on May 27 he'll lead a 33-car field to the green flag in the 85th Indianapolis 500. It should be the finest moment of a racing career that has been a brush with stardom.
"You know, I've dreamed about being on the track at Indianapolis with no one in front of me," he said, a wide grin splitting his handsome, boy-next-door face. "Now I'm going to get the chance to do that."
Sharp earned the opportunity by winning the pole Saturday.
"Up to this point, there's nothing I've done in racing that even comes close to this," Sharp said. "It feels wonderful. You know, though, I'd give up every bit of this feeling for a really great showing on the 27th. That's why we came here and that's when it counts."
Although it would be hard to call him a star, there are a lot of people in the sport who would like to have Sharp's resume.
He's won two Trans-Am championships, been on the winning team in the 24-hour sports car endurance race in Daytona, shared the inaugural Indy Racing League championship and shares with Greg Ray the record for career IRL victories.
Yet being on the Indy pole -- the third of his IRL career -- is the first time Sharp's name has truly reached the national consciousness.
"A lot of people don't realize how good Scott and Mark are," said Tom Kelley, who also owns Mark Dismore's car. "They are both as good as anybody in open-wheel racing. They're my best friends, but if they weren't as good as they are, they wouldn't be driving for me."
Sharp followed his father, Bob -- a six-time national SCCA champion -- into the sport. But with a degree in finance and investment from Babson College, the driver from Connecticut pictures himself as a racer who'd like to do more outside the sport.
"I guess sometimes I get kind of consumed by racing," Sharp said. "I've got my wife and children, and I enjoy a lot of other things in life. But when I'm at the racetrack or in the car, I've got tunnel-vision."
Indianapolis has been an enigma for Sharp, whose best finishes in six Indy 500 starts have been a pair of 10ths.
"This is my favorite track," he said. "I'll never forget the first time I went out on the warm-up lane at rookie orientation and looked down that long back straightaway. A chill just went down my back. I feel privileged to drive every lap here."
But Sharp would like to be around fighting for the win at the end, and hopes that his enjoyment of the old Brickyard will result in more success in the race.
"I've had good practice laps, done fairly well in qualifying, but never really had a strong race here," he said. "It always seems like the little things have bit us."
Those things include a stuck transmission, a blown tire that put him in the wall, some blown motors, a broken gearbox and even an overheating problem on the pace lap two years ago.
Last May, when he finished 10th, Sharp was held back by a malfunction during refueling.
But Sharp just considers his problems here bad racing luck that can turn around at any time. He hopes winning the pole is a good omen.
"I'm pretty enthused this year," he said. "We clearly have the best chance I've ever had. Certainly, this is the best chance the team has had."
What would it mean to Sharp if he did manage to win at Indy?
"In my mind, it's immeasurable," he said, seemingly peering at some distant object. "It's the race to win in your career. I've seen a lot of great drivers come here that haven't been able to win.
"You have to do the best you can and hope that something is shining on you that day."
As much as it would mean to his career and his stature in the sport, Sharp wants to keep this goal in perspective.
"While it would be probably the biggest thing that every happened in my life, the next day I'd still get out of bed, hug my kids and put my clothes on the same way," he said. "It would be fun, though."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.