Helio Castroneves, right, a teammate of Ryan Briscoe, won the pole last year for the IndyCar Series race at Mid-Ohio.
LEXINGTON, Ohio - Ryan Briscoe got the best news of his life late last year when he received official word that he would be driving the complete 2008 IndyCar Series for the open-wheel racing powerhouse Team Penske.
"Landing this ride - this has been the biggest event in my career," Briscoe said at the time.
And, oh, by the way Ryan, you will be replacing the only three-time champion the series has ever had, and a former Indianapolis 500 winner. And the driver you replace is widely recognized as the best oval racer of this generation, and also a very popular, squeaky-clean family man from the heart of America's work-ethic epicenter - the Midwest.
"When you put it all together, that sounds like an awful lot of pressure on the new guy," Briscoe said about taking over the seat occupied for the past four years by Defiance native Sam Hornish Jr., who left the IndyCar Series to compete full time in stock car racing this season.
"It can be a little intimidating to come in and take the place of someone with that list of accomplishments. The mechanics, the engineers - everyone on the team was used to the highest level of expertise and the confidence that comes with it. The big difference is that Sam came to Penske already a champion in the league. He had the reputation and the respect of everyone coming in the door."
Briscoe, a 26-year-old Australian, said Team Penske has done everything to ease his transition.
"I haven't felt that pressure to live up to Sam's success from the team at all," Briscoe said. "I put the pressure on myself."
Moving into this weekend's IndyCar Series event at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course near Lexington, Briscoe has made 11 starts this season for Team Penske, with a win at Milwaukee and five top-10 finishes to his credit. With a break here and there, Briscoe thinks he could be significantly higher in the points race, where he stands eighth.
"It's been a funny season, because performance-wise we've been good and been a top-five contender week-to-week, but we've had a bit of bad luck along the way," he said. "But I don't let those things that are out of my control eat away at me. I just try and analyze it, and take something good away from it. In this motor racing business, unfortunately you lose more than you win, so I just keep my chin up and keep on going."
Briscoe, whose resume is heavy with experience on road courses, twisting, circuitous layouts such as Mid-Ohio, comes here anxious to continue Penske's tradition of strong performances on the 13-turn track.
"This will be my first trip to Mid-Ohio in an Indy car, but I gained some experience running at the track in 2007 in the American LeMans Series," he said. "It's a great track, and it seems that Penske Racing has always been strong at Mid-Ohio regardless of what series they're competing in. Hopefully, we'll be able to bring the same level of competitiveness to the track again in 2008."
Briscoe's Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, who won the pole for last year's IndyCar Series races here, is second in the points race behind Scott Dixon, who won at Mid-Ohio in 2007. While still looking for his first win of 2008, Castroneves has been the model of consistency, with nine finishes in the top 10 in the 11 races to date.
"In my opinion, Mid-Ohio is one of the best road courses in this country, so I was really excited when it was added to the Series schedule last season," said Castroneves, who won twice here while racing in the CART series. "Not only did last year's race produce some great action, I was also amazed at the fan support. It seemed that on race day every seat was filled and all of the viewing mounds were blanketed with spectators."
Dixon, the runner-up in last season's IndyCar Series points race, comes to Mid-Ohio with momentum on his side after winning last weekend's race in Nashville. Dixon, who also won this year's Indy 500, said being consistently fast - practice, qualifying and in races - builds lofty expectations.
"I think it helps your confidence level for sure," Dixon said about his success. "If you can go out there and consistently think you're going to be at the top, not necessarily the fastest, but in the first few, I think it helps you mentally for the race. That's for sure."