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Kelowna driver heads to Florida to gear up for 2003 racing season
The Okanagan Sunday

Five days of hot fun in the sun is what occupies Mike Richardson's daytimer this week. The Kelowna resident left cool, grey, wintry skies behind Saturday morning for the hot, sun-drenched Florida coast. Richardson's brief junket to Sebring, however, is not a pleasure cruise, as he jet-setted south for racing reasons. Beginning Monday, Richardson will be doing three days of car testing for the upcoming 2003 Barber-Dodge series. Barber-Dodge, the first of three rungs on the ladder to professional open-wheel racing, is the official entry-level series of CART. Barber-Dodge graduates, which include Kenny rack and Juan Pablo Montoya, often move up to Toyota-Atlantic, then CART.

"I'm really looking forward to going and doing a lot of testing," an anxious Richardson said Friday evening. "I really can't wait. I had a hard time sleeping (Thursday night), as I kept on waking up wondering what the time was." The 2002 season was Richardson's first campaign in Barber-Dodge, which races all over North America, including stops in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. To say it was eye-opening for Richardson would be an understatement. In limited action --- as the 35-year-old also has overriding family and business affairs --- Richardson finished 25th out of 38 with six points and $6,000 US in winnings. Topping the list was Californian A.J. Almendinger with 188 points and $104,250, who finished well ahead of second-place finisher Rafael Sperafico of Brazil, with 120 points and 451,250. Every year, the Barber-Dodge series champion scores a huge scholarship for entry into Toyota Atlantic. The 2003 champion will win $255,000.

"The past season was a big learning experience for me, to see what it takes to drive these cars," said Richardson. "Mentally, you have to be focussed on driving each corner and section perfectly in order to achieve good lap times. "At night, before a race the next day, I'd lay down and mentally drive the track. I'd try to visualize each corner, where to apex and then exit; where to break, and then accelerate; and when to shift gears up or down. "I'd time myself on my watch, and it was always very close to my actual lap times." Driving wasn't what prevented Richardson from claiming a top-five finish last season --- it was other drivers. At 35, Richardson is on average 15 years older than most his competitors. And young men --- being young men --- most don't appreciate the word 'restraint' like older, more experienced men do. In nearly every race, Richardson's green and yellow Prestige Inns was rammed by a younger competitor, which either crippled his Dodge or knocked it out completely. But, says Richardson, that's all in the past. "This is a new season," he said. "My focus is to learn the car. At this level, all the engines and drivers' abilities are relatively the same. The difference comes down to minor things, like getting the car's settings just right for a specific track. There are so many things to change, such as ride height, (front and rear) wings, tire pressure, brakes and shocks, to name a few. And each change affects another. "By lowering the car's height, or changing a minor amount of tire pressure could knock off one second off a lap time. And that minor difference could result in either having the pole, or starting 20th. "That's why having this practice session is so important. Like any other sport, the more you practice, the better you become. For me, with more seat time, hopefully I'll be able to recognize changes that need to be made to score better lap times."

To prepare for 2003 season, which begins Feb. 23 in Florida, Richardson began preparing months ago. After his last race, late August in Montreal, Richardson started working out to become better physically fit. In that span, he's dropped 35 pounds, and he now weights 180. "In my first-eve race, I remember radioing in the pit crew and asking them 'When's the white flag?" And they radio me back 'You have lots of time. There's another 15 minutes left.' After hearing that, I thought I was gonna die," said Richardson, who now runs 20 miles a week. "The physical demand at this level is really great, and you really have to be in great shape. Being in peak shape is key to prevent being fatigued in a race."