NASCAR

Indy 500 could have 1st starter from China

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP)

The Indianapolis 500 could have its first Chinese starter in the field for the race later this month, perhaps a precursor to IndyCar heading for a track in the world's most populous country.

On Tuesday, IndyCar team owners Sam Schmidt and Jay Penske hired Ho-Pin Tung and gave him a shot to qualify for the world-famous race.

''Our goal is to have a very smooth (qualifying) week without any incidents, and it would be huge if he can qualify in the top 25,'' Schmidt said. ''If we can keep him in the race all day, we think he'll be a top 15 or 16 guy.''

It won't be easy.

Forty-three driver-car combinations are already expected to vie for 33 starting spots in the May 29 race, and more drivers are likely be added over the next 2 1/2 weeks.

Tung will be one of the least experienced drivers on the 2.5-mile track.

Though he has raced on European road courses, his first attempt at oval racing will come on a track best-known for its high speeds and tricky winds. Tung tested an IndyCar at Sebring last fall for the FAZZT team, which became part of Sam Schmidt Motorsports. That, too, is a road course.

But Schmidt, a former IndyCar driver, and Penske, the youngest son of racing icon Roger Penske, were impressed enough with Tung's performance they decided to give him a shot to make the series' marquee race. He will be driving the No. 8 car - one of three numbers considered lucky in China.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports will provide the sponsorship. Penske's team, Dragon Racing, will provide the car and the crew.

''We've had no problem taking people like Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann or Jay Howard from there (European road courses) and getting them to go fast on ovals,'' Schmidt said. ''But there's so much more to learn than going fast on race day.''

And Tung's presence in an IndyCar could provide a huge win for China, too.

In 2009, league officials started talking publicly about adding races in Brazil and China.

Brazil, the home nation to drivers such as Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, held its inaugural IndyCar race in 2010. Australian Will Power has won both races in Sao Paulo, the most recent coming in Monday's rain-delayed finish.

Before adding China to the schedule, the series needed two things - a drawing card and an open date.

Now it has both.

With Tung on board and Japanese race officials already announcing this year's IndyCar event will be the final one at Twin Ring Motegi, IndyCar could soon turn to China to keep an Asian presence on the schedule. Schmidt believes the race could be added by 2013.

''I wouldn't rule out 2012 yet, I think it's in the future, I just don't know when yet,'' series CEO Randy Bernard told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

A race in China would give the IndyCar Series an entry into the world's biggest market and create a potential boon for sponsors, too. It could also help attract more corporate partners to the series, knowing they would have a full weekend to advertise in front of a Chinese audience, something Bernard is quick to acknowledge.

Lining up Tung as a driver could make all of it a reality.

''We've been talking very seriously with China, but until that piece of paper has been signed, it's still talk. It's no secret we want to have a race in China,'' Bernard said. ''China would be a very big deal for us and our sponsors.''

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