Jensen taking one for the team

Indy Lights team owner - and driver for this week - Eric Jensen makes a face after qualifying last...

Indy Lights team owner - and driver for this week - Eric Jensen makes a face after qualifying last for tomorrow's final. (Mark O'Neill/QMI Agency)

Bill Lankhof, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 6:32 PM ET

Eric Jensen is not going to win the battle at the Honda Indy Sunday.

He has about as much chance of stepping on to the victory podium at the Indy Lights event as the Toronto Maple Leafs do of winning the Stanley Cup.

Theoretically the possibility exists; realistically?

“Yeah,” says engineer Remi Lanteigne, peering at a computer of Jensen in his practice run, “just keep the car together.”

There is laughter in the Jensen MotorSport trailer. No point missing a chance to diss the boss.

The guy hadn’t cozied up to a decent chassis for almost eight years in an on-going basis. And, here he is trying to get friendly with an auto mechanic’s version of Jennifer Lopez.

But sometimes it is as much about getting into the race as it is about winning; sometimes it is just about surviving. And Jensen is your consummate survivor. The Canadian racing team owner is doing just fine in the car wars dominated by heavyweights such as the Andrettis, Ganassis and Bryan Herta Autosport.

Jensen has been a team owner in junior racing series for 15 years, from the Atlantic Series, the BMW Series and even a cameo appearance at the Champ Car level.

“I found out I was a pretty good teacher. I’ve got five guys here this weekend I taught and about 200 kids that are racing in the various series.”

Much of this season he has run two cars in the Indy Light series. In Toronto, he still has David Ostella, of Maple, in his No. 1 car. He’s even got ideas about moving up to the elite IZOD Indy car series “next year or the year after”, potentially with Ostella, whom — along with James Hinchcliffe — he calls “the next generation of Paul Tracys and Alex Taglianis.”

But those are tomorrow’s dreams. This weekend he lost his No. 2 driver when Juan Pablo Garcia lost his sponsorship after the Indy 500.

“We have sponsors and obligations to run cars,” Jensen said.

Someone had to get that car on the track in Toronto. It takes a million bucks annually to run an Indy Lights program or, “about $30-$40,000 in operating costs for one weekend. And, someone’s got to pay for that.”

This weekend Jensen had commitments to a new sponsor, NAPA Auto Parts. They needed film footage of the car running for four 90-second web assaults.

So Jensen donned the firesuit. Survival time. This weekend it had more to do with the numbers on the balance sheet than it did with those up on the scoring monitors. Survival meant squeezing into the cockpit for the first time in three years. He hadn’t raced seriously since 2003 when he quit after he became a father. He’d never even been in the car until Saturday morning’s practice session.

“I’m the last resort,” said Jensen, after he had to abandon his practice round with suspension problems. “I’ve only spent 45 minutes in the car. It’s a matter trying to get used to it before I try to get quick. As for Sunday, I don’t know. I’m on a really, really steep learning curve here.”

As he spoke, Lantiegne, and fellow engineer Adam Marchitto, were piecing that suspension back together. A new bolt. A little tape and a loud scream from outside the transporter.

“I’m not sure that’s a good sign,” said Jensen, laughing.

“I’ve been in enough cars I knew right away I had a problem. In your head you just go to Plan B; where’s the next runoff area. At least I didn’t lose the brakes.”

At least he didn’t crash. At least he has got his car and his sponsors in the race, even though he’ll start 14th in a field of ... well, fourteen. His 1:10.37 qualifying time was more than five seconds behind his closest rival. That made him as much a spectator as a racer. Guys beat that on the 401. But who’s to quibble. Another day, another dollar (another happy sponsor) and his IZOD IndyCar dream of forming that “all-Canadian team” lives.

For Jensen this is not entirely and unfamiliar road. It isn’t the first time he’s made a cameo appearance. In 2005 he didn’t have a driver for the Toronto Atlantic Series race either.

“I didn’t have any practice and finished fifth in the Atlantic Series event. That went OK. It’s like riding a bike.”

Yesterday his average qualifying lap speed of 89.782 m.p.h. came in well behind pole sitter Esteban Guerrieri’s 100.307 m.ph. Sometimes getting back on that bike can get a bit wobbly.

 


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