The first day of Indianapolis 500 practice usually has drivers and teams getting comfortable and being conservative with their set-ups in an attempt to find a baseline to work from. It’s certainly not the most glamorous part of the “half-month” of May.
But a positive start never hurt anyone, and defending ‘500’ champion Helio Castroneves certainly got that today. Granted, the Brazilian admitted to having “two cars in front of [him]” when he busted off his practice-leading lap at 226.603 m.p.h. in his backup No. 3T Team Penske machine. Still, the fact that his secondary entry was almost two miles per hour quicker than his pole-winning speed last year (224.864 m.p.h.) should give him confidence.
“It was just the right time and the right moment…,” he said. “It seems to be very interesting this year: Even if you are away from another car, the draft is tremendous. It is going to play a lot of tricks during the month of May. So far, the 3T car seems to be where we want it, so we won’t touch the car and keep at it.”
Castroneves was one of four drivers to eclipse last year’s pole speed in today’s two-hour practice session for veterans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Joining him above the 226 range were two of his biggest rivals, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Dario Franchitti (226.603 m.p.h. in the backup No. 10T) and Scott Dixon (226.237 in the backup No. 9T). Dan Wheldon of Panther Racing threw up a lap at 225.609 m.p.h. in the primary No. 4 entry.
All of them were fine with their efforts, but also knew there was a long way to go.
“To shakedown with a car feeling so good was really encouraging,” Franchitti said. “I was able to go out of the pits and actually go flat in Turn One on the first lap, so it feels pretty good. I was doing a couple of laps and I saw [Tony Kanaan] ahead of me, managed to draft up to him, and got a nice little tow from him.
“It was a nice way to start the month, but the real work for us is going to start tomorrow or certainly Monday.”
There’s also the matter of determining the game plan for the upcoming week. With qualifying going down next Saturday and Sunday, teams will be itching for lots of track time. However, more rain is expected to come in the next couple of days. Castroneves said that his team is aiming for Wednesday to work on a race set-up, but that may go out the window. Meanwhile, Franchitti said that teams would have to try out qualifying and race set-ups on the same days if inclement weather eats up practice.
It appears that the new Indy 500 schedule (and Mother Nature, too) will indeed make for a hectic two weeks of work toward the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. All the better reason to start off on the right foot, according to Wheldon.
“I’ve been around here long enough to know that it doesn’t make too much difference at this point,” said the 2005 Indy winner. “But it’s always better to start good than the other way around.”
Indy 500 rookies also got their chance to pick up on the nuances of the legendary Brickyard oval this afternoon. While rain marred much of the four-hour session for first-year drivers and veterans taking refresher laps, three rookies were able to get through two of the four Rookie Orientation Program phases — Ana Beatriz, Simona de Silvestro, and Takuma Sato.
Beatriz may be new to IMS in an IndyCar, but she has experience at the Speedway through running in Firestone Indy Lights. To her, much of what she learned about the track in FIL is applying to the bigger cars as well.
“Probably the most different thing is the racing,” she said. “In [Firestone] Indy Lights, you can go two-wide, three-wide here. In IndyCar, that is not possible, so I have to remember this in the race. The way you drive the cars is very similar.
“Of course, you can feel the power of the IndyCar. It’s much more powerful. But the way you drive it is much the same.”
Jay Howard and Sebastian Saavedra managed to complete one phase of ROP. For Howard, his chance at driving in the ‘500’ has been a long time coming. In 2008, he appeared set to run the race with Marty Roth’s former operation, but was pulled out of the car in favor of John Andretti.
Suffice to say, motivation is not a problem for him this year. He also seems to be a bit wiser after his bad experience two years ago.
“After my buddy Mr. Roth pulled me out of the car in ’08, I was at [chinese restaurant] P.F. Chang’s, and I got a fortune cookie that said, ‘Good things come to those who are patient,'” Howard recalled. “I thought, ‘OK …’ I stuck the fortune to the top of my computer screen and every day that I would get [mad], I could look at that and think, ‘Keep digging, keep hammering away.’ I just felt that I had come so far in my career and that I had never really had a sponsor except on a race-to-race basis [meant] that I had to work harder.
“Marty had promised me so much and delivered almost zero. I realized that racing started to become more business than what it used to be. That’s fine. You just need to realize what it is and work hard.”
Howard set the fastest lap amongst the rookies on Saturday at 215.039 m.p.h. in the No. 66 Sarah Fisher Racing entry.
Saturday also marked the return of Vision Racing to the track. The Tony George-owned squad, which suspended full-time operations over the offseason due to a lack of funding, is hooked up with Panther Racing for a one-off program with Ed Carpenter in the cockpit.
Carpenter went P7 in today’s practice session with a fast lap of 224.592 m.p.h. in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka entry — which will likely be known simply as the “Fuzzy No. 20” if the team has anything to do with it. Like other drivers, he was in shakedown mode.
“Today, everything went according to the plan we had laid out for ourselves,” he said. “We’ll focus on the race car set-up at the start of the week and move toward putting more speed into it for qualifying as the race progresses.
“It’s just so nice to be back on track. This Indy 500 race will actually be my 100th [IZOD] IndyCar Series race, and I’m so very grateful for the opportunity thanks to the partnership we have with Panther this month and having Fuzzy Zoeller step in with his vodka sponsorship as the last piece of the puzzle.”
Quotes and materials from league press releases/trackside reports were used in the making of this article.