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May 13th 2013 -
By:  Mark W. Theisen INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 12, 2013:    The “official” start to the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is here despite earlier action during the past week the anticipated start of activities commenced Saturday at 12:08 P.M. when Helio Castroneves became the first driver “officially” on the track in what will be heated preparation for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 set for Sunday May 26th. 

     Castroneves was in the #2 Team Penske Chevrolet Dallara that is assigned to A. J. Allmendinger as it was his job to set up the car for Allmendinger to participate in the Rookie Orientation Program set for later in the day on Saturday.

     This was the fourth straight year that a car from Team Penske, the winner of 15 Indy 500’s, was first on the track for the month of May.  When the month of May consisted of a full month of practice this was a much bigger deal than it is today yet the honor carries a distinction that goes back to the race’s origin.

     Veterans got center stage for the first two hours of practice on Saturday and then turned the “stage” over to the rookies trying to qualify for this year’s race.

     The Rookie Orientation Program has been placed at different times and dates over the years but when the schedule for the month was abbreviated to allow teams to save a considerable amount of money by not having to be in Indianapolis for a full month the program was incorporated into the two weeks of preparation for the race.

     This was to have changed this year as well but weather played into the equation forcing two changes to the scheduled times for the program before moving it back to the opening day, where it had been the previous two years. 

     The rookie program is designed to get drivers with no experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway an opportunity to get used to the tight 2.5 mile oval track under the watchful eye of former drivers and track officials with a controlled speed effort without having to deal with the rest of the field practicing at the same time.

     The program consists of 10 laps between 200 & 205 miles-per-hour; 10 laps between 205 & 209 miles per hour; and 15 laps at 210 miles-per-hour or better.  In addition drivers participating in this years qualifying that did not race in 2012 at the track must go through a refresher course consisting of the second and third portion of the rookie program.

     This year four drivers are entered with rookie status:  Carlos Munoz, Allmendinger, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly.  Buddy Lazier, although a former race winner and Pippa Mann must go through the refresher course.

     The track was surrendered to the rookies at 2:00 and by 3:50 Vautier, Munoz and Allmendinger had breezed through their entire program with ideal weather conditions that made the completion of the program rather easy.

     The fourth rookie, Daly, driving the #41 ABC Supply Honda Dallara for A.J. Foyt Racing was in Barcelona, Spain this weekend competing in GP3 races that forced him to miss this session but he will be back in Indianapolis Monday and will begin his program at that time.  The “refresher” course for Lazier and Mann will also come when their respective cars are ready for competition as both entries were late in coming together.

     Once the rookie portion was over the veterans were joined by the three rookies as the track opened for all competitors at 4:00.

     When the first day was over Ed Carpenter, the winner of the last oval race conducted by the IZOD Indy Car series was fastest with a lap at 220.290.  He was followed by Josef Newgarden at 220.920, Munoz at 220.720, Charlie Kimball at 220.669 and Alex Tagliani at 220.248 to complete the top five on the speed chart when the track closed at 6:00 P.M.

     In, hopefully what is not a bad omen, the tack was closed for 31 minutes due to a rain shower late in the afternoon.  This was the first time since May 22, 2011 that rain forced a change in scheduled activities at the track.  The entire Month of May in 2012 was rain free, the first time since 1998 that had happened at the track.

     The entry list for this years race got a boost on Friday when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entered a car with an unnamed driver as yet bringing the total number of entries to 35 as Honda was able to step up an offer an 18th engine program at the last minute.  Assuming that Schmidt Peterson does have a driver in mind this will mean that “bump day” will have even more suspense come Sunday May 19th.

     Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dawned cool and windy and that did not change throughout much of the day as teams worked on race set-up for the most part and will begin working on qualifying trim in earnest as the week unfolds leading up to Pole-Day Qualifying next Saturday, May 18th.

     Andretti Autosports looked very strong today placing four of their five drivers at the top of the speed chart as the day concluded with rookie Munoz leading the pace with a 223.023 best lap.  Newgarden was the last rookie to top the speed chart at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the conclusion of a practice day and he did so, twice, last year.

     Munoz was followed by defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay at 222.825, E.J. Viso at 222.523 and Marco Andretti at 222.485.  The fifth Andretti driver James Hinchcliffe, the winner of two of the first four IZOD Indy Car races this year was just shy of Allmendinger who rounded out the top five with a speed of 221.279 miles-per-hour.

     Thru today, the first two days, 730 laps or 1,210 miles of incident free practice were turned in by 29 car/driver combinations.

     As of the close of Sunday 31 of the 35 entered cars had passed technical inspection and were cleared to practice.

     It should also be noted that the top 17 cars in practice today were separated by less than a second to give credence to what I have said all along that this is a wide open field this year.  The competition is tight and despite the show by the Andretti organization today the winner can come from any team, a multi-car operation or a single effort.  It will be exciting.

     Among the plethora of things that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway schedules in the days leading up to the 500 for the race fan to enjoy along with the race is the annual “Celebration of Automobiles”, a grand car show and this years 3rd effort did not disappoint as classic and vintage cars from around the world competed for trophies and honors that are usually associated with the major car extravaganzas held around the world.

     Growing in enormous popularity with the car collector segment this show now attracts 200 entries and car owners are excited about the chance to display their vehicles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

     Four Best in Show awards are presented at the Celebration of Automobiles with a 1929 Duesenberg winning Best Pre-War car, a 1957 Bentley best Post-War car, a 1936 Delahaye best foreign car and a 1930 Stutz best American car.  A 1932 Hupmobile Hup Comet Indy Car won the Vintage Motorsports Trophy as 12 major trophy/awards were handed out.  This program was truly fine assembly of cars that rivals the best shows in the world in what has become an annual affair during the opening weekend of activities at the Speedway.

     Practice continues all week long as we move towards pole day qualifying next Saturday.  Watch for continued updates.