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Indy Opens for May 2011
BPS photo from 2010, by Burzy
BPS photo from 2010, by Burzy

By:  Mark W. Theisen

     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 14, 2011:  Today was the first “Official” day for the 2011 Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with practice and events leading up to the 95th running of the Indianapolis on May 29th, in this the 100th Anniversary year of the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911.
     As time and years have evolved the events leading up the race have been changed and reformatted mainly in the interest of cost restraints thus the traditional month long schedule of events known as “Month of May” at Indianapolis have seen its share of changes. 
     This year is no different.  The track has been open since Thursday but only for the rookie orientation program that was instituted several years ago to allow those new to the Speedway time to get comfortable with the track, their car and crew and the nuances that make up the uniqueness of Indy., this while under the watchful eye of race stewards and veteran 500 drivers.  Thus, Thursday did not as an “official” day in the Month of May, whereas in the past this program may have been held on an “official” day in the month.
     Eight drivers:  J.R. Hildebrand, James Hinchcliffe, Jay Howard, James Jakes, Charlie Kimball, Pippa Mann, Scott Speed and Ho-Pin Tung were required to take the orientation program which included Howard, who actually had qualified for last year’s 500 only to have his team make a crucial ‘bump day” decision to withdraw the cars speed in hopes of making it back into the race only to see the session end without them getting another opportunity to qualify. As the events of the day turned out that decision cost them a spot in the race. Howard had to participate in the program because he has not yet actually raced in a competitive lap at Indy.
     At the end of Thursday, Hildebrand, Hinchcliffe, Kimball, Mann, Speed and Ho-Pin Tung had completed the required four phases of the test and were cleared to practice and try and qualify for this year’s race.  The four different phases consisted of controlled speed averages in each phases to get the drivers used to the speed at the track.  Phase four then let them go as fast as they wanted to.
     Hildebrand led the speed chart for those rookies at the end of day with a top lap of 221.533 mph.  Jakes passed three of the four phases and will be allowed to complete the fourth during the coming week as his team prepares for qualification.  Speed, a veteran of Formula One and NASCAR quickly adapted to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was more content to work on race set-up following the program and to help his teammate, Tung, get up to speed and pass his test.
     This morning, as has been customary for so many years, it was the first race of the month seeing who can be first on the track on the first “official” day.  Team Penske, going for an unprecedented 16th 500 victory had all three of its entries:  Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Ryan Briscoe in pit lane, with engines warming and when the green flag was waived at 12 noon it was Castroneves off the line first and onto the track first for the second straight year.  The actual competitive speed start was moved to 12:15 because of moisture on the back stretch due to a wide arcing sprinkler system that was dampening the track in one spot.
     This has been a well sought honor for many teams and an indication that the team is solidly prepared for the month but since 1984 no driver that has been first out for the month has gone on to win the race so perhaps it’s a distinction that some teams and drivers don’t want to add to their list of accomplishments at the Speedway.  Marco Andretti was first out in 2006 and lost to Sam Hornish Jr. in the final 100 feet of the race to post the best finish of a “first outer” in the last 26 years.
     The weather was just right for speed today with a track temperature of 68 degrees and an overcast sky and it was 2008 500 winner, Scott Dixon in a Target-Chip Ganassi car, posting an early lap of 224.491 that held up for most of the day that saw a pair of yellow-flags to interrupt the activities and practice because of rain showers that “materialized” during the day the second of which ended the day early at 5:24 P.M.
     After the track was dried from the first rain shower, at 4:55 P.M. after nearly a two hour delay, Ed Carpenter was able to post a speed of 224.786 in his Sarah Fisher Racing Car before rains began to fall again and with the second rain ending the day’s activities, Carpenter wound up with the top speed of opening day followed by Dixon, Hildebrand, defending 500 winner Dario Franchitti and Andretti.
     It looked as though the Penske cars were working on race trim as the day progressed and were intriguingly missing from the speed chart.  In years past the Penske cars were among he fastest each day.
     Carpenter, who replaced team co-owner Fisher in the car this year, is no stranger to going fast at Indy and Fisher’s cars have been up to the task as well so it should be no surprise that they are in the hunt this year.  Carpenter was in the pole shootout last year and is aiming high again this year as Fisher expects the birth of her first child this fall and has opted out of racing for the foreseeable future but continues to be a significant spokesperson for Indy, the Indy Racing League and racing in general.
     That the Ganassi cars of Dixon and Franchitti are among the swiftest is no real surprise as they have been dominant the past few years at Indy but the real surprise is rookie Hildebrand sitting third at the end of the day.
     Driving for a team, Panther Racing, that has finished second in the 500 in each of the past two years and with Buddy Rice, the 2004 500 winner, acting as his coach it is no wonder that Hildebrand has been so quick out of the box.
     “For me,” said Hildebrand, “it is still a process of understanding everything that is going on around me.  I could have gone faster, perhaps, but we have all week to do that.  Getting used to everything here is huge.  This place demands a lot of respect and I’m giving it to it.”
     Carpenter and Fisher each earned there way to the position they are now in and are humble for it.  Struggling in their respective racing careers it is ironic that the two would come together on the same team and been so quick right out of the box.
     “This is not supposed to happen this fast,” said Fisher of how quick the team was.  “Speed is susposed to build gradually out of the box but we have been fast right from the start that is a testimony to our team and the knowledge of this place that Ed (Carpenter) brings to our team.”
       While the practice went on the track there were more than 250 classic cars on display today at the Speedway during the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 Celebration of Automobiles. Many of these prestigious machines have awards in Concours d'Elegance competition at such venues as Pebble Beach and Amelia Island.
     The cars participating in the Celebration were divided into two divisions, one a general collection and the other presenting for the first time anywhere classic cars produced by the 24 manufacturers that competed in the first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race in 1911.
     A team of judges will reveal its choices for the best of show in several categories tonight at the elegant Condon-Skelly Celebration of Automobiles dinner, where several exquisite trophies will be presented to winning car owners. 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones heads the judging panel, with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford and 1985 "500" winner Danny Sullivan also serving as judges.  I will have a list of winners tomorrow.
      With near perfect weather expected tomorrow expect today’s 669 laps of practice to be exceeded as the 41 entries try to fine tune their cars in preparation for next weekends qualifications for the 95th running of the 500.
     What was significant in that no on-track incidents, spins, tangles, etc were recorded on this first day despite the high number of laps being run.


     The Indianapolis posted their “Dream 33” yesterday and is available on their web-site for all to see.  You, the racing fan by your votes, generated the team and I was amazed at how similar the final results were to mine.
     Foyt, with his 54 year history at the track led the way, and should be no surprise as the speedway continues to honor the man who has said all along, “No body would know who I am or care had it not been for the Indy 500.”
     Since my last 500 note story the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced that Saturday May 28th would be A.J. Foyt Day in addition to final activities leading up to the race including an unprecedented “Worlds’ Largest Autograph Session” that will include all 269 living veterans of the 55.
     In addition Foyt has been named to drive the pace car on race day replacing Donald Trump who withdrew as driver of the pace car citing personal reasons.  It is not necessary to get into the Trump thing again suffice to say that the world wide efforts of over 17,000 race fans succeeded in getting Speedway officials and people of the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors Company to see that a veteran of the 500 is really the person to be at the wheel of the pace car in this the race’s 100th Anniversary.  I had said previously that the Trump choice was suspect and I’m glad it ended it this way.  Foyt, at a press conference on Friday told the media just how humbled and honored he is to be chosen for this honor and that says it all, my friends!

     The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum continues to draw huge crowds to see the collection of 67 Indy 500 race winning cars in their full race colors.  I can’t imagine how many pictures have been taken and will be taken in the days prior to the race.  The cars will be on display until June 3rd when those not owned by the Speedway, will be returned to their owners.
    The list is now complete for the 11 former winning cars that will on the track race day morning to participate in the pre race parade and activities.  The drivers and the cars they are assigned to:  Mario Andretti in the No2/No. 1 Boyle Maserati (1939-40); Kenny Brack in the No. 9 Target G-Force/Oldsmobile (2000); Gil de Ferran in the No. 66 Sunoco McLaren (1972); Parnelli Jones in the No. 32 Marmon Wasp (1911); Arie Luyendyk in the No. 30 Domino’s Pizza Lola/Chevy (1990); Bobby Rahal in the No. 14 Miller (1928);  Johnny Rutherford in the No. 4 Pennzoil Chaparra;/Cosworth (1980); Tom Sneva in the No.9/No.1 Belond Salih/Offenhauser (1957-58); Al Unser Sr. in the No. 82 Lotus/Ford (1965); Al Unser Jr. in the No. 27/No. 3 Blue Crown Spark Plug Diedt/Offenhauser (1947-48) and Bobby Unser in the No. 8 National (1912).  This is one impressive lineup!

     The Speedway is expecting more than 200 pace cars and their replicas to be on display on Pole Day, May 21 in addition to a huge car show featuring muscle, exotic and vintage cars from clubs in and around Indianapolis.  This is also part of the month long celebration of the automobile at Indy

     The Hot Wheels jump ramp is now in place and one and all can see that it will not obstruct any patrons view of the track and race and it is intriguing as to how this jump will actually come off on race day morning.

     Tickets remain for the sale and with all that is going on in and around the track I can not understand why.  This is truly a one in a lifetime experience for any race fan much less a devotee of the 500.