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BPS File Photo from 2009
BPS File Photo from 2009
May 20th 2011 - SPEEDS ESCALATE AS PRACTICE CONTINUES FOR THE INDY 500,
CASTRONEVES LEADS WAY INTO SATURDAY QUALIFYING

By:  Mark W. Theisen

     INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA May 20, 2011:   Rain was the watch word this week as practice continued for the 100th Anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500 and the amount of time lost to the elements played havoc with not only the new teams attempting to qualify for the race but also the established teams as well.
     Day 2 Sunday was to have been a day that intermittent showers would interrupt the program but not curtail it however at noon when the practice was set to begin a light shower began falling and the start was delayed.  By 1:08 P.M. the showers turned to a steady rain and the weather front closed in on the area causing officials to cancel the rest of the day without a lap being completed.  The complete washout was just the third time in the last four years that an entire practice day was lost.
     Monday, the 16th was a better day and teams took advantage of the dry weather to try and catch up and by the end of the day 1379 laps were turned by 39 different cars with Alex Tagliani moving to the top of the speed chart with a quick lap of 225.878.
    Tagliani, whose former team FAZZT Racing was purchased by Sam Schmidt Motorsports in March rewarded his new and amazing owner with a first for his organization, sitting atop the speed chart at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
     Sam Schmidt Motorsports was established in 2001 and is owned by former driver Sam Schmidt, who was paralyzed in 2000 after a testing accident at Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, Florida.  His team has fielded cars in the Firestone Indy Lights series and is a perennial winner but his efforts in the IZOD Indy Car series have not been as bright but this year he has ventured solidly into the series by not only buying FAZZT but also fielding cars for Townsend Bell and Jay Howard.
     To have an entry from Sarah Fisher Racing on Saturday with Ed Carpenter and now a car from Sam Schmidt Racing to lead the veteran teams at the end of a practice day shows just how competitive it has become in the series.
     Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal, Ryan Briscoe and Oriol Servia rounded out the top five on Monday with J.R. Hildebrand continuing his position from Saturday as fastest rookie.
     “It was still not the best of conditions,” said Tagliani following his quick run, but it was our first opportunity so we had to make the best of it.”  Tagliani’s team skipped the opening day and lost yesterday, of course, to the weather.
     It was refreshing to see small underfunded teams mixing it up the established of the series as this day concluded.
    Rains returned as Tuesday dawned and only a handful of laps were completed in and around the rain showers with the track officially closed at 4:09 P.M. with just Marco Andretti and Mike Conway of Andretti Motorsports being on the track and able to get any laps in.  Andretti has a 220.656 while Conway’s 219.910 was more of a shakedown lap before the rains.
     It did not get any better on Wednesday and now the garage area was full of concern.  Light rain in the morning delayed the start of practice and steady rain shut the track down again just after 4:00 P.M. with now 17 hours, 58 minutes of the scheduled 30 of hours of practice time thus far being lost the elements.  The last time two entire days of Indianapolis 500 practice were washed out in one week was in 2006.
     Considering just the few laps turned on Tuesday it has been an exceptionally damp month thus far.
     Thursday dawned overcast but dry and Conway was the first car out at the noon starting time and was followed by a host of cars trying to make up for lost time.
     At 12:25 observers saw sparks from the rear of Simona De Silvestro’s car entering turn three.  The rear of her car then snapped suddenly into the outside retaining wall between turns 3 and 4.  The car jumped again and spun and then rode backwards along the wall making secondary contact with the catch fence at the entrance of turn 4.  The car then caught fire and went airborne landing upside down on the fire apron in turn 4.  The fire crew was on the spot and assisted De Silvestro from the car.  She was able to get out herself but did sustain burns to her hands and was taken to Methodist Hospital for observation.
    The report was second degree burns to here right hand and superficial burns to her left.  Her situation will be evaluated on a daily basis as to her return for qualifying.  The accident, which initianlly look terrible turned out okay due to the strength and durativity built into today’s Indy Car.
     Team Penske, the 15 time winner of the 500, rose to the top today with Will Power ending at the top of the speed chart with a quick lap of 227.778.  His teammates, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves were third and fourth.  Tagliani showed that his Monday effort was not an accident by breaking up the Penske trio with a 227.652 that was good for second.  His Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammate, Bell, was fifth at 226.741.
     The number of teams in the 224 to 227 bracket has signaled a terrific battle for the pole position on Saturday as the top 12 drives in practice on Thursday were faster than the previous speed of the month that Tagliani has on Monday.
     Today dawned warm and sunny and that sent 39 cars on to the track in quest of the speed that will get them into this year’s race and at the end of the day it was Castroneves, the defending pole winner sitting on top as the 39 cars head into tomorrows pole qualifying run and shootout.
     Over 2,000 laps were recorded today without any on track incident as the familiarity with the current Dallara chassis, Honda engine and Firestone tires was clearly evident up and down pit road as 32 of the 39 were separated by less than one second of track speed.
     And that makes tomorrow’s qualifications wide open despite who sits at the head of the class today.
     24 positions will be up for grabs tomorrow from noon until 4:00 P.M. with the top 9 returning at 4:30 P.M. for the “shootout” for the pole.  Those 9 will be guaranteed the top 9 starting spots for the race but the setting could be reversed pending the outcome of the “shootout!”
     Following Castroneves is Tagliani, Scott Dixon, Briscoe, and Bertrand Baguette all over last year’s pole winning speed as is the sixth place Carpenter whose speeds are all over 228 miles per hour.
     The mix of teams is incredible with Dixon coming from Target Ganassi and Baguette from Rahal/ Letterman/ Lanigan Racing in addition to aforementioned Schmidt and Fisher racing teams.
     Power, Bell, Oriol Servia, and Dan Wheldon complete the top 10 with Servia coming from Newman/Haas Racing and Wheldon from Bryan Herta Motorsports.
    Notably absent from the top of the charts are the cars from Andretti yet Ryan Hunter-Reay and Danica Patrick are well within the faster cars.
     What have made this all happen are the current Indy Racing League rules that have been in place since 2003.  The smaller teams have been able to catch up under the current formula that requires the same engine package and chassis configuration for all.  Driver and crew changes have spread the technology up and down the pit road so much so that it has equalized the field and made the battle for the pole wide open.
     This will all change next year when the next chassis arrives as well as additional competition from new engine suppliers and the “aero” packages that will be able at some point in the future so for now enjoy the closeness of competition that his has brought about.
     Weather for tomorrows qualifications is to be sunny and warm to be followed by clouds later in the day with a chance of rain late so if that holds it will be one wild day at the track and that will spill over into Sunday’s “bump” day when the final spots will be filled and then the process of “bumping” the slowest car from the field begins.

NOTES:

The United States Postal Service issued the new Indianapolis 500 postage stamp at a special ceremony at the track today.  The forever stamp honors the 100th Anniversary of the first Indy 500 in 1911 and features the winning Marmon Wasp race car in full speed.  Postal Service dignitaries’ were on hand for the ceremony and after the unveiling the stamp was available in a multitude of ways including “First Day” cancellation of the stamp that is special for collectors.
Special envelopes, cards and panes of stamps were also available to commemorate the occasion and are available on line or through the Indianapolis Post Office.

Nearly 150 of the expected 250 Pace Cars and their replicas were already in the staging area for tomorrows’ honoring of all those cars that paced the 500 since 1911.  In addition to a multitude of Chevrolet Corvettes and Camaros were a host of cars from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s with more expected to arrive overnight.  It will be special day for all those car owners when they are allowed to take their cars onto the track at the conclusion of qualifications’ tomorrow.