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One-day test at Indianapolis gets the juices flowing – it’s Indy 500 time again

Norris McDonald
Written by Norris McDonald

It’s time for all of us to start getting excited about the Indianapolis 500.

No more complaining about the nearly non-existent Canadian TV contract. No more bitching about the focus on Fernando Alonso, who was news the first time he went to Indy but not now (I know . . . I can’t help myself). No more anything.

Now we can focus on the most important race of the year in any series or championship. It’s not what it once was in the Sixties and Seventies, when 70 or so cars would show up and almost as many drivers. But what is still the same? I don’t think comedy on TV is as funny as it once was. I miss all those old variety shows, like Ed Sullivan, where you could see the Beatles, a Metropolitan Opera diva and a juggler all on the same program. I miss stubbies. I miss being able to smoke du Mauriers and buying a gas guzzler without being branded. I miss seeing the Maple Leafs get past the first round.

But racing, which I adore, is faster and safer than it ever was. It’s still dangerous but sanctioning bodies continue working to make it safer. NASCAR has been the most successful, followed by Formula One. Cross fingers that IndyCar’s “forward protection device” will work until the next generation of cars can include a halo or halo-type device.

Meantime, what got me going on Indy was the test conducted at the Speedway Wednesday. I called up the IndyCar website around 1 p.m. for a look-see but they were in a rain delay (hey, it’s springtime in Indianapolis and, trust me, it rains in springtime in Indianapolis). But they’d been going before and got going later, although I didn’t see any of the on-track stuff because I had work to do.

Thanks to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the crack IndyCar communications team for sending along a bunchy of releases about the day. Here, verbatim, is the text of one of those reports:

Wednesday’s NTT IndyCar Series open test on the world-famous 2.5-mile oval permitted 29 drivers to get comfortable in their machines, go through team test checklists and provide rookies and veterans who’ve been out of the cockpit a while the chance to pass evaluations that clear them to run at full tilt when practice for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge begins in 20 days.

The 103rd running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is just 32 days away on Sunday, May 26.

INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY OPEN TEST: Veterans session results I Rookie orientation/refresher results

Despite limited track time due to periodic rain showers, much was accomplished. Takuma Sato turned the best lap of the day at 226.993 mph in the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, with Ed Carpenter just behind at 226.414 in the No. 20 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet. Those speeds were logged during a session open to 20 veteran drivers who have raced this season.

“The program was interrupted and stopped a few times,” Sato, the 2017 Indy 500 winner, said of the rain that halted action twice and eventually put an end to the day with a third shower. “Having said that, today is meant to shake down the car, just check all the functions OK, feel it out. From that point of view, I think it was a very smooth day.”

Carpenter, the only current team owner/driver in the NTT IndyCar Series, won the Indy 500 pole position a year ago and finished a career-best second. He, too, was satisfied despite the disjointed day.

“It was a little odd, but all in all, it was good,” Carpenter said. “We got a decent amount of stuff done, not everything we wanted to do – just with the pauses and intermissions. At the end of the day, I think we ran more than what I thought we were going to the first time it started raining. It kind of sets us up for a decent starting place for when we come back for the full week of practice.”

“It’s still good to get that physical gratification and confidence back that things are looking all right.”

James Hinchcliffe of Oakville was 15th fastest on the day, turning a top speed of just under 223 mph.

The day’s second session was reserved for Indy 500 rookie drivers and veterans (including, if you can believe it, Helio Castroneves, who’s only won the Indy 500 four times . . .), who haven’t competed in an NTT IndyCar Series event since 2018. Colton Herta was among the four first-timers who completed all three phases of the rookie orientation, turning the best lap of the session and fourth-best of the day at 226.108 mph in the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda.

“It was pretty cool,” said Herta, who became the youngest winner in Indy car history a month ago at Circuit of The Americas and won the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race last year on the IMS oval. “The first few laps was the same speed as an Indy Lights car, so it wasn’t too impressive. But once they kind of let me run at 215-plus on the third stage, it was pretty awesome.

“Definitely a dream of mine for a long time to be able to run an Indy car here. Even though it’s just testing, it’s still really sentimental.”

J.R. Hildebrand, the 31-year-old racer from Boulder, Colo., who is seen in both photographs accompanying this column, quickly jumped to the 216 miles per hour mark in his first 15 circuits as he learned about the new asphalt sealer that was placed on the track surface during the winter. Unfortunately, a small glitch was discovered in the middle of the testing and J.R. was forced to the pit area for repairs. Later, Hildebrand clocked consistent laps over 220 m.p.h. as the final part of the refresher program.

“It feels good to get in the groove with the car and the crew,” said Hildebrand, who is running No. 48 in tribute to the late Dan Gurney. “Once you’re out there and getting through all of the refresher laps, things just get back to normal at Indy for you.”

Two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso returned to IMS for the first time since his attention-grabbing effort in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, when he led 27 laps and was named rookie of the year. The Spaniard’s progress was delayed Wednesday by an electrical issue on the installation lap in his No. 66 McLaren Chevrolet and he was unable to complete both phases of the refresher session.

“It’s good to be back, to feel again the magic of the place,” Alonso said.

He added that the car issue wasn’t a complete surprise since it was the first time on track with the Dallara chassis prepared at the McLaren Technology Centre in England, with the finishing touches placed on it a week ago.

“For us, obviously, we lost a little bit of time at the beginning,” he said. “This was more or less expected because, as I said, it was a brand new chassis, brand new car. Everything fit in the last week. We expect to run slowly, step by step, short runs at the beginning. It’s what we did.

“If we could probably have (run) the (install) laps at midday, maybe you discover these issues, then you have hours to work on the car, be ready for the afternoon. The weather delays everything. You do the lap at 5:30 p.m. and there is no room to get back on track on time.”

Andretti Autosport’s Conor Daly was the only one to complete the veteran refresher. Alonso needs to turn 10 more laps at 215-plus mph, three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves three laps at 215-plus, JR Hildebrand two laps and Oriol Servia eight laps. All four will be permitted to do so on the opening day of Indy 500 practice on Tuesday, May 14.

Rain interrupted the open test just 11 minutes into the day. Following a four-hour delay, veterans received about 95 minutes of track time until a light rain returned. Following an hour delay, the rookies and veteran refresher drivers had about 90 minutes until the moisture made an appearance once more and ended the day about 7:30 p.m. ET.

The IMS focus shifts now to action on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course for the IndyCar Grand Prix of Indianapo;os. Practice and qualifying take place Friday, May 10. The sixth annual race airs live at 3 p.m. ET Saturday, May 11 on NBC (Channel 2, Buffalo in the Toronto area) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

The 103rd Indianapolis 500 takes place Sunday, May 26 and airs live at 11 a.m. ET on NBC and Sportsnet and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.