Welcome to Indianapolis: Where six days of practice can stretch out over two weeks of your life. Where sponsorship programs can magically appear "overnight" - and collapse equally quickly. Where careers can be made - and broken at a place called Turn 1. Where exists more than 90 years of history and tradition (and silly rules) - but where something new and different happens every day.
As Mark Knopfler sings, "If it's May, then we're in Indianapolis." So let's recap the first week of practice and qualifying.
Practice Days Tuesday-Friday
Okay, I've gotta get this out of the way right now, before we go any further: Pink Lloyd...
Thank you. Anyone who doesn't know what I'm talking about can just google "Alex Lloyd+Indy 500" or go to the www.samschmidtmotorsports.com Web site.
Tuesday's "Rookie Orientation Practice" was a low-key affair that featured only the six Indy rookies, plus three veterans taking "refreshers."
Paul Tracy wasted no time in getting up to speed; got to 223.089 mph for KV racing, then called it a day to save tires and engine mileage. Scott Sharp's Panther entry was next up in his "refresher," at 221.878.
Robert Doornbos was third overall and fastest rookie at 221.735. Raphael Matos, Alex Tagliani (hard to believe, but he's an Indy "rookie") and Mike Conway finished all four phases of their rookie orientation.
The weather (ALWAYS a topic of conversation at Indy) was just about perfect, mostly sunny and mild. The forecast for the rest of the week, however, was a bit more problematical...
So, naturally, it rained during Wednesday's official "Opening Day." With rain continuing into the afternoon, the rest of the day was cancelled just before 3 p.m. with little accomplished.
For me, the highlight of the day was catching up with Tony Kanaan for the first time since Kansas. Sure enough, as a result of his lost "bet" with Dario, he's already looking a little furry. He also has a "Chia TK" in the AGR garage, courtesy of Dave Furst at Channel 6 (the local ABC affiliate) and the race is on to see who gets fuzzier, faster.
Fortunately, Thursday was a great day for motor racing, and it was time to get down to business as 29 drivers (out of a possible 31) got some track time. As a result, one of the hardest things to track was whether a driver's impressive lap time was a solo result, or whether he had "help" in creating a draft from one or more cars in front of him.
We also had our first crash of the month as Ryan Hunter-Reay - giving an early indication that this would be an extraordinarily "character-building" Indy for him - looped it exiting Turn 2 and bounced off the outside wall. Not a bad crash as Indy shunts go, but surely an indicator that at least one of the Vision cars was in trouble early.
The Pagoda here at IMS has undergone some changes, with an impressive wrap on the outside of the building commemorating the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Speedway.
Meanwhile, outside Turn 2, the former Speedway motel, setting for many a tale that can't be repeated here (just watch the second act of "Winning") was torn down last fall, and has been replaced by a paved parking lot.
On track, something you actually do need to understand are the tire rules for this year: Teams running the entire month get 35 sets for practice, qualifying and race day (and, of that total, AT LEAST 9 sets must be set aside for the 500). Teams on a one-week program get 24 sets. Teams doing ROP get an additional 4 sets, while those doing refreshers get an additional 2 sets.
This is the biggest limiting factor in determining a team's time on the track, as the performance level of this year's tire falls off dramatically after just one heat cycle, regardless of the number of laps. This means that: 1. You could only really determine if a setup change worked on relatively "fresh" tires; and 2. If you're an engineer, every setup change you make better have worked!
While I'm thinking about it, AJ Foyt IV has gone "retro," driving for his family team this year, and sporting the plain "Coyote Orange" helmet just like that worn by his grandfather "back in the day." We would see more unique helmets - and more retro looks - later in the week.
Thursday ended with Marco Andretti quickest at 225.4, but that was definitely a "tow job" (let's see if that makes it all the way to print), followed by Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, as the Penske effort already looks VERY stout this year.
At this point, we had 34 car/driver combinations either announced or expected, although some wouldn't be starting until next week. That's not enough for Brian Barnhart, so I'm sure the "Puppet Master" will make the necessary moves to get one or more driver/car combinations out on track.
For example, Roth Racing is reportedly bringing a ready-to-go car to the track - "all the car needs is an engine" (yeah, RIGHT!). The driver is still TBA, and reportedly as well, the car is available for the right deal with the right driver - and/or for sale.
Meanwhile, in the Hemelgarn garage, the team is already working on Buddy Lazier's second-week entry. To be honest, though, it looks like the car hasn't been touched since last May. Even the pit cart still had 2008 stickers on it.
Which brings us to "Fast Friday," the final day of practice prior to pole qualifying. Doornbos - who had been turning some very impressive lap times to date - probably got a bit too cocky and lost it in 1, giving the outside wall a good pounding. He was okay, but the car was headed back to the NHL shop in suburban Chicago for a rebuild by late afternoon.
THEN Scott Sharp also crashed in Turn 2, causing heavy damage to his Patron car. Sharp lost the car seemingly after exiting Turn 1, then spinning low through Turn 2 before pancaking the wall with the right side of the car, messing it up pretty good, too. But "Sharpie" still has his backup car.
More helmet news: Both Ganassi drivers (Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti) are sporting helmet designs created by young patients from Target House at the St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis. "Dixie" has done this before, but for Dario, it marks the first time he hasn't worn his own "Scot's flag" helmet design since about 1994! Still, it was all for a great cause, and one the Ganassi team has long supported.
Meanwhile, after a strong early start, Tony Kanaan was struggling with his #11 car - and he had no backup, as his other car (driven at St. Pete and Long Beach) was stripped down and shipped out to Aerodyne for repairs when a crack was found in the tub following the Long Beach event.
Back in the garage, the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team was switching to the backup car for Doornbos. This year, teams aren't allowed to touch their backups until they need them, so the crew had to thrash to get the #06T ready. The team made it out for the last 10 minutes of the day and got the car up to the 217s. Now, it was time to go qualify.
Rain overnight gave us a "green" racetrack for pole day. It was also cool, which would be ideal, except for the gusty crosswind blowing west-to-east across the front and back straights.
Oh, and for those coming out just to party and relive the late '70s, George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic took to the Coke Zero Stage on Saturday afternoon. Time to get your P-Funk on...
The morning practice began with a bang, as Doornbos had his second wreck in as many days. This time, however, it appeared something may have broken on his backup machine, as the rear end stepped out big time in the chute between Turns 1 & 2. Robert was (again) unhurt, but this car was also narrowed up considerably, instantly making Doornbos a second-weekend qualifier, as the team was out of available cars.
One thing I haven't mentioned yet is all the new paint schemes here at Indy. In the most dramatic change, the Panther Racing team has "camouflage" livery on Dan Wheldon's car, as well as on Dan's firesuit and the raceday suits for the crew.
Plus, Danica Patrick's car is now black and orange, reflecting Indy sponsor Boost Mobile, while the Citgo car of Milka Duno has a new and nicer paint scheme.
Nelson Philippe's lime-green livery would probably take the "ugly" award, but for Alex "Pink" Lloyd's Her Energy Drink car which is, obviously, hot pink.
And that brings us to "Frankencar." Tony Kanaan had not been happy with his number 11, struggling to find that last mile an hour or so without the help of a tow. But without a backup, the Andretti Green Racing team put him into a car numbered 11T, one that was actually Hideki Mutoh's backup #27T but with the front wings, nose, airbox, and rear wing. So, you had the Formula Dream graphics package in the center, clashing (quite heavily) with TK's 7-Eleven graphics on either end.
As qualifying got underway, all of the "Big Dogs" went out and laid down initial runs (drivers are allowed three each day, remember). Ryan Briscoe went out around 12:37 p.m. and put his car on the provisional pole, displacing teammate Will Power. But there would be more to come.
After a disappointing first run of 221.272 mph, Ed Carpenter did one of the most honest interviews we have heard in a long time. He said he felt like he should just go home and come back on Sunday, because he didn't know where the Vision Racing team would find the speed to qualify in the top 11 on Pole Day.
Around 2:40 p.m., Dario made a run at the pole. He turned a four-lap average of 224.010 mph, which put him in the middle of the front row, just a tick slower than Ryan Briscoe's 224.131, and the team began to debate whether another run was in order.
Scott Dixon also made a run, putting his car fourth on the grid for the moment. Then, TK has put "Frankencar" in the show (at least at that point with a 222.742 mph lap. That made him 8th, middle of Row Three - until he went to post-qualifying tech and the car came up one pound (yes, 16 ounces) too light. DQ'd for now.
During open practice in the afternoon, Wheldon got caught out by the Turn 2 crosswind, spun and ever-so-lightly backed it into the outside wall - just the left rear wheel and rear wing were toast.
A short time later, it was rookie Nelson Philippe's turn. He came through Turn 1 looking okay, but then the car wiggled, "caught" traction and - since he was already loose - the locked diff turned him right, and into the fence nose-first, then with the right side. Once again, the driver was fine, but the car would need significant repairs.
Around 4 p.m., it came time for two groups to get busy - the Penske and Ganassi boys (reaching for the pole), along with another half-dozen or so seeking to attain "Top 11" first-day qualifying status.
Helio Castroneves was first, withdrawing his initial run and laying down a VERY impressive 224.854 mph average. As it turned out, that was more than enough.
Kanaan brought Frankencar out again just before 5 p.m. and put in a run of 223.612 - safe for the top 11 but no pole (or even front row) threat. Paul Tracy, Hideki Mutoh and Mario Moraes all made multiple runs. Graham Rahal posted a very solid 223.954 to sit on the inside of the second row, while Dixon gave the pole another shot but ended up on Row 2, as well.
Briscoe made another run but remained second, while Franchitti landed on the outside of the front row at 224.010. In the final minutes, Alex Lloyd landed the 11th and final spot for the day, bumping out Mutoh. The last attempt came from Justin Wilson, but the Coyne driver came up short and Pole Day was over.
Qualifying Day 2
Sunday was sunny, but definitely cooler than Pole Day. The 8 a.m. "Front Row Photo Shoot" had two highlights: Helio convincing the assembled photographers to serenade him with "Happy Birthday" (and yes, it really was his birthday). Previously, I never realized that a group of adults this large could sing both off-key AND flat.
Then there was the moment when Helio got to pose with the obligatory "Big Check" pole award and someone shouted out, "Did you pay taxes on that?"
At least he could laugh about it - now.
The question of the day was seeing who would round out positions 11-22. Mutoh, Matos and Tracy were pretty safe bets, but after that...
Before that came the biggest crash of the month, as Mike Conway lost the rear of his Dreyer and Reinbold car shortly after turn-in and backed HARD into the Turn 1 wall. The car then turned and made secondary contact at the right front. Conway was removed from his car on a backboard, and later in the day was admitted to Methodist Hospital with a concussion and bruised lung.
Just a few minutes later, Alex Tagliani likewise made heavy contact in Turn 1, smacking the wall with the back end and then swinging around to clout it with the front. The team would have to rob parts off its other car to fix this one.
A rare mechanical error on the part of Team Penske also threw a scare our way during practice, when an oil-return line fell off Castroneves' backup car, presumably after a crewmember failed to tighten it while switching the engine from the primary.
As a result, Helio spewed oil and smoke all the way up the front straight before coming to a stop exiting Turn 2. The engine lived, but he still got a new one (and an invoice...) as a precaution.
In qualifying, we reached our limit of 11 for the day (making 22 overall) pretty quickly, then the fun began, as the last few members in the field - and the quickest few on the outside looking in - started jockeying for position.
For example, Paul Tracy withdrew his previous run and picked up over a half -mile an hour to reach a safe number of 223.111 mph. After failing tech with a too-wide rear suspension, Vitor Meira re-qualified with an average of 223.054, bumping AJ Foyt IV's 220.355-mph average.
The pressure was on, as anyone capable of running 218 or more tried to get into the show, in anticipation of working on race setup during the following week's practice sessions. Drivers that were struggling - Barrett, Hunter-Reay, Milka, John Andretti - were making bunches of changes and then trying them out on track.
We'd already had two crashes, and now, John Andretti made it three, also losing it in Turn 1 and crashing heavily. On his own race-setup run, Graham Rahal pinched his car down low and JUST BARELY missed Andretti's shredding car. Rahal flattened his own rear tire after locking up, but missed both Andretti and the wall. Some days it's better to be lucky than good...
But that marked two big crashes in one day for Dreyer & Reinbold, a team that - as of then - had only one of its four cars (Davey Hamilton) safely in the field. Up in the Versus TV booth, team co-owner Robbie Buhl was dying the "death of a thousand cuts."
Scott Sharp went out to qualify after the cleanup from Andretti's accident was complete and - adding insult to injury - bumped Andretti from the field with an average of 221.333, but that time left himself "on the bubble."
AJ Foyt IV went out about 30 minutes later and found lots of speed, qualifying at 222.586 mph and bumping Sharp, who was scheduled to run for the Highcroft Acura team in the ensuing weekend's American Le Mans Series event at Miller Motorsports Park and NEEDED to get in the show on the opening weekend.
With the 6 p.m. gun now rapidly approaching, Ryan Hunter-Reay was next up and waved off after three laps when it became apparent his average was not going to be good enough. Then, Alex Tagliani waved off after a lap at 218.
Finally, Sharp was barely able to start his third and final qualifying run, just prior to the gun. Sharp put together laps at 222.165, 222.245, 222.127, and 222.111 to for an average of 222.162 mph to claim a spot in the field.
So, we had two-thirds of the field settled, and the table was set for what was expected to be an interesting final weekend of qualifying.