INDIANAPOLIS -- Indy Racing League officials hope slower
cars will improve safety at this year's Indianapolis 500.
They've accomplished the first part of their goal.
Speeds were down drastically from a year ago at Sunday's opening
practice for the race, and they were even slower than in open
testing less than two weeks ago. There were no crashes.
Until the final hour Sunday, only one driver, Dan Wheldon,
topped 218 mph. Four drivers beat that speed in the final 60
minutes, but only two -- Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves -- were
faster than 219.
Drivers believe things could change significantly when
qualifying begins Saturday.
"I believe there will be many factors to improve the speed and
everybody's going to test the whole week long what they think is
right the decision," Castroneves said. "I do think it will be
five mph, at least, faster."
Part of the reason for Sunday's slowdown was by design. Smaller
engines and a new aerodynamic package will be used for the first
time in the race on May 30.
IRL officials reduced the size of the engine from 3.5 liters to
3.0 in an effort to drop speeds by about 10 mph. They thought that
would make it safer after two horrific crashes late last year.
Kenny Brack, the 1999 Indy winner, broke his right leg, sternum,
back and both ankles in a crash at Texas in October. He's still
recuperating and is out of this year's race. Less than two weeks
later, Tony Renna was killed while testing for Target Chip Ganassi
at the 2½-mile oval in Indianapolis.
The other issue was weather. It was a sunny, hot, windy day in
Indianapolis, hardly ideal for fast speeds -- and the results were
Only five drivers topped 218, and of the 33 cars on the track,
only 12 were over 217 -- nearly 15 mph slower than last year's
"They never are at Indy," Wheldon said of the conditions.
"It's a different place. That's why it's important to have balance
and never let the track frustrate you."
About the only frustration Wheldon had Sunday was not finishing
among the day's three fastest cars. He was easily the best in early
practice when he clocked a 218.007 mph. When shade began covering
the front straight, the speeds increased, but Wheldon was already
finished for the day.
New Zealand's Dixon, last year's IRL points champ, took
advantage. He turned a 219.760 lap in his No. 1 car to give
Ganassi's team the best lap of the day. Castroneves, a two-time
Indy 500 champ from Brazil and last year's pole winner at 231.725,
was second at 219.752.
"Toyota's making great gains with their engine, but it doesn't
really mean anything till Saturday," Dixon said.
Mexico's Adrian Fernandez, back at Indianapolis for the first
time since 1995 after moving to the IRL from Champ Car, was third
at 218.342. Panther Racing's Tomas Scheckter, a South African, was
fourth at 218.308.
Sam Hornish Jr., the fastest driver in both days of open
testing, was sick and did not drive Sunday. The fastest American
was rookie Ed Carpenter, who was seventh at 217.405. Carpenter is
the stepson of IRL founder Tony George.
Some teams, though, acknowledged they were playing it safe
"We'll see as we get closer to qualifying day," Castroneves
said. "We have to be patient and wait for the right time."
Drivers still expect speeds to climb steadily as teams tinker
with engines to find the proper qualifying setups and more power.
During the two-day open test, April 28-29, the speeds increased
each day from a closed test in early April.
The average of four qualifying laps is used to determine the
11-row, 33-car starting grid. Pole Day is the first of three
So what will it take to get the inside of Row 1?
"I'm still thinking it's going to be 225, because I think the
track probably will pick up a couple miles per hour from today,"
Dixon said. "I think it will be 224 or 225."