A blue-sky Daytona day and the bittersweet smell of warm corn syrup welcomed the Indy Racing League as nine teams and seventeen drivers took to the Daytona International Speedway roadcourse for the first official testing of the 2007 IndyCar Series season on Wednesday.
Andretti/Green Racing's veteran speedster Tony Kanaan topped the day's timesheets with a fastest lap recorded on his fiftieth and final full circuit of the track Wednesday and immediately prior to the unfurling of the checkered flag on the four-hour afternoon practice.
"It is a good first day for the Team 7-Eleven crew. We were not really too worried about where we were going to finish but obviously when you finish at the top, like we did today, it makes you feel good. It sure says a lot for all the work the guys did in the off-season," commented Kanaan. "I have to brag a little bit because I only have a few hours left and by tomorrow everyone will forget who was first today. Honestly, it is good for the boys who worked all winter long trying to catch up."
Kanaan turned a lap at 135.549 mph in 1:12.2393 seconds to close out the day and edge fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves of Team Penske by slightly over one tenth of a second (1:12.3653 and 135.313 mph). Third-fastest came Target Chip Ganassi's Dan Wheldon, also over 135 miles per hour at 1:12.4121 seconds (135.226 mph).
"We make plans all winter, and we do tests in wind tunnels and the shaker rigs and we try simulations in the computer. We put this stuff together and pick the best out of everything then come here to prove it," said Kanaan. "We try to accomplish from testing the things that need to come together for us to win."
"It's always great to be back in the IndyCar. It sucks to be out of it over the winter," added Wheldon. "We'll certainly be very strong this year and I want to come out and win on a road course. It's difficult here but it attracts a lot of attention and media.and fans! That's what we love to do.entertain the fans."
Dario Franchitti returned for his tenth open-wheel season behind the wheel of an Andretti/Green racecar with a fourth-fastest 135.134 mph, followed by possibly the day's biggest timing and scoring surprise: defending Indy Racing League champion and 2006 Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish running a strong 135.056 mph and the last of the top finishers to break 135 mph on the day. Hornish took the bit in his teeth with purpose today, circulating eighty-one total laps for the combined practice sessions, and bested only by Panther Racing's Vitor Meira (83 laps) on the day.
"It's a big change jumping from the (Rolex 24 Hours) Daytona prototype car to the IndyCar," he said. "It took a few laps to get comfortable with the car. It's good to get the rhythm back, especially on the road course. The track has high speed, low speed, a few bumps.a little bit of everything. It has very hard braking and turning. It's a real challenge. We need to make sure we learn a lot and do a lot of laps here."
Temperatures during the day-long open test remained in the upper fifties and low to mid-sixties with a mild breeze blowing across the track, a far cry from the sub-arctic readings back north in the Midwestern home of many of the teams participating this week.
Teams concentrated on both road and super-speedway setups for most of the day, interchanging wings and wickerbails for an early look at the new Honda V-8 powered open wheel cars' speed and handling. The modified Daytona circuit features a ten-turn combination of high-banked oval and left and right-hand turns similar to those the teams will encounter over the seventeen-race IndyCar Series season.
Daytona's beautiful family-friendly Fan Zone drew observers from the general public throughout the day. For many of them it was their first experience watching the IndyCar Series machines.
"They're absolutely beautiful," said Herb Loewen of Vancouver, British Columbia as he watched from inside the track while Danica Patrick and Vitor Meira pushed their cars through the gears and onto their rev limiters. "Just hearing the power under them, the sound of them.that's the exhilarating part."
"Great, just great. The speed is deceiving," added his friend Dave Quintal, also of Vancouver.
The only incident of the day involved Castroneves who broke the right front suspension of his car with a bump of the inside of Daytona's turn four. The team quickly repaired the car in the huge Daytona complex's "Busch Garages" and he returned to the track at better speed than he enjoyed prior to the accident.
In related news, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chief Executive Officer Tony George was named as one of four co-chairs of the organization that is working to bring Super Bowl XLV to Indianapolis in 2011. The American Football Champion Indianapolis Colts kick off against the Chicago Bears on Sunday as the National Football League season draws to a close with Mr. George and Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and Governor Mitch Daniels in attendance.
The Open Test continues on Thursday at 10AM with more development work planned for the IndyCar teams. Also on the come is a possible "simulated sprint race" in the closing hours of the session that drew approval last week from Panther's Meira and TCGR's Mike Hull as a means of putting on a good show for the faithful and shaking off the winter doldrums with a good, potent dose of speed.