Twenty-two Indy Racing League IndyCar Series combatants took their first practice steps of the season today in preparation for the tenth-anniversary season, which kicks off Sunday with the Toyota Indy 300 on Homestead-Miami Speedway's 1.5-mile oval.
With mid-afternoon sunshine and windy conditions prevailing, last season's polesitter here, Buddy Rice took the fastest speed of the day in his #15 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda/Firestone racer at 213.514mph, about four miles per hour slower than his speed the year before with a 3.5-liter engine.
Rice, winner of the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race realized his speed is "faster than what we'll qualify at" as the cars ran in packs to get re- accustomed to the standard mode of IRL pack-em-up competition. "I don't think it's an indication of what we can expect for qualifying but my car's awfully good."
Quickest in the first combined practice before an engine problem ended his day, Bryan Herta's #7 XM Satellite Radio Dallara/Honda was second best for the day with a tour of 213.148mph on his 19th of 21 total laps.
Tomas Scheckter looked like a man driving for his job much of the afternoon and his 25th of 42 laps in the #4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Chevrolet bore that out with a speed of 213.025mph, good for third for the day and second in the late practice.
Scheckter admitted he feels "very comfortable with the team and on a good working basis with our engineers. I'm very calm and our setup is clear. We made very few changes to the car."
Vitor Meira clocked in fourth for the day with his #17 Menards/Johns Manville Panoz/Honda at 212.532mph, giving Rahal Letterman Racing two of three cars in the top four.
Scott Dixon, quiet in the pre-season spoke loudly with the #9 Team Target Panoz/Toyota today to give all three engine manufacturers space in the top six. His afternoon lap of 212.194mph on his 30th of 41 tours gave the Kiwi a fresh outlook for tomorrow's qualifying session.
Helio Castroneves was near the top of the second practice until its close and his 17th of 51 laps in the #3 Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota stood for seventh overall. Dario Franchitti earned eighth for the day with the #27 ArcaEx Dallara/Honda by posting 212.131mph on his 14th of only 19 laps this afternoon.
Ninth and tenth for the day went to the two Fernandez teammates, with Super Aguri Fernandez Racing's #55 Panasonic/ARTA Panoz/Honda taking the nod in the second session at 212.040mph over the #8 Delphi Panoz/Honda of Scott Sharp, tenth at 212.002mph.
The entire 22-car pack ran in tight groups when the track was green; there were stoppages for debris, inspections and to clean the track when Herta's Honda let loose. Some worked on qualifying, others like Scheckter used the afternoon to run quickly with full tanks in preparation for the race.
Scheckter, playing the diplomatic when asked about the veracity of five newcomers remarked he might be a little concerned about their abilities: "They don't understand 'oval etiquette" yet, the South African said.
Of the first-timers, Scheckter's teammate Tomas Enge was 11th with the #2 ROCKSTAR Dallara/Chevrolet; Ryan Briscoe earned 16th in the #33 Team Target Panoz/Toyota; Danica Patrick was 18th with her #16 Argent Mortgage/Pioneer Panoz/Honda; Patrick Carpentier turned the 19th best lap in the #83 Red Bull Cheever Racing Dallara/Toyota while Paul Dana was 22nd and last in his first run of the #91 Ethanol/Hemelgarn Dallara/Toyota.
There were only 1458 laps turned today by the Indy cars and two drivers did not take part in the afternoon session: A.J. Foyt IV sat down the #14 Dallara/Toyota after being 20th in the morning and Herta, whose crew was busy replacing engines in the short period between the two sessions.
There will be a bisected morning practice for the Indy cars from 9:20 to 10:20 tomorrow morning (half an hour for each group) and then the first single-car qualifying session for the 17-race season commences at 11:45AM EST.
The Toyota Indy 300 takes the green flags at 2:15PM EST Sunday and will be broadcast live by ESPN.