INDIANAPOLIS, April 18, 2003 - The Infiniti Pro Series had its first open test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway today, postponed from Thursday due to showers that came and went throughout the day.
Sixteen drivers (using 18 cars) took laps around the famed 2.5-mile oval in preparation for their debut May 17th in the Freedom 100 race, round three in the 12-race 2003 campaign. While it rained on Thursday, that didn't deter teams from working on setups for their cars.
The wet stuff also didn't stop Infiniti Pro Series mentor/teacher Rick Mears from showing these novices the right way around the track he knows so well, having won the Indianapolis 500 four times. Mears gave the boys van rides around the circuit, but this was not one of those tour-driven bus rides which the Brickyard offers to the public.
No, Mears chauffeured them around the track at 90mph - in the wet - with one hand on the wheel and the other pointing out nuances the drivers might need to add to their mental notepads. Were they impressed? The bobbing heads all said an emphatic "yes". Mears "had to run hard enough to show guys the right and wrong places to put their cars on this track. They have to feel what loading the car causes it to do."
Come Friday morning, Mears and series guru Roger Bailey decided to go conservative with setups for their wards, adding one inch of wicker to the rear wing to add downforce. They removed that artificial doorstop for the afternoon session.
That way, drivers could become acclimated to this big track without getting in trouble, something all accomplished, as the only caution periods - from nine in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon - were for track inspections. There were no harms, no fouls among the Infiniti Pro Series set.
There were some problems. Arie Luyendyk Jr. was first to get back into street clothes, the Infiniti engine in his #5 Sinden Racing-prepped Dallara suffering oiling problems, filling the catch tank and forcing engineers to request an engine change. As it was, Arie found the track "fun. The corners are so different. We've been working by ourselves looking for a good qualifying setup, rather than drafting everyone."
Luyendyk has been "coming here for a long time but I've never spent the whole month in Indy. This should be fun!" he noted. Of course, he was disappointed to be off the pace. Arie Jr. got slower and slower until the folks at Menard Cheever Technologies (MCT) told him to park it for a power swap. In the morning session, Arie Jr. was 13th overall; turning 11 laps in the afternoon when 18 cars were on-circuit, he was 12th.
Mears was trying to keep the Infiniti Pro Series drivers from drafting in the morning so they could learn the circuit, getting on the radio to remind them to spread out as they clocked off the laps. "I wanted to space them out for the first part of the test so they didn't have too much turbulence," Mears explained. "They need to learn the track and know where they are on it. Drafting gives a false read for the most part, but I think they've done a very good job so far."
Listening to those warnings, Jeff Simmons, who has been plenty quick in the first two races but has yet to mount the podium, turned the quickest lap of the morning in his #20 Western Union car.
"He's been able to run high or low since this morning," a Duesenberg Racing crewmember alluded. "He's been that way out of the box." Simmons, a former Barber Dodge champion (twice) had his own views.
When asked what he thought of the track, now that he's had a chance to drive it in anger Simmons said, "It looks like an in-car camera on TV! I'm learning what the wind changes do to the car and all of the improvements we've made over the last few hours have helped us. We've been flat all day, really, but the most important thing I'm learning is that I have to be smooth. I have to find the line the car wants to run."
Most of the drivers were in awe of the Brickyard race track. Brazilian Thiago Medeiros has seen this place on TV and watched his countrymen attack it. With the extra inch of wicker in the rear wing, Medeiros could "feel a lot of downforce and nothing else. I think the draft can help you here and I believe our Freedom 100 race will be fun and competitive. We should be three-wide and side-by-side all the time. This race will be very interesting," he intimated. He brought his #36 car home 3rd in the morning and 5th in the afternoon.
"I love it; it's awesome," said a wide-eyed Matt Beardsley after his first morning at Indy. "It's a challenge to get the car freed up enough to go flat in the corners. The extra inch of wicker slows us but tightens the field." On the long straights, Beardsley admitted that he "takes a deep breath." Running a Dallara prepared by Billy Boat, Beardsley has the advantage of eyes and ears on pit road with a depth of experience.
Tom Wood, from the Sam Schmidt Motorsports stables in a Super 8 Motel sponsored car found the Speedway, "Great. This is lots of fun. It's everything they said it would be. The biggest challenge is getting used to the optical illusions around this large track. It plays with you a bit." Learning the nuances of the 2.5-mile oval, "I'm trying hard not to get into drafting contests but when the race comes, it's [the draft] gonna be big."
Schmidt's advice was to "get flat around here and mind the wind socks" on both straights. The track "looks flatter on TV and there's more banking than I thought," Wood said. "It looks like a tunnel into turn one."
Although he's been coming here since he was a kid, this is the first time Ed Carpenter's been able to get out onto the Brickyard circuit and let fly with his competitors. "I'm glad we have this day to test. It's a good opportunity to shake down the car. This is a big place with four very different corners so we're focused on that" with his A.J. Foyt Racing #14 Delphi car. "The car was very stable without the wicker and I'm glad we got rid of it this afternoon," Carpenter said. "We're not here to put up big numbers."
Driving his #6 Sam Schmidt Motorsports Dallara for the first time - and coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time awed Italian Marco Cioci, who had more trouble expressing his thoughts in English than he did driving the Speedway. "This is my first day. I've never driven an oval and never this car. For a driver, it is very exciting to be here. This place is so big, so legendary. When you drive here, you become a man," the 27-year-old Euro F3000 veteran said.
If you succeed here, Cioci noted, you become "something special, like Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve. Everywhere you must be focused and corner one, for sure, is the more pressure corner. The draft will be key to winning this race," he said. By the afternoon, he had a handle on the place, to the tune of being quickest overall; 10th in the morning practice.
This track is "fun," according to Aaron Fike, learning a thing or two from teammate Cory Witherill, who has experienced the thrill of driving in the Indianapolis 500. The duo from Hemelgarn Racing spent much of their morning drafting together.
"It's exhilarating to be here for the first time," Fike exhaled. "These cars are comfortable to run and you can get to speed pretty quick. I think the biggest challenge is turn one, because it's sharper than the others." Fike was a consistent 6th in the morning and afternoon sessions.
"Nobody wants to draft with me," wailed Mark Taylor after morning practice. "My first impression of Indy is that it's a special circuit. I didn't realize what kind of place it was and the straights are so long it's like driving on the motorway. It sometimes feels so slow you can get too confident."
His competitors are "not friendly so I rode alone and learned my car and the track. There's no sense in racing today," said Taylor, who has won both of the Infiniti Pro Series races held to date. He ran 2nd in the morning, and 4th in the afternoon.
Driving the #24 Ethanol Dallara, Paul Dana said it felt "really good to come out of turn four and see the grandstands and the Pagoda out there. We're flat in all four corners and we're trying to trim the car out. We might be turning 193mph in turns 1 and 3, but that's still 40mph less than the Indy cars. To drive this place, we'll have to be as smooth as possible and free the car up a lot." Dana practiced 8th in the morning and moved one spot up in the afternoon.
Most drivers agreed that the 100-mile, 40-lap race on May 17th will be a drafting duel. What they don't know yet is where they'll sit on the grid once the time comes to qualify for the Freedom 100. The anticipation is palpitating.