IRL: De Ferran tops Nazareth Friday practice

Nazareth, PA, April 19 - The Indy Racing League made its Pennsylvania debut this weekend as 24 cars took to the track practicing for Sunday's Firestone Indy 225 at Nazareth Speedway. While this is the first time Indianapolis cars have run in ...

Nazareth, PA, April 19 - The Indy Racing League made its Pennsylvania debut this weekend as 24 cars took to the track practicing for Sunday's Firestone Indy 225 at Nazareth Speedway. While this is the first time Indianapolis cars have run in Pennsylvania under the IRL banner, they are no strangers to the Keystone State. They have been here before under AAA, USAC and CART sanction at venues that include Nazareth, Williams Grove, Langhorne, Altoona and Pocono.

Another Pennsylvania tradition is changing weather. Much of the day was hot and clear, but on-track activities were interrupted by a brief rain shower and curtailed at the end of the day by a second storm. Distance is also somewhat variable here. The speedway is currently a mile long, but a distance of .934 mile is used for calculating speeds. In an earlier configuration, the track was 1 1/8 mile dirt.

Gil de Ferran, who has competed here seven times before under the CART banner, with a victory in 2000, topped today's speed charts at 19.8457 seconds, 169.512 mph. His fast time came in the morning session, when the team was working on qualifying setup. "We were able to confirm a lot of the things we learned when we tested here," Gil said. "This afternoon, we ran our race setup with heavier fuel loads to simulate the conditions we'll experience on Sunday. The impending cooler weather will place a lot more importance on the crew's work because they will have to adapt the setup as conditions change."

Second fastest was Jaques Lazier, at 19.8591 seconds, 169.398 mph. "We were primarily working on our race setup. We went out early on. When we were satisfied with that, we put a little less fuel in the car. We got a good clean run when we posted our quick time. Other than that, we dropped back a little bit." He concurred with Gil about impending cooler and changing weather. "With the warm temperature, we're trying to maximize our mechanical grip. Usually when it cools off the track develops more grip all the way around."

Alex Barron made considerable progress today, moving from eighth fastest in the morning session to third fastest on the day at 19.9725 seconds, 168.436 mph. "This morning we were playing with the car and the setup. We had a good test here a few weeks ago and that helped. We tried a few things this morning but we went back to what we tried at the test. I have a lot of confidence here; having raced here before gives me a lot of confidence."

Alex is also aware of changing weather. "It could snow here tomorrow; the temps can change fast."

Helio Castroneves, de Ferran's teammate, was fourth fastest at 19.9897 seconds, 168.361 mph. "The track is different than it was during the open test when the temperatures were much cooler. Today we focused on race setup. Our biggest challenge was getting the Marlboro car to handle well. The team made changes throughout the sessions and we were able to improve our time from the morning to afternoon."

The top five was rounded out by rookie Tomas Scheckter, who continues to be a fast learner and a fast driver, at 19.9897 seconds, 168.291 mph. "It's a whole new circuit for me," Tomas observed. "It's a tough situation since our testing was canceled because of the weather. I am just learning as much as possible today." New to ovals, he finds the Nazareth "roval" to be unique. "It's completely different from any oval I have driven. The elevation changes, you're going into a corner going down and then back up again. It's a good circuit."

Sarah Fisher was back behind the wheel today, substituting for Robbie Buhl who is sitting out this event to let his head injury fully heal. "The car will go anywhere I point it to go," Sarah said after practice. "It's a great feeling. We're shooting for the little things now. The car is extremely consistent, which makes it easy for me to be out for seven months and still jump in and go fast." Sarah was 17th fastest today, at 20.4162 seconds, 164.776 mph.

The morning practice was interrupted when John de Vries made light contact with the Turn 4 wall. "I came out of Turn 3 and got out of the throttle a bit quicker than I wanted to and the rear end got loose. It definitely hurts us since I'm one of the drivers who has never tested at this track. The team definitely has its work cut out for them trying to get us ready for the race." John was checked and released at the infield care center, and has been cleared to drive.

In a potentially more serious incident, Robert Perez, Scott Sharp's chief mechanic, received first and second degree burns when a fire erupted as he was pumping fuel from the race car near the Kelley team's transporter. Mark Sampson, also a Kelley mechanic, received minor burns on his right hand during the incident. Both were treated and released from the infield care center.

IRL qualifying takes place at 11:30 AM EDT tomorrow morning.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Tomas Scheckter , Sarah Fisher , Robbie Buhl , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , Gil de Ferran , Jaques Lazier  , Alex Barron , John de Vries
Teams Williams