IRL: Indy500: Erwin passes ROP easily

Friday the 13th and Good Friday occurring concurrently is enough to make the superstitious stay in bed, but Brandon Erwin paid the calendar no mind and achieved a life-long goal today when he drove an Indy car at the famed Indianapolis Motor ...

Friday the 13th and Good Friday occurring concurrently is enough to make the superstitious stay in bed, but Brandon Erwin paid the calendar no mind and achieved a life-long goal today when he drove an Indy car at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. The day turned out to be a good one indeed for the 26-year-old sprint car driver from Denton, Texas because he passed the four-phase Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) in short order with McCormack Motorsports' Firestone-shod WorldBestBuy.com G-Force Olds Aurora #30.

ROP, required of all rookies entered in next month's 85th annual Indianapolis 500, consists of four segments of 10 laps each under the eyes of Indy Racing Northern Light Series officials, driver coaches Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser, and other veteran observers. They're looking primarily for car control and consistency, with the first phase consisting of 10 laps between 195 and 200 miles per hour; the second phase at 200 to 205 miles per hour; the third phase at 205 to 210 miles per hour and the fourth phase at over 210 miles per hour.

Erwin had the first three phases done before lunch and the entire test completed by 1:05 p.m. Counting regular warm-up laps and a few extra that were needed when he pitted for fuel a few laps from the end of the final phase, he needed only 66 laps around the 2.5-mile speedway to complete the test. Unofficially his top speed was run at an average of 211.612 mph.

"The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a flat racetrack with an incredibly narrow margin for error, and with the sheer number of cars on the track during May, the rookies need time by themselves to get acclimated to the track," said Brian Barnhart, vice president of operations for the Indy Racing League.

"From a safety standpoint, when the rookies are doing phase one and only going 195 to 200 miles per hour, we don't want a veteran coming up behind them going 35 miles per hour faster."

Earlier this week McCormack Motorsports entered Erwin's car and a back-up in the May 27 race, the world's largest single-day sporting event.

One of the first people to congratulate Erwin when he pulled into the pits after completing the final phase was three-time Indy 500 winner, current rookie coach and fellow Texan Johnny Rutherford.

"Nice going! Now you are one!" Rutherford said as he shook Erwin's hand.

"You can keep the star on the helmet, but you can't make it any bigger!" Lone Star J.R. added, referring to the Star of Texas on Erwin's helmet.

"Mine was bigger than that," Rutherford added with another grin.

Team owner Dennis McCormack, one of the most successful team owners with rookie drivers in all of auto racing, was philosophical. "We've got phase one of the month of May done," he said. "That was the easy part. Now we have to qualify.

"Brandon did a good job," he added. "He showed patience, good consistency and a good line. Now we need to work on the speed so we can qualify for the race next month, and we have to get through our next race on the 28th at Atlanta too."

Erwin was relieved to pass the test and to pass it so easily.

"Now that there's no test to pass, we can concentrate on getting smoother and faster so we can make the 500. I feel real good about everything," said Erwin, who won his heat and the sprint car feature March 31 at his home track, Devil's Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas, and got the nickname "The Texas Bulldozer" during his karting days. "Some guys from California gave me that nickname, but it doesn't apply in Indy cars; here it's all patience and smoothness," Erwin noted.

As he was completing phase three Erwin was flat out in turns two, three and four and he was just lifting slightly in turn one. He ran at least three consecutive laps in that phase without varying his speed more than a tenth of a mile per hour.

After an all-American lunch of hamburgers and fries from McDonald's, the McCormack Motorsports team trimmed the car out a little more for the fastest phase of the test. Erwin also altered his line going into the turns a little for phase four, which made him even more comfortable.

"The WorldBestBuy.com car had a push but it was nice and stable," Erwin said. "Changing my line really helped; it was easier there at the end because my line got better. Most of the push was in turn two, and making a later apex into the turn made the car much easier to drive. We had a really conservative set-up, but that's good right now. We made some slight aerodynamic changes over lunch and I could feel the car freeing up. I'm getting the feel of things."

The McCormack Motorsports crew didn't put much fuel in the car for the fourth phase to save weight and thus help Erwin go faster. Erwin said that his concentration wasn't really broken when he ran out of fuel a few laps from the end of his final phase and had to return to the pits for service.

"I ran out of fuel during my Indy Racing League rookie test at Texas Motor Speedway last October too," he said with a smile.

"I have plenty to think about now though," Erwin added. "This place is fast. Once you get the feel of the speed of an Indy car at over 200 mile an hour it's all relative, but in the corners and in the short chutes here you can really feel the speed. Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser both told me to respect this racetrack, and I do. Johnny said he's never been able to totally figure it out because it changes day to day."

Erwin said he's been daydreaming about this day for years.

"I got chills just walking around to get into the car this morning," he admitted. "I can't wait to be a part of the Indy 500 next month. I'm so thankful that I'm getting this opportunity and I appreciate everything McCormack Motorsports and our sponsors are doing.

"Today means everything to me; this is where I've always wanted to be," he added reverently. "To qualify a car for the Indy 500 and to be one of the 33 drivers in the race wouldn't just make my day; it would make my life."

McCormack Motorsports

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Brandon Erwin , Brian Barnhart , Johnny Rutherford , Al Unser