IRL: One more day to "start your engines"

IRL: One more day to "start your engines"

INDIANAPOLIS - The 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is less than a day away and the tension is building for teams, drivers and fans alike. The 33 drivers have been out of their qualified cars since Thursday afternoon, but there's been plenty to do...

INDIANAPOLIS - The 87th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race is less than a day away and the tension is building for teams, drivers and fans alike. The 33 drivers have been out of their qualified cars since Thursday afternoon, but there's been plenty to do in the meantime.

Today several traditions were satisfied, both at the track and in downtown Indianapolis.

Scott Dixon.
Photo by Earl Ma.
A rookie media conference in the morning brought all nine first-time Indianapolis 500 drivers together to talk about their feelings on the race and the month of May. Fastest of this group is Scott Dixon, driver of the #9 Team Target Panoz G Force/Toyota, who qualified with a four-lap average of 230.099mph to gain fourth starting spot.

The quiet Kiwi, who was injured in the previous race at Twin Ring Motegi felt his month has "gone pretty consistently. I think we're a little disappointed with qualifying," thinking he could have gone better. "We just had too much downforce in the car, but it is a good starting position. Hopefully, we can stay out of trouble and be there at the end."

Starting next to Dixon, Dan Wheldon took the #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam Dallara/Honda to fifth on the grid with a lap of 229.958mph. The Briton, who ran two races for Pennzoil Panther Racing last year indicated, "The Andretti Green Racing team have given me a good car. It's probably a tougher month for the mechanics than it is for the drivers, and it is certainly a pleasure to be here." Thinking ahead to tomorrow, Wheldon said, "I think somebody said the other day, you don't remember a good first lap, it's the last few that count."

Row three on tomorrow's grid is comprised of two rookies with plenty of experience in the open wheel arena. Former Formula Nippon champion Tora Takagi has the 7th spot sewn up for his #12 Pioneer Panoz G Force/Toyota out of the Mo Nunn Racing stables and has been quick all month long. His four-lap average was 229.358mph. Takagi, who speaks minimal English still knows, "The Indy 500 is a big race. This is 500 miles, a very long race. I will try my best in this race."

Tony Renna, a veteran of two IndyCar Series races last season while substituting for his Kelley Racing teammate Al Unser Jr., starts 8th tomorrow based on his qualifying tour of the 2.5-mile historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval of 228.765mph. "We've had a really smooth month here so far," Renna said after Carburetion Day laps in his #32 Cure Autism Now/HomeMed Dallara/Toyota. It's all about being there at the end and certainly, that's our focus."

All the practice has numbed Roger Yasukawa a bit and, after Carburetion Day was complete, the Los Angeles resident agreed he was starting to feel some butterflies now that the race is getting close. Starting in 11th place in the #55 Panasonic/ARTA Dallara/Honda after lapping the Brickyard at 228.577mph, Yasukawa said, "It's really hard to imagine that we're going to go racing tomorrow, after being here for the whole month. I am looking forward to tomorrow and, as a rookie driver, I think there's a lot to learn within the race. I hope to see the checkered flag and have a good race."

Shinji Nakano hasn't had much practice in the #54 Beards Papa's Dallara/Honda. He starts 15th with four laps at 227.222mph and admits, "We had a little tough time after we started practicing (he crashed the Beck Motorsports team's only tub). It's been tough for the team and myself, but I think we'll just see what happens. We just have to do all we can and I'm looking forward to it."

It's hard to think of Buddy Rice as a rookie, after the Phoenix, AZ native ran for Red Bull Cheever Racing since the Michigan race last year, but he's never driven at Indy. Rice took the #52 Red Bull Dallara/Chevrolet to 19th grid space at 226.213mph. "This is probably one of the fastest crop of rookies through here," Rice acknowledged. "It's an honor to be up here with these guys. I think we've got some work to do come Sunday, but we've got a very good car in traffic and we're looking for a super-strong finish."

Tomorrow is A.J. Foyt IV's 19th birthday, and the grandson of Super Tex will start the #14 Conseco Dallara/Toyota from 26th on the grid based on his qualifying effort of 224.177mph. It's been a tough month for the youngster, who has become intimate with Indy's walls, yet he thinks, "I've had a really good month. I've had a lot of fun. It's such a great race and I'm just glad to be part of it." He intends to, "go out there on Sunday, run all day, get a lot of experience and, hopefully finish the race with a good finishing spot."

The final driver to qualify on Bump Day, Vitor Meira is also the fastest Chevrolet driver in the field, with a four-lap average of 227.158mph in the #22 Menards/Johns Manville Dallara. The Brazilian drove in relief of Jaques Lazier last season and "had a late start on the week and on the month." He got about 150 laps the Friday before he qualified and "that was pretty good. I just hope we don't do any mistakes on the race and see how it goes."

Sam Hornish Jr., Buddy Rice, Jaques Lazier, Vitor Meira, Jimmy Vasser and Richie Hearn.
Photo by Earl Ma.
Once the rookies were tormented, the action moved out to pit road, where the drivers received their final instructions from Brian Barnhart, senior vice president of racing operations for the Indy Racing League. While admitting "they don't pay attention anyway," Barnhart laid down the competition rules for the race for the public - as well as drivers and teams - to hear and understand.

This event also marked the dispersal of starter's rings for all 33 drivers and for pace car driver Herb Fishel of GM Racing. The presentation was made by Delco Remy president and CEO Thomas J. Snider and NASA astronaut David Wolf, a native of Indianapolis. Wolf had the temerity to poke fun at the drivers, noting "I turned my last lap a shade under 18,000mph."

Helio Castroneves received his second "Baby Borg" trophy for his 2002 Indianapolis 500 victory, as did Marlboro Team Penske owner Roger Penske, delivered by Lee Wilson of Borg Warner Inc. Castroneves wasn't finished then, as he also received a plaque from the Milk Promotion Services of Indiana and the 2003 MBNA Pole Award from Dave Dworksy, vice president of MBNA.

Andy Granatelli, two-time Indy 500 winning car owner gave a special Unsung Hero Award to Jim Philippe, who has worked with chief announcer Tom Carnegie and the public address group at the Speedway for many decades.

Once all of the awards were given, the drivers headed for downtown Indianapolis and the 500 Festival Parade. All admitted they intended to make it an early night because tomorrow is finally their big day.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Al Unser Jr. , Helio Castroneves , Jimmy Vasser , A.J. Foyt IV , Jaques Lazier  , Scott Dixon , Shinji Nakano , Richie Hearn , Dan Wheldon , Roger Yasukawa , Buddy Rice , Tony Renna , Roger Penske , Brian Barnhart , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr. , Mo Nunn , Vitor Meira
Teams Panther Racing , Team Penske