IRL: Rookies kick off May early at Indy 500

IRL: Rookies kick off May early at Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 2003 -- Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is, in fact, the beginning of the month of May, even though it precedes opening day this year by nearly two weeks. This year's crop of seven ...

INDIANAPOLIS, April 21, 2003 -- Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is, in fact, the beginning of the month of May, even though it precedes opening day this year by nearly two weeks.

This year's crop of seven rookies gathered on a cool, cloudy Monday to learn the intricacies of the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval without the pressure of sharing track space and time with veterans of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

Vitor Meira.
Photo by McQueeney.
Two of the drivers had plenty of experience during the 2002 Indy Racing League season, yet realized the extra seat time would do them some good. Buddy Rice and Vitor Meira were first to complete the four phases, working from 10-lap averages of 200-205mph, then 205-210mph. Rookies are then required to perform 10 laps between 210-215mph and the final phase permits them to string consistent laps upwards of 215mph.

As both Rice and Meira had taken part in a private test on Saturday, they needed only to run the third and fourth phases, which the duo completed before the noon lunch break. "We're still learning the car," Rice admitted. "We've made some pretty big jumps from Homestead to Phoenix and from Phoenix to Japan.

"We've improved it even more (after running 90 laps on Saturday) and things are definitely getting better" for the #52 Red Bull Cheever Racing team. Team manager Max Jones agreed the "Saturday test helped Buddy a lot," in learning the quick way around the Brickyard in his Dallara/Chevrolet.

Meira, driving teammate Jaques Lazier's #2 Menards Dallara/Chevrolet set the quickest time en route to completing his program in the morning session, topping out at 223.827mph on his 16th of 25 laps. Rice's best was 220.147mph on his 18th of 25 tours of the tricky oval. During the afternoon free lapping, Meira was again quickest at 225.461mph.

The balance of the rookie crop took their time getting up to speed. Most had completed at least two phases of the test by the lunch break.

A.J. Foyt IV traded in the wrenches he wielded during the Infiniti Pro Series practice day last Friday to take his first tours of the Brickyard oval where his team owner and grandfather A.J. Foyt Jr. was the first to gain four Indy 500 titles.

A.J. Foyt IV.
Photo by McQueeney.
Foyt's first impression on the track was of its size: "I can't believe how big it is and how long the straights are," he said. "Turn one is so narrow," Anthony noted. "We've had no trouble throughout the day, so we'll go testing for real on Tuesday and Wednesday." The stars in his eyes and the smile on his face said it all. Foyt's best was 221.577mph, turned in the afternoon after his ROP program was complete.

Early in the day, proceedings were halted for an animal on the circuit. Some said it was squirrel, others said it was a rabbit and one person thought they saw a fox. The culprit was never found and practice continued on. There were no incidents on the circuit to cause the yellow lights to ignite; only track inspections, debris and, finally, moisture called a halt to the proceedings.

Roger Yasukawa, now fully recovered from his Phoenix accident and just back from Japan, where he spent extra time with family and friends after the Japan Indy 300, garnered praise from IRL senior vice president of racing operations Brian Barnhart, who was happy with the consistency Roger's showed in his #55 Panasonic/ARTA Dallara/Honda.

"This place is hard to imagine," Yasukawa explained. "It's different from all the other tracks we go to. Every corner looks the same on a track map but not when you're driving them. Conditions change a lot here and I've never had helmet buffeting like this. We had to put in a windscreen to stop it and now I can concentrate on driving." Yasukawa lapped at 220.377mph after completing his ROP program.

Monitored by Barnhart, Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford, among the Indy Racing League technical staff, Dan Wheldon completed his test in the #26 Jim Beam Special Dallara/Honda fielded by Andretti Green Racing.

Dan Wheldon.
Photo by Anne Proffit.
"This is a really cool place," said the Briton. "On a circuit map it looks like the same four corners but they are very, very different. All ovals are challenging but there's less margin for error here and you have to be very precise." Wheldon's best, set in the afternoon was 221.712mph.

Tony Renna had a character building day as he worked to bring the #32 Cure Autism Now Dallara/Toyota fielded by Kelley Racing up to speed. First thing in the morning he had a problem with the on-board yellow light. Gearbox and clutch "issues" limited his afternoon time on-circuit as he attempted to finish his four increments of speed, yet the young American handily completed his test with a quick lap of 220.627mph.

"This is my first time driving here and I'm so aware of this track's history. Indy has had a big role in shaping my career path and I think this track is so cool. The straights are so long," Renna acknowledged, "and it's early yet." Ziggy Marcus, who worked with Renna on PacWest Racing's Indy Lights team said "this kid so easy to work with!"

The one driver who did not complete his Rookie Orientation Program was Scott Mayer, driver of PDM Racing's #18 Dallara/Chevrolet. Unable to boost his morning speed beyond 206.601mph, Mayer decided to "retire" from the program. One wag likened his entry to the "Dr. Jack [Miller] syndrome," where a driver tries" to ascend to a level for which he is not quite prepared.

The weather was a deciding factor in how quick the cars could go today, as temperatures ranged from the low to middle 50s in the air and the track temps hovered around the 62-65 degree level. Around 5pm the skies began to pepper a mist, drawing a halt to on-track activity.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, private testing is scheduled at Indianapolls Motor Speedway, for entrants including Marlboro Team Penske, Team Target, Team Rahal, Mo Nunn Racing, A.J. Foyt Racing. Some of the rookies will get their first taste of traffic on the 2.5-mile oval in preparation for the 87th running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race.

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About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers A.J. Foyt IV , Jaques Lazier  , Dan Wheldon , Roger Yasukawa , Buddy Rice , Tony Renna , Scott Mayer , A.J. Foyt Jr. , Max Jones , A.J. Foyt , Brian Barnhart , Jim Beam , Johnny Rutherford , Al Unser , Mo Nunn , Vitor Meira
Teams Team Penske