Jean Alesi at Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Pagoda - photo courtesy IZOD IndyCar SeriesEnlarge Photo
Rookie Orientation Program took place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday, May 10 with eight drivers on the 2.5-mile oval working up to speed in order to make the field of 33 on May 27. Of those eight, six passed their three-phase rookie tests, earning the right to qualify for the 96th Indianapolis 500. In all, drivers completed 502 laps.
While Josef Newgarden, James Jakes, Bryan Clauson, Michel Jourdain Jr and Wade Cunningham have all driven on an oval track before, this was the first time for both Rubens Barrichello and Simon Pagenaud. Jourdain Jr was taking a refresher course as he hadn't driven an Indy car since 2004 and was not technically a rookie. Jean Alesi completed only 18 laps and needs to do all three phases before being allowed to race.
The day began quite cool, with temperatures not even getting to 60 degrees, which is where the Firestone tire engineers prefer to see the rubber meeting the racetrack. Once it did warm up, track action ensued and the drivers gained familiarity with the racetrack. Because of the late start, INDYCAR gave the teams and drivers an extra 20 minutes of track time, ending the day at 2:50 instead of the scheduled 2:30PM EDT. The sole incident occurred when a bird hit Pagenaud's car; there was a single debris caution.
James Jakes, driving for Dale Coyne Racing was quickest in his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Dallara/Honda/Firestone entry with a best lap of 218.268 coming on the British driver's 65th of 77 total tours of the historic oval. "I have mixed memories of this place," Jakes said. "Obviously I love driving around here. There's no place like it, but going home last year was probably one of the lowest points of my racing career.
"I've never not been able to get into a race before," he revealed, "and it really got to me last year. But we said this year we wouldn't be in the same situation, and we've started things the right way. It's only ROP, but we sailed through the first three stages and it went well."
Clauson was second on the speed charts in the No. 39 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing/RW Honda-powered car at 217.046 mph, set on his 42nd of 54 total laps. The USAC ace called it "a good, solid day. We had no issues and just took care of business. I was excited to get in the car. It was a long wait to get this month started and I was just excited to get out there," he said.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's full-season rookie driver Newgarden, who placed third at 216.573 mph has a personal mentor for the month in veteran Mark Dismore, who sold Newgarden his first go-kart in 2003 and has become a friend. He owns and operates Comet Kart Sales in Greenfield, IN and New Castle (IN) Motorsports Park, a regular stop for many IZOD IndyCar Series driver.
Dismore is teaching Newgarden some of the tricks he knows from his seven starts in the Indianapolis 500: "The experience he has here in Firestone Indy Lights definitely will help him," Dismore said. "This place is just unique. There are little things that, as I finally started to figure it out the last three years I was here (his final race was in 2002), I'm trying to short-cut his learning curve in building a good race car."
The Nashville native was "pleasantly surprised by our times" with the Honda-powered SFHR No. 67 car. "It kind of snuck up on us and it's definitely quicker than we expected. I wouldn't be surprised to see us in the 220s by the end of next week - or maybe even earlier - they're definitely going to get quicker than people realized. I think the big thing I have to learn as a rookie is to take the time and try to make the most of it."
First-timer Barrichello drove the No. 8 BMC/Embrase KV Racing Technology Chevy race car to fourth place overall at 214.083, set on his 81st of 83 laps. As he thanked INDYCAR for having ROP, Barrichello said he "enjoyed today very much. It allows you to progress gradually without too much pressure, so I was at ease with my car and the whole process. I have a great teacher in [teammate] Tony (Kanaan); overall I had a very successful day and look forward to practice again on Saturday."
Frenchman Pagenaud, who is driving the No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports Honda-powered Dallara went 214.055 mph (lap 89 of 93) and called the experience "a great day. I've heard a lot about this place and got a lot of advice from a lot of people so it was great to finally find out about Indianapolis myself and feel it myself. It's like there are 12 corners here instead of four! You have to process [all the experiences] in your mind while going 210 mph. It was a good feeling and a pleasant surprise," he said.
Returning to the Speedway after 16 years' absence Jourdain was sixth for the day at 213.633 mph in the No. 30 Office Depot/RLL Racing Honda at 213.633 mph, set on his 71st of 73 laps. "I'm not going to say it feels like yesterday that I was here but it doesn't feel like 16 years ago. The car feels really stable - it was perfect to do the refresher phases today," he said. "I thought I was going to be much more nervous but it felt really good. I was quite comfortable and relaxed - at home."
Three-time Freedom 100 winner in Firestone Indy Lights, Wade Cunningham was seventh and completed two of the three phases required in the No. 41 ECat/ABC Supply Honda. He will be able to finish the third phase on regular practice days, "So we can just slide it in with the regular guys and get those laps knocked out and get signed off. The speeds are a bit higher," he noted of the Indy car, "and you're in the corners for a bit less time than I was used to in the past. The Indy car is definitely more wind sensitive and maybe a little more line dependent just because of the high speed."
Jean Alesi only took only exploratory laps around the oval (186.387 mph) and will have to do the complete ROP program on Friday at 4:30PM, once Firestone Indy Lights practice is complete. Those laps in the No. 64 Lotus - FP Journe - Fan Force United Lotus were his first laps in an IZOD Indy car and his first ever laps on an oval.
"There's a first time for everything," he said. "It's a big day and I'm very happy to be in Indianapolis on this great racetrack with Lotus. I will rest better now. You have a tension when you go out of the pit, but as soon as you change gears and go up with the speed you feel in your world. I've been in motorsports for a long time but haven't driven on an oval, so I've very happy to have accomplished this part."
At the close of ROP, INDYCAR announced that it is increasing boost levels for Fast Friday and for qualifying, in order to boost the excitement level for both drivers and fans, giving the cars about 40-50 horsepower more than they currently have. For the race, the standard boost level of 130 kPa (kilopascals) for superspeedways will be in effect, but for the May 18 practice session, as well as Pole Day May 19 and Bump Day on May 20, the boost levels increase to 140 kPa.