Dario Franchitti's last pit stop at Indianapolis - Anne Proffit photoEnlarge Photo
The IZOD IndyCar Series begins a three-weekend march through three distinct oval tracks this weekend, beginning at Texas Motor Speedway with the Firestone 550K race on Saturday night.
The return to Texas marks the first time since October of last year the Indy cars have performed on a high banked 1.5-mile NASCAR-style oval; is there any wonder that some drivers have a bit of trepidation coming here?
It rained on Thursday, ruining qualifying for NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series competitors that race Friday night; they're gridded by points.
The result of that rain, come Friday was the "weeper" effect where the track retains water, thereby causing the Indy cars to have to wait until the surface could be adequately dried and made safe for competition. Or as driver/owner Ed Carpenter tweeted: "The track is weeping. I think it's feelings are hurt that some guys don't want to run here… "
The drivers have concerns about how the new Dallara DW12 will react in close company and whether pack racing will ensue as it did for most of the Indy cars' prior visits to the Texas track, located northwest of Ft Worth. Despite tests that should have calmed peoples' nerves, there's also concerns about the fence posting at this track, similar to Las Vegas as the posts are mounted inside the webbing. It can be disconcerting for those who remember the horrific accident that took Dan Wheldon, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner.
But there's work to do to prepare for single car qualifying and the cars took to the track for their initial practice before qualifying started at 4PM CDT. Practice was delayed an hour for weepers and to allow Katherine Legge time for her rookie test, as this is only the third oval she's driven in an Indy/Champ car.
The Team Target duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon led the proceedings once underway, with Franchitti turning 41 laps and hitting a best of 214.724 mph on his 30th tour of the oval. Dixon was just 0.0512 behind at 214.274 mph, with rookie Josef Newgarden third (214.146) and Alex Tagliani fourth at 213.965. One thing these four drivers have in common is a Honda engine and it's apparent Honda's "second step" when it installed new engines for its full-season teams at Indianapolis is doing a better job than the initial iteration.
Tony Kanaan was the quickest Chevrolet at 213.600, followed by Chevy drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay and EJ Viso. Rookie Simon Pagenaud was eighth quick with Honda power, James Hinchliffe took ninth in practice with Chevy and Graham Rahal (Honda) rounded out the top 10. There was a caution for Mike Conway, who had a fire in the pits and a later issue that caused him to coast into the pits. There were two further cautions for track inspections.
Conway will take a 10-position penalty at Texas for an engine change after Belle Isle last week (as will Simona de Silvestro for the same reason. She was slowest at 204.032 mph).
The aero changes INDYCAR decided to use for this circuit--and the extra set of tires provided by Firestone--have meant more cars on-track during practice sessions. Graham Rahal was pleased with the aero changes and tweeted: "For the first time I'm actually having to drive the car here, rather than the other way around. I think it's great. Yes, it's a damn handful, but it should be."