Veterans Rule Day One At Indy

Months of rumors, speculation and guesswork finally took a back seat to actual on-track action at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday when drivers hit the track for opening day of practice for the Indianapolis 500.

More than 25 drivers made it onto the track, but it was the veterans taking center stage at the 2.5-mile oval in Speedway, Ind.

Eddie Cheever Jr., Arie Luyendyk, Greg Ray, and Buddy Lazier spent time atop the speed charts, and longtime Indy participants Al Unser Jr., Lyn St. James and owner Dick Simon also shared some of the spotlight.

Cheever was the first driver to top the 220 mph mark. He held the fast lap for much of the day until perennial pole contender Ray turned in a 224.301 mph lap.

"The wind kind of died down," Ray said. "We put on a new set of tires. We changed some things on the aero package. It was a combination of all those things. This is the place that everyone wants to be. We are really trying to keep our nose down and stay focused. We want to do good things on the racetrack, but we want to mind our P's and Q's and work hard. One day of testing doesn't mean anything."

Cheever's 220.968 mph was second fastest, while Lazier was third fastest at 220.221 mph, and Cheever's Indy teammate Scott Goodyear was fourth fastest at 220.084 mph. Billy Boat put in a surprising fifth fastest speed at 219.765 in his Beck Motorsports Dallara-Aurora.

CART FedEx Series drivers Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves took a 1-hour, 17-minute private jet flight in from Nazareth, Pa. following Sunday’s Lehigh Valley Grand Prix to put in some laps in Penske Racing’s Dallara-Auroras. De Ferran, who went out of the race around the halfway mark, ran 18 laps and posted the ninth fastest speed at 219.243 mph. Castroneves finished 11th in Sunday’s CART race and then put in 10 laps at Indy, topping out at 216.608 mph.

"Things didn't go the way we wanted in Nazareth, but fortunately we got to come over here and shake down the cars," Castroneves said. "It's going to be a long week, and there is a lot of work to do."

Indy Racing Northern Light Series points leader Sam Hornish Jr. put in 56 laps, the most of any driver on Sunday. He was 12th fastest at 216.878 mph.

Tony Stewart, who won the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond International Raceway Saturday night, did not run laps in Indianapolis on Sunday. Stewart is expected to drive for Target Chip Ganassi Racing at Indy.

The day’s action kicked off just after 1 p.m. with former winners Unser Jr., Luyendyk, Cheever and Lazier taking two ceremonial laps around the speedway to the cheers of the racing-starved fans in the grandstands.

Even at less than full speed, Unser Jr. was excited to be back at the Brickyard.

"I got butterflies in my stomach," said Unser Jr., a two-time Indy winner. "It’s an exciting time. We’re back home again in the month of May, and that’s what it’s all about."

Simon kept one of his traditions alive when his No. 90 car was the first to appear on the track when opening day officially kicked off at 2:15 p.m. ET. St. James was behind the wheel, and she completed two laps before pulling into the pits and announcing her retirement from Indianapolis competition.

IMS president Tony George, Simon and a throng of media greeted St. James as she exited an Indy car for the last time in Indianapolis. She fought back tears as she addressed the crowd.

“I just want to thank the fans, the community, the track,” said St. James, who was the Indy 500 rookie of the year in 1992. “I’ll still race somewhere because it’s still in my blood.”

St. James’ last laps in practice may have helped her erase the bitter images of last year, when she crashed with Sarah Fisher. Simon, however, remembers St. James’ career much differently.

“I’m very proud of what Lyn has accomplished,” Simon said. “It’s just been a phenomenal part of my life to work with that young lady.”

Practice for the Indy 500 continues at noon ET on Monday, when another veteran, Michael Andretti, is expected to make his appearance at IMS.

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