Rookies Readying For Indy

The Firestone Indy 225 is this coming weekend at Nazareth Speedway, but six rookie drivers spent the past weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway trying to earn the right to qualify for the 86th Indianapolis 500 on May 26.

John de Vries, Anthony Lazzaro, George Mack, Laurent Redon, Tomas Scheckter
and Rick Treadway participated in the Indy Racing League’s Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) on Friday and Saturday. Drivers Shigeaki Hattori and Scott Harrington were also at the track. Harrington passed a refresher course while Shigeaki, who failed to qualify for the Indy 500 last year, took the opportunity to run some laps.

Shigeaki recorded a top speed of 223.528 mph in his 71 laps of testing and Harrington ran a lap at 219.457 mph in 52 laps of testing.

In order to have a chance to qualify for the Indy 500, rookies had to complete 10 laps in the four new speed phases: 200-205 mph, 205-210 mph, 210-215 mph and 215 mph and higher. Brian Barnhart, IRL vice president of operations, increased the speed phases by 5 mph this year following talks with veteran Indy-car drivers and track analysis.

Rookie drivers also had to demonstrate steady car control for the duration of the tests. Four-time Indy winner and IRL driver coach Al Unser Sr., three-time Indy winner and IRL Director of Special Projects Johnny Rutherford, 1997 Indy winner Arie Luyendyk and Indy-car veteran Tyce Carlson were on hand to assist them.

"Al and Johnny were looking for consistency out of the drivers," Barnhart said. "Arie and Tyce also were a big help throughout the weekend."

All of the rookies except Redon completed the program. Redon completed the first three speed phases and six of 10 laps in the final phase. He will have to complete the final phase in May, but he can take part in Opening Day practice on May 5.

Rain throughout the day Friday and showers Saturday morning cancelled all track activities, forcing the drivers to make all of their runs Saturday afternoon.

"Weather really impacted this year's Rookie Orientation Program," Barnhart said. "What we normally ask the teams and drivers to accomplish in two days, this year's group was forced to do it all in half a day.

"Everyone responded really well. The Speedway's facilities crew worked hard to prepare the track Saturday morning after a lot of overnight rain. And when the track went green, the teams were ready."

Tomas Scheckter ran 89 laps and turned in the low lap time of the test, with a 39.8133-second lap and a top speed of 226.055 mph. But it wasn’t a big deal for the driver of the No. 52 Dallara-Infiniti.

"I think qualifying on Pole Day is a lift off your shoulders,” said Scheckter, who started the season strong with a sixth-place finish in the Grand Prix of Miami but has had engine trouble the past two races, finishing 24th in both. “This is something that everyone must do, and I wasn't worried about it.

“Al Unser and Rutherford, with the help of them, I have no worries, so it wasn't a big thing. We're just mainly testing the car now."

George Mack, the second-fastest rookie in testing, ran a 40.3991-second lap time in the No. 30 G Force-Chevy and had a top speed of 222.777 mph during 104 laps of testing at the 2.5-mile oval. But speed wasn’t his main priority during the tests.

“I want to try and keep the car as free as possible and consistent, I wasn't really trying to really go very fast,” Mack said.

Currently 15th in the IRL points standings coming off a 16th-place finish in the Yamaha Indy 400, Mack has high hopes for the Indy 500.

“I want to make the field, well into the field, mind you, not the tail end of the field, not the very last car,” Mack said. “I want to make the field, and that's where my head is.

“From a driver's standpoint, I'm never happy. From a logistical standpoint, I'm glad we got through ROP. If I had hit 223 or 224 already today I'd be happy.

“But we've got the rest of the day to do that. It wouldn't make me happy, but it would get me closer to happy. I'm the kind of guy that wants to get off the trailer and go, but I know it's not that easy."

John de Vries ran 76 laps in the No. 37 Dallara-Chevy during the test and was third fastest with a time of 40.7669 seconds and a top speed of 220.767 mph. De Vries, who is 24th in the points standings, was happy with his performance.

"It feels good to get out there and get this done,” de Vries said. “We've got it under our belts and now we can get out there and get some more speed.

“We ran good, not really pushing it too hard, now it’s time to go out and find some speed.

“The car is set up really good. Turn 1, at the very end, started to give me some trouble because I had a push but other than that it felt real good."

Anthony Lazzaro completed 128 laps and finished with a fast lap time of 40.9430 seconds and a top speed of 219.818 mph.

"There are a lot of good rookies in the field this year attempting to qualify, and just getting though the rookie part is the first step,” said Lazzaro, driver of the No. 99 Dallara-Chevy. “You know you only have one chance to do this the first time.

“Yesterday was my first laps on the track, and I just wanted to enjoy every minute of it. Unfortunately with the weather, we had to come back again today and really go through the program, but it's going to be totally different when you put 30-odd cars out there for practice in May."

Rick Treadway, driver of the No. 55 Dallara-Chevy and an Indianapolis native, had a best lap time of 41.0680 seconds and a top speed of 219.149 mph during the 58 laps he completed. Although Treadway participated in the Rookie Orientation Program, he’s not new to the track.

"I practiced here last year for 400 miles with Treadway-Hubbard Racing in October so that helped with my test today,” Treadway said. “Plus I have five or six races under my belt.

“It was great to have Arie, Al Sr., Brian Barnhart and Johnny Rutherford around to give me advice. The four of them gave me great tips on safety, etiquette and how to drive around here.

“We're loading up so we can get ready for Nazareth. We want to keep up our momentum for Nazareth.

“Our goal is a top-10 finish for Airlink Enterprises. From what I hear, that place can take its toll on race cars. Then we'll come back here to my hometown for May and team with Arie. This is something I've worked really hard for and dreamed about for seven or so years. Holy Cow."

Laurent Redon’s lap times in the No. 34 Dallara-Infiniti were hampered by engine problems during testing. He recorded a best lap time of 41.5040 seconds and a top speed of 216.847 mph during 55 laps of testing. But Redon was awestruck by Indy.

"The track is very impressive,” said Redon, who is sixth in the points after finishing third in the Yamaha Indy 400. “What can I say? Everything that's been said about the track, you're always surprised. I don't know, I don't have the word, but you don't have any place like this in the world. Even if you don't know all the history, you're still impressed by the track, and I'm sure when it's full of people it should be very impressive.

“Right now we did not have good day because we had an engine problem, so we didn't run so much. I don't know flat out how it's going to be, because we had to do the slow thing for the rookie (test).

“So, I learned a lot. We were expected to learn a bit more. We didn't have the opportunity to do it because we had just a few laps. We don't care about the speed because it is just testing.

“Now we have to be ready for Nazareth, so I don't think it would be clever for us to test tomorrow, because we have only one car and we have to make it ready for Nazareth."

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