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Rookie orientation starts Indy 500 action

10 May 2012

The American motor sports fans do love naming their "days": from Opening Day to Pole Day, then Bump Day to Carb Day and finally Race Day itself, there's a lot of activity in store over the next 17 days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the race itself on Sunday May 27.

Although "Opening Day" is the first day that the Speedway is opened up to all the teams for on-track activity, there have already been a series of events at the facility, starting with the track being used for part of the route of a local mini-marathon through the streets of the city of Indianapolis last Saturday.

Things get down to earth with more serious business from today, Thursday May 10, with the Rookie Orientation and Refresher Program. This is the first on-track action for the Indy 500 rookies and those who haven't run in the race for a while who are bidding to make the starting grid in the coming week. IndyCar officials have to 'sign off' the rookies as oval-worthy before they are eligible to take part in qualifying, but if they run out of time on Thursday then they can still complete the final ROP stage during normal practice sessions the following week.

There are eight rookie drivers listed, including F1 veterans Rubens Barrichello and Jean Alesi. Former Champ Car drivers Katherine Legge and Simon Pagenaud are also Indy 500 rookies, as are Josef Newgarden, Bryan Clauson and Wade Cunningham despite their Firestone Indy Lights series experience at Indianapolis in previous years. The eighth rookie, James Jakes completed ROP in 2011, although he did not qualify for the race itself; usually recertification is not required in such instances, but Jakes is also listed to undergo ROP again in 2012.

Champ Car veteran Michel Jourdain Jr. will be on the refresher program as he hasn't competed in the Indy 500 since 1996, and Sebastien Bourdais is in a similar position having not raced on the speedway since 2005.

After ROP is concluded on the Thursday, Friday then allows the Firestone Indy Lights teams their first taste of IMS with a five hour open test session ahead of the Firestone Freedom 100 support race in a fortnight.

Opening Day itself on Saturday, May 12 sees all the IndyCar teams eligible to take to the track for the first time from noon until 6pm (local time.) That will allow the drivers to get used to the Speedway, and let the teams start dialling in the car to the track conditions.

The rest of the week continues to see the track open every day between noon and 6pm for IndyCar practice, with the morning period being used for Indy Experience two-seater and pace car rides. Last year the week of practice was badly hit by rain which lost the teams a lot of track time and resulted in an outbreak of 'planking' by drivers frustrated and literally bored stuff by the conditions. This year, the question will be how much running the teams want to undertake given the restrictions on engine usage for the season.

Fast Friday on May 18 is when the main contingent of race fans start arriving and the stands fill up with spectators for the final six-hour practice session, which is usually when the teams are fine-tuning their qualifying pace and therefore should see some of the fastest laps of the week so far.

Pole Day on Saturday, May 19 is the first of the two formal qualifying days. After a two final one-hour practice period, the cars start to run their qualifying laps between 11am and 4pm (local times), in an order determined by blind draw the day before. Each car gets to make three qualification attempts consisting of four laps comprising 10 miles in total. Drivers will generally be qualifying both their main car and any T-car (spare).

At the end of the first qualifying segment (which incidentally sets pit stall order, which can often prove crucial on race day), the fastest nine cars have a further 90 minute session between 4.30pm and 6pm that afternoon as a "shootout" to lock-in the positions of the front three rows of the Indy 500 race, including pole position: last year's pole position speed was an impressive 227.472 mph (366 km/h), set by Sam Schmidt Motorsport's Alex Tagliani. However, the new-specification cars and engines in 2012 are expected to bring down that top speed by at least 5 mph this year.

The order of the cars between 10th and 24th is also now set - but if there are more cars than there are spots on the grid, they can still be "bumped" from the grid altogether by events on the following day.

Bump Day on Sunday, May 20 starts with a one-hour free practice between 9am and 10am, then cars are back on track between noon and 6pm for further four-lap qualifying runs with the cars that didn't make it into the top 24 on Saturday competing to get it into the remaining nine positions available on the grid. This year it's unlikely that there will be more than 33 cars, in which case everyone will make it onto the starting grid for the race.

However, if there are late entries pushing the number of potential starters over the 33-car limit, then Sunday will be the day when "bumping begins. Once all 33 spots are filled, the car with the slowest time of the top 33 (whether set on the Saturday or Sunday, so changing weather conditions between the days can play a key role) is declared to be "on the bubble". If a car outside the top 33 sets a faster time than the car on the bubble, then the slower car is bumped off the grid, the order "shuffles up" to fill the gap, and the faster car enters the grid in 33rd position. The slower car can rejoin the qualifying process and attempt to bump its way back onto the starting grid; other cars coming close to being on the bubble can opt to delete their existing time and also re-enter qualifying at any time.

Last year's Bump Day proved to be a nail-biter and ultimately controversial, not least thanks to the rain that meant that Danica Patrick came close to not being able to make a run to get into the race. Marco Andretti also came close to being bumped out but in the end fought his way back in - albeit at the expense of ousting his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay, who ended up having to be installed in AJ Foyt's second car which had qualified the previous day in the hands of Bruno Junqueira. Two Brits - Mike Conway and James Jakes - failed to make it into the race.

At the end of the process, we have the 33-strong grid for the Indianapolis 500, and everyone can take a breather. There is a relative lull for the next two days with no track activity at all. On the Wednesday, Community Day sees the garage area open to the public and the drivers out in force to sign autographs. The following day, Thursday May 24, sees practice and qualifying for the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race.

Carb Day - "Carburetion Day"- is Friday, May 27. The name comes from a time when cars used carburetors that needed tuning before the race started, but that hasn't been the case since 1963. However, this year Carb Day assumes a vital new significance as it's when all teams will have received a brand new engine for the Indy 500 and be in the process of fitting it, tuning it and ensuring the set-up is correct. They'll have one final IndyCar practice session between 11am and noon to make sure the engine change has been completed properly.

These days Carb Day also sees the running of the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race from 12.30pm: the winner in 2011 was Josef Newgarden with two-time USAC National Drivers Champion Bryan Clauson finishing in fifth place: both men will be driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in this year's Indy 500. In 2010, the winner was Wade Cunningham, with Charlie Kimball, James Hinchcliffe and Sebastian Saavedra all in the field - all of whom will be in this year's Indy 500 race.

After the Freedom 100, there's the climax of the IndyCar pit stop competition that teams will have been competing in heats for over the previous few days, followed by a rock concert featuring Lynard Skynard, and then in the evening the Lucas Oil Indy 500 Soiree social event.

After the 500 Festival Parade on Saturday May 26, it's finally time for Race Day on Sunday, with driver introductions at 11.30am before the race itself starts shortly after high noon (5pm BST) - and sometime later in the afternoon, we'll have ourselves a winner.

The race itself lasts 500 miles (hence the name) and thus consists of 200 laps of the 2.5 mile oval circuit; it typically lasts a little over three hours, except if disrupted by rain. Monday May 28, which is the Memorial Day public holiday (commemorating fallen US military personnel) in the US, is left clear in case the event is forced into a second day because of a rain delay. The last time the race was forced onto a Monday was in 1997, when more rain then forced a further rollover to the Tuesday; the most recent race hit by rain was in 2007, which was interrupted for three hours by rain on Sunday and was finally declared over after 415 miles (166 laps) when the rain returned a second time.

The winner receives the unmistakable Borg-Warner Trophy, given to winners every year since 1936 when it was first won by Louis Meyer - who coincidentally also started the tradition of the winner taking a drink of milk to celebrate.

Four drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 four times - AJ Foyt was the first (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977) and the feat was subsequently matched by Al Unser, Sr. and Rick Mears. Of the current crop of drivers, only Helio Castroneves has a chance to join that elite group in 2011, while Dario Franchitti has two wins to his name. By contrast, motor racing legend Mario Andretti has won the Indy 500 just once, in 1969. Notable winners in their rookie years include Graham Hill (in 1966), Juan Montoya (2000) and Castroneves (2001).

The facility now covers an area of 559 acres and has seating capacity for 257,000 people together with further in-field capacity raising the potential number of spectators to 400,000 - making IMS the largest, highest-capacity sporting facility in the world. The two straightaways are 0.625 miles long with the turns banked at a fraction over nine degrees - comparatively flat by modern standards, and unchanged since IMS was constructed in 1909 as the first motor racing track in the world to be known as a "Speedway", making it officially the first of its kind.

Although the 2011 race was billed as the centennial/100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 - the maiden race was run in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun in his famous yellow #32 Marmon "Wasp" - 2012 will actually be the 96th running of the race, not the 101st. That's because the event wasn't held in the war years 1917-18 and 1942-45. Consequently, you can expect the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to be engaging in another round of even greater hype and hooplah in four years time to mark the 100th running of the race the Americans love to call "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing".


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