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Indy 500: Drivers expecting hot and wild race

27 May 2012

As far as US motor racing is concerned, today marks the pinnacle of the Month of May - if not of the entire year - with the arrival of Race Day for the 2012 Indianapolis 500, the 'greatest spectacle in motorsport.'

Asked how he saw the day going, veteran team owner Roger Penske - with 15 Indy 500 victories under his belt - summed it simply by saying: "I think we're going to see the best race we've had in at least a decade."

Penske's driver Ryan Briscoe has been enjoying the last week basking in the spotlight of being the polesitter for the race, but as much as that's been a thrilling experience for him, he knows full well that the real work will only begin today at the drop of the green flag for the start of the 96th Indy 500 race.

"It's going to be a tough race. I think it's going to be all about executing on the day, not making mistakes, having good pit stops and keeping your nose clean," he said. "I think it's going to be a pretty wild race. I think nobody is going to be able to pull away. There's going to be a lot of passing. It's going to be a pretty gruelling 500 mile race."

As well as the Penske trio of Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power performed in qualifying, they're not kidding themselves that they're going to be able to walk away with anything in the race itself - especially given the impressive performances so far in May of fellow Chevrolet-powered teams such as Andretti Autosport and KV Racing Technology.

"You know Andretti, they are always strong here in the race," pointed out Briscoe. "The surprise was how good they were in qualifying, because normally they are a little bit off in qualifying, but really bring it in the race.

"They have been strong in race runs," he conceded. "I feel like we have been just as strong, though, and I feel like there are a lot of cars out there that have been strong.

"It's going to be hard to predict a winner until you see them come out of turn four," he added. "And maybe even then, you won't know it."

Briscoe is sharing the front row for the start of the race with two of the strongest of the five Andretti cars, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, while Marco Andretti is at the head of the second row immediately behind them.

"I think we're definitely in it, I think it's going to be our race to lose," said Marco.

"I think we are in a pretty good position," agreed Hinchcliffe. "It's a lot of clean pit stops and a lot of good strategy calls it's going to take to win it but we have race cars as good as our qualifying cars."

The Canadian driver, who has replaced Danica Patrick in the GoDaddy.com this year and already won over a new crowd of fans to the sport in the process, put a lot of it down to how well the drivers in the Andretti team were working together.

"You've heard it so much from us this year and even especially this month, how well we are working together is awesome. We really are just one unit of three guys rather than three units of single car team sort of thing," he said. "It's just incredible to see three people in such a competitive environment able to work so closely together and share that information and really push each other. I think that's where these results are coming from."

Working less well as a team in qualifying, but bouncing back somewhat during Friday's final practice session, is the four-car Ganassi squad.

"I think our car seems good, I think we can expect to see a very tight race with a lot of passing," said Scott Dixon, but admitting that this year's race was more up in the air than at almost anytime in the last decade. "There's still a lot of unknowns. Previously we knew what to expect because we knew everybody had the same stuff. I think we are expecting a lot of unknowns."

"The Service Central car feels really good, and I think we're pretty confident going into Sunday," said team mate Graham Rahal. "I'm really definitely happy with the way the car feels. We have to get a little more speed and have to get the car to tow-up a little bit better behind people, but I can follow awfully close, and I think it's a good sign of things to come. We're looking forward to getting out there and start racing."

"The car is real good, we've got a good set-up for Race Day," agreed reigning series champion Dario Franchitti, who was looking at the weather as being a massive wild card to this year's proceedings as forecasts said that air temperatures would run close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit during the afternoon pushing track temperatures up to 150 degrees - which would make it the hottest Indy 500 in history.

"It's going to be hard work behind the wheel in those conditions; hard for the pit crews to keep their focus in that heat. It'll be a hot day," he said. "It's definitely going to be slippery. We'll deal with that."

"The heat is going to be for sure the biggest factor,” agreed Hunter-Reay. "It's going to be one that changes the balance of the race cars through the race. It will either, I think, make or break your race."

“You lose downforce, you lose tyre and mechanical grip at those temperatures, so finishing's got to be the goal,” said AJ Foyt Racing's Wade Cunningham, an Indy 500 rookie but a three-time Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 winner here. “It'll be a battle.”

"We have a heat room at the gym, which is part of the training," he added. "You have to watch your fluid intake, eat well, sleep well and just be prepared. I've been doing all those things so I'll be prepared for Race Day."

"It's going to change things on the car, but we have enough data on the computer to figure out what we need to change, so we'll be okay," said Cunningham's team mate Mike Conway. "I feel pretty confident going into the race. We know what we've got, so we just need to repeat that, and we should move forward."

"I think that we're going to have a great race on Sunday," said Dragon's Katherine Legge. "My team has me drinking Pedialite today, hydrating for the heat ... That's probably more of a big deal for the crew guys who are out in it all day. It's going to be really slick out there."

"Race Day is going to be hot and sticky, and the track is going to be slick," echoed fellow British racer Justin Wilson. "We'll just try to move forward whenever we can pick our way through, be smart and be there at the end," he said, adding that he was "really pleased" with his Dale Coyne Racing car after the final Carb Day practice session.

One bit of good news for the drivers was confirmation on Saturday from race director Beaux Barfield that the race would feature single file restarts this year - although Barfield added that he expected a return to double-file restarts in 2013 once the new specification chassis and engines had bedded in.

"I wasn't a fan of the double-file restarts at this place, in particular," said Marco Andretti, voicing the concerns of the majority of IZOD IndyCar Series drivers about the controversial format. "You'll see, especially the way these cars tow, it's crazy enough with single-file restarts. We're always three-, four-wide anyway. If you restart two-wide, it's a recipe for disaster."

Most of all, though, was the sense of energy and excitement among everyone in Indianapolis as Race Day dawned.

"There is good excitement building," said Rahal Letterman Lanigan's Takuma Sato. "You can feel the atmosphere coming. The Indy 500 is here!"

"It's time to race!," added an exuberant Charlie Kimball, the fourth man in the Ganassi line-up. "You just have to hope you roll the dice right for Sunday and come up with the right calls."

And the driver who can achieve that best - and who can also crack all the known and unknown mysteries of the day - will be ending up drinking a pint of milk at the yard of bricks come the chequered flag.

Dan Wheldon remembered

One of the most poignant aspects to this year's race will be the memories of last year's Indy 500 race winner Dan Wheldon, who died in the multi-car racing accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October.

On Thursday, Dan's wife Susie was presented with the Champion of Champions ring that he had won with last year's victory. "I am honoured to be here to be here to accept this Champion of Champions ring on behalf of my husband," she said at the presentation. Dan loved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it meant to win here.

"I am proud to be here to represent him as a two-time winner. I'm proud to be here with my children, Sebastian and Oliver, to celebrate their father's life and legacy and him as a great champion and ambassador of the Indianapolis 500.

"I just want to take a moment to thank everybody for the outpouring of love and support over the past several months for me and my family," she added. "Everyone from Indianapolis, around the country and the world, my racing family and Dan's fans. It has been so comforting to have the support of so many during such a difficult time."

Susie Wheldon and Bryan Herta - the owner of the car Dan was driving in 2011 - received a lengthy standing ovation from the crowd on Saturday when they were presented with the "Baby Borg" trophy, a miniature replica of the real Borg-Warner Trophy presented to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 each year. Susie Wheldon also received a check for $130,000 on behalf of her late husband.


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