The countdown to the month of May officially got underway on Tuesday, as Kurt Busch and Jacques Villeneuve both turned laps at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway as they started their campaign to compete in the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 25.
Both drivers had been required to complete the mandatory Rookie Orientation Program before they were cleared to take part in official practice and qualifying for the race next month.
ROP consists of a driver turning ten laps over three increasing sets of speeds in order to prove their proficiency in car control, placement and consistency running on an oval at high speeds. It's required before a driver is allowed to run on a crowded track with other cars. With Busch having unofficially completed ROP last year in a test with Andretti Autosport, and Villeneuve a former champion of the race in 1995, the two men were given a pass on the first stage and just required to undertake a 'refresher' consisting of the faster two speeds instead.
Busch got to work early and completed his speed trials without incident, finally topping out at 220.844mph for the day after 86 laps. Villeneuve took a little more time to get back into the groove of open wheel racing, but by mid-afternoon he too had completed the necessary laps topping out at 217.742 mph after 83 laps and receiving full clearance to participate in next month's sessions, before the arrival of light rain caused an early end to the day's specially arranged session.
"It took a while to get there," admitted Villeneuve of his first laps in the #5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entry sponsored by Dollar General. "The first few laps were surprising because it felt like I was going fast and I looked and it was 180. I thought, 'There's still a long way to go,' and then 190. And another 10 laps I started getting in the rhythm, and once you start going flat all around it becomes easy. I think your brain, your vision just needs to get used to driving at speed."
Kurt Busch is attempting to do 'the double', which would see him compete in the Indy 500 and then fly to Charlotte in North Carolina to take part in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 later the same day. If he succeeds, the 35-year-old from Las Vegas will become the fourth driver to make the attempt after John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart.
"This attempt is something serious," said Busch on Tuesday. "It's an amazing challenge.
"Overall, it was a good day just to settle in with the team and advance further than rookie orientation," he added. "Now that all the newness and moments of smiling and 'this is Indy' are wearing off, that's when the serious hat goes on and we start to ramp up the program."
Meanwhile another new name has been added to this year's Indy 500 entry list with Chip Ganassi Racing confirming that it had signed up reigning Indy Lights Champion Sage Karam on a multi-year deal as a development driver. A key part of the deal will see the 19-year-old compete for the squad in this year's Indy 500 in the #22 co-entry with Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing.
"Sage is a unique talent that we believe is a future star of the sport," explained team owner Chip Ganassi. "Even at a young age, he has been successful at every level that he has raced at. It is nice to see his poise and tenacity on the race track as I think that will translate well to his driving at IMS for the 500. He reminds me of the two other recent young drivers that we have in our program, [NASCAR stars] Kyle Larson and Dylan Kwasniewski."
"I couldn't be happier to join Chip Ganassi Racing's Verizon IndyCar Series program," said Karam. "It is honestly a dream come true for me and my racing career ... I can't wait for my first experience in the Indianapolis 500. Chip has created a fantastic organization that judges success by just one thing – winning
, both races and championships. This is a very big day for me."
Karam will also need to pass the Rookie Orientation Program, and will take part in the second ROP track session scheduled for May 5.
Meanwhile the Verizon IndyCar Series regulars will be in action at Indianapolis on Wednesday in a test session for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, the first time that the series has held a road race at IMS on the newly redesigned infield circuit.