Jack Hawksworth, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Huertas and Martin Plowman have all successfully completed their rookie orientation program at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday, meaning that all four are now cleared to take part in practice and qualifying for the Indy 500 later this month.
All drivers who have not competed in the event before are required to complete ROP before they are allowed to run on the track with other competitors in general practice sessions. The process involves running consistent lines over multiple laps within set speeds, starting with ten laps between 200 and 205mph. Once that's completed then stage two ups the ante to 15 laps within the 205-210mph range, and the driver is finally required to complete a further 15 laps at over 210mph before being certified ready to race.
"Being on the oval is weird to start with because everything is so different," noted Huertas. "I was a bit unsure because I never did it before and because I had a late start to the season I couldn't prepare for the ovals well.
"I think the speed was okay," he added. "I was just working on the lines and understanding what to do. I think everything is very new, but I think I did okay."
Huertas certainly appeared to work his way through the day in a methodical manner and was soon declared to have completed ROP by the middle of the afternoon. Aleshin, Hawksworth and Plowman similarly had no issues with the process and were soon passed ready for the start of Indy 500 practice, which gets underway on Sunday May 11, the day after the Grand Prix of Indianapolis road course race.
"This is so important and it's all set now for working with the car in practice for the Indy 500," said Aleshin, who set the fastest time of the day among the four drivers with a best lap of 219.170mph. "This will be the first oval race in my career and how awesome is it that it will be the Indy 500?"
The Russian added that it had actually been the slower phase of ROP that had caused him the most trouble: "It was actually harder for me to go slower because you had to lift and I don't like to lift," he explained.
Martin Plowman has a little more experience in open wheel racing, having completed two seasons in Indy Lights in 2009-2010 which included two outings at IMS in the Freedom 100 support race. He's also had three starts in the Verizon IndyCar Series with Sam Schmidt Motorports in 2011, but he admitted that all this was now a long time ago.
"For me, it was massively important to get in the car and dust off the cobwebs and get my feet on the floor," he said. "It's been more than three years since I've driven a car in anger on an oval. Even though I've driven pace cars and two-seaters on ovals, it's not the same. It was nice to remember all the experiences I had in Indy Lights and get a solid confident base in the car."
Monday's session means that the only driver who still has to complete ROP is Sage Karam, another Indy Lights graduate who came third in last year's Freedom 100 on his way to winning the overall championship. Although present at IMS on Monday, the #22 Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing car developed a mechanical issue just 35 laps into the day, thwarting Karam's hopes of going through the required ROP phases.
"The crew had to look deep into the car to find out what was wrong, and it took the whole day," Karam reported. The gearbox had to be pulled and part of the engine stripped away before the problem was found, and the team ran out of time."
It had been good while it lasted: The car was really fast. I did two laps at full speed and went right to third place and those other guys were doing like 60 laps," reported the 19-year-old, who will now be given a chance to complete his ROP in a special session on Sunday before main practice. He may be joined there by James Davison, who is rumoured to be about to be confirmed by KVSH Racing for what would be his first oval race in an IndyCar.
It was also announced on Monday that Karam's car, a co-entry with the Chip Ganassi Racing organisation, will be sponsored by Comfort Revolution and Brantley Gilbert. Gilbert - a country music entertainer - was present at the track on Monday to see how his money was being spent and to soak up the unique atmosphere of IMS.
It's the first time that Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been in action since last year's Indy 500 where it fielded Oriol Servia, after which it was forced to close the factory doors because of a lack of funding.
“We knew what we were up against last year and it was always the intention to come back, but come back the right way and do it well,” said team co-owner Dennis Reinbold. "It's great to be back, and it's the first step of many that hopefully we could come back full time."
Also present again for the day's session was NASCAR star Kurt Busch who is attempting to 'do the double' on May 25 by competing in both the Indy 500 and then the Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup race in Charlotte, North Carolina. Busch had already previously completed the required refresher course last week, but took the opportunity to return to Indianapolis for more track time between the various ROP runs in order to get as much experience of running an open wheel car on the 2.5-mile speedway as possible. Busch ended the day with the fastest time, logging a lap at 222.289mph.
Busch's Indy 500 team mate Marco Andretti also saw some track time on Monday despite not being a rookie - he was testing some new aerodynamic components on behalf of IndyCar.
Combined times for ROP
1. #26 Kurt Busch
(H) 222.289mph 40.4878s Session 2
2. #7 Mikhail Aleshin
(H) 219.170mph 41.0640s Session 2
3. #22 Sage Karam
(C) 218.416mph 41.2057s Session 2
4. #98 Jack Hawksworth
(H) 217.936mph 41.2966s Session 2
5. #18 Carlos Huertas
(H) 217.916mph 41.3004s Session 2
6. #5 Jacques Villeneuve
(H) 217.742mph 41.3334s Session 1
7. #41 Martin Plowman
(H) 217.085mph 41.4585s Session 2
Total Laps for Combined Sessions: 622