Testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was halted late in the afternoon session by a heavy accident involving IRL veteran Eliseo Salazar.

The Chilean made contact with the outside retaining wall in Turn One, extensively damaging the rear of the AJ Foyt-entered Dallara-Chevrolet of young Brazilian team-mate Airton Dar?.

According to IMS medical director Dr Henry Bock, Salazar was transported by ground to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis for further evaluation, but was awake and alert. Despite the amount of damage to the car, he is not thought to be in any immediate medical danger.

Prior to the accident, spring testing had continued largely incident free as the now usual mix of former winners, veterans and rookies took part in private tests in preparation for the 86th Indianapolis 500 next month.

The drivers turned 703 laps and 1757.5 miles and, although no speeds were available, all drivers commented on the new 'diamond-ground' asphalt surface employed by the venue over the winter months. The high-tech grinding process smoothed bumps in the surface and added grip, preparing it for what many track and team officials predict will be one of the most competitive Indianapolis 500's in the 93-year history of the Speedway.

"There's a lot more grip than before," Dar? revealed, "There are no bumps at all. The track is very good."

Marlboro Team Penske driver Gil de Ferran, who tested along with team-mate Helio Castroneves, said the surface is requiring some adjustment, but gave it high marks.

"It's certainly different than what we had before," said de Ferran, who finished second to Castroneves in the 2001 race, "I find it very, very smooth, and it's taking me a little while to get used to having the grooves around because it makes the car hunt a little bit. Overall, though, I think it's been a good change."

Drivers are aware that this year's race will be wide-open in terms of competition, and qualifying will be more difficult than ever.

"I predict it's going to take maybe 224mph just to make the field," Salazar said before his accident, "Last year, you would have been in the first two rows. I write a column for a Chilean newspaper and just today I wrote that you go to Nazareth and 18 cars can win the race. If you translate that to here it's maybe 25 out of 33 guys. It's getting tougher and I think it's a good sign."

This year, six former winners are on the entry list, the most since 1994. Seven 500-winning teams, five Indy Racing League championship teams and three CART championship teams will field cars this year. Four IRL champions, four CART champions, a NASCAR Winston Cup race winner and a three-time Formula One race winner will all vie for one of 33 starting spots, requiring a solid effort for anyone hoping to make the race.

One of those solid teams is Kelley Racing, who tested yesterday with two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr and 2001 MBNA Pole Award winner Scott Sharp.

"I think everyone's pretty awed by the level of strong cars here," Sharp said, "At the press conference I was involved in last week with [IRL vice-president of operations] Brian Barnhart and Sam [Hornish Jr], we all talked about how 25 guys here can win the race. I think what's more exciting is you won't know who all those guys are until the green flag drops."

The month-long preparation for the 500 begins with Opening Day on 5 May and, according to Penske president Tim Cindric, each team must focus on their programme and not worry about the competition.

"You always just do the best you can," he said, "You put together your programme and you step through your programme a bit like we did last year. We plan to come here independent of what everybody else is doing and do what is right and hopefully it comes together for you in the end."

Foyt, a four-time winning driver who won a fifth 500 as a car owner with Kenny Brack in 1999, will take part in the Indianapolis 500 for the 45th-consecutive year in 2002.

"I've seen it like that here before where the field's real tight, so this is nothing new," he said, "Indianapolis is Indianapolis. It's like the years Penske's cars missed the race and Rahal's cars missed the race. Who'd ever think that?

"This place has got a mind of it's own. One day you're running fast and the next day you can't do nothing. This is something that I don't think anybody's ever figured out."

Other drivers participating in testing yesterday were Target Chip Ganassi Racing team-mates Jeff Ward, Kenny Brack and Bruno Junqueira, Team Rahal driver Jimmy Vasser and Blair Racing rookie Alex Barron.