Just days after the announcement of his deal with Dragon Racing putting him in an IZOD IndyCar for this year's centennial Indianapolis 500, Scott Speed was behind the wheel and getting to know how an oval looks from the cockpit of an open wheel racing car, as his new Dragon Racing team put him out on track at a private test at Chicagoland Speedway on Monday.

"It was very cool to get back into the groove of a high-downforce car that has more buttons on the steering wheel than one," said Speed, referring to his more recent times on ovals in a NASCAR stock car. "There is nothing like running around at over a 210 mph average."

Speed's signing for the Indy 500 race has raised eyebrows among motor racing fans and experts, who point out that Speed had always seemed resolutely disinterested in pursuing a career in IndyCar before last week. He spent much of his formative years in the sport in Europe, single-mindedly pursuing a seat in F1 by working his way up through British Formula Three, Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup, German Formula Renault and GP2 before finally getting that coveted seat at Toro Rosso for 28 Grand Prixs in 2006-7.

When that dream went sour and Speed returned to the United States, he still wasn't interested in IndyCar and instead followed the more lucrative path to NASCAR, but that also came to a finish at the end of 2010 when he had to make way for Brian Vickers who was returning to the Red Bull team from a year's medical leave. Speed has a $6.5m lawsuit ongoing against Red Bull as a result of his dismissal.

Since then, Speed has been looking for a new challenge - including finally taking a look at IndyCar and at the historic Indianapolis 500 race. And it seems to be rubbing off on him.

"I'm super-excited to go to Indy," he said. "Indy is the most-recognizable race in the world and I'm really lucky to get into a solid ride this year [with Dragon.] To be sitting in the position we are in a solid ride for the Indianapolis 500 is awesome."

Speed has competed on the oval circuit before in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, where Indianapolis hosts the Brickyard 400. He also took part in the now-defunct US Grand Prix when it was held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but the track configuration was very different for F1 and consisted of a twisty in-field section and only a small part of the banked oval circuit being used - and then in the reverse direction from how it's normally used in IndyCar.

That means he's got a lot to learn despite his previous history at IMS and on American ovals in stock cars, and he's the first to admit it.

"The more I'm getting into this now that I've done some laps, I'm starting to realize what a steep learning curve is ahead of me and that's what is exciting." the 28-year-old Californian said. "I'll try to be a sponge and soak up as much information as possible."

Arrving after mid-day because of travel issues getting to Chicago, Speed went on to complete around 50 laps on the 1.5 mile high-banked oval on Monday, compared with the 2.5-mile asphalt oval that he'll be running on come Thursday and - should he make the 33-car grid - on May 29. Speed said it was "enough to certainly get a good feel for it.

"We went down pit lane a couple of times to get a feel for the pit-road speed limiter, which is something I haven't worked with for a while," he added. "It was weird to be back in a car with downforce again ... My body wasn't used to pulling any Gs, really, so it was quite an experience," but he said that he started to recalibrate what was a "normal speed" through the corners after as little as 25 laps.

The session had originally been scheduled in order to give Ho-Pin Tung his first-ever oval experience ahead of official IndyCar testing and practice. Tung put in around 150 laps during the day as he prepared for his own d?but into the world of US open wheel racing. Dragon are partnering with Sam Schmidt Motorsports to field the first Chinese driver to attempt to qualify for America's premier motor sports event.

The official Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) on Thursday will take place at Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself, and will be open to fans free of charge. Along with Speed and Tung, the other drivers required to attend and demonstrate their abilities at oval racing are JR Hildebrand (National Guard Panther Racing), James Hinchcliffe (Newman/Haas Racing), James Jakes (Dale Coyne Racing) and Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing) and Pippa Mann (Conquest Racing). Another Indy 500 rookie, Jay Howard (Schmidt Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), previously successfully completed ROP in 2010 and is not required to re-certify.

The drivers will need to complete a series of exercises showing consistent speed and handling over ten laps at successive higher speeds between 200-205 mph, 205-210 mph, 210-215 mph and over 215 mph over the course of the eight-hour session.

Also appearing at the private Chicagoland Speedway test on Monday was Sam Schmidt Motorsports' 2005 Firestone Indy Lights champion Wade Cunningham. Cunningham is not entered in the Indy 500 - and will not take part in Thursday's ROP - but is preparing for his own IndyCar debut at the Texas Motor Speedway new-look Firestone Twin 275s doubleheader event on June 11.



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