Rookies ruled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the opening day of practice for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Rookie Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts Saturday with a clocking of 220.250 mph. Newgarden, who drives for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, led the field most of the day with speeds of 219 plus, hitting 220 toward the end of the day.
“It’s pretty cool. It was a good day for the series,” Newgarden said. “The car is really good and the speeds are only going to get better.”
Last year’s Indy 500 runner-up, Panther Racing’s J.R. Hildebrand, turned in a 219.693 to push rookie Bryan Clauson out of the second position.
“It is nice for us to be able to turn the page and for us to roll out with some speed is a nice way for us to get started this month,” Hildebrand said.
Clauson finished third quickest with his top speed of 219.632. Clauson is SFH’s second entry for Indy.
“I don’t know that it could have gone much better,” he said. “We were really quick out of the gate. The fastest laps can be misleading because of the tow you catch, but even by ourselves, Josef and I were very quick all day. It will be interesting to see as the month goes on where guys end up. It’s hard to tell who’s flat-out at this point and who is not. But I felt really good about our car and the program we have in place for the rest of the month.”
Clauson was followed by Dale Coyne Racing’s James Jakes, who clocked a 218.286. Tony Kanaan was the second veteran to make the top five with his best speed at 217.741.
“We were just trying to get everybody into the Indy 500 mood. We ran the T-car [back-up car] today to make sure everything was all right and we have no concerns there. It was a smooth day,” said Kanaan.
Charlie Kimball and Helio Castroneves also ran speeds above 217. Simon Pagenaud (another rookie), Justin Wilson and Scott Dixon rounded out the top 10, with all hitting speeds at more than 217.
Twenty-six drivers recorded 693 laps for the day. Several teams went out in their back-up cars for shakedowns.
“I think we are going to have some good stuff to show to people. I think the fans will really enjoy it, Newgarden commented.
He said he was pleasantly surprised by how well the car did in traffic.
“It wasn’t as bad as I had earlier predicted and hopefully that bodes well for the race. Hopefully, we can run close enough, make some passes and put on a really good show,” Newgarden added.
Hildebrand is optimistic about the new car.
“It’s nice to have some new challenges to face, with the car and the engines,” he said. “It’s fun for us and creates a little bit more adversity that everyone is dealing with. For the teams and drivers, we are all a little more cognizant of who is out there and are they getting tows, because we don’t really know what it’s going to be all about.”
Newgarden and Clauson are graduates of the Mazda Road to Indy program and Newgarden strongly believes the program is producing high-quality drivers who one day will run Indianapolis.
“There are a lot of young Americans coming down the pipelines who are winning races and leading championships,” he pointed out. “I believe it is our job to try and nurture that talent and get it to the top level. It is so difficult now to make it into this top rank.”
“There is a good crop of young drivers coming up through the ranks,” Hildebrand said, adding that he agrees with Newgarden that those drivers need to be watched and given opportunities to drive.
Only two Andretti cars made it onto the track Saturday, with the team choosing to preserve tires and equipment.
Marco Andretti was the first Andretti Autosport driver on the oval. He turned four shakedown laps in the No. 17 car before handing it off to its driver, Sebastian Saavedra.
“I’m anxious to get out there tomorrow in the 26 car,” Andretti said. “I thought the 17 car was pretty good and had a good pace for what the wing settings were, so that’s encouraging to me. I think we’re going to be fast and I can’t wait.”
Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe was the first car on the track. He was soon joined by teammates Castroneves and Will Power, who ran a three-wide formation down the front straightaway.
Five of the rookies — Rubens Barrichello, Newgarden, Jakes, Clauson and Pagenaud — passed all three phases of their rookie test, while Jean Alesi and Wade Cunningham have passed two. Michel Jourdain passed all three phases of a refresher. Jourdain last raced in the Indy 500 in 1996.
IndyCar officials announced that turbocharger boost levels will increase for Fast Friday and the two qualification days. The standard boost level of 130 kilopascals will increase for those days to 140. That boost will add 40-50 horsepower.
Practice continues at noon today. Gates open at 10 a.m.