INDYCAR: ‘Opening Day’ dawns at last for 2011 Indianapolis 500

Saturday is “Opening Day” for the centennial Indianapolis 500. Here’s a preview of the next two weeks of activity, including the qualifying process, track facts and some race history.

The American motor sports fans do love naming their “days”: from Opening Day to Pole Day, then Bump Day to Carb Day and finally Race Day itself, there’s a lot of activity in store over the next 15 days at Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the race itself on Sunday May 29.

Although “Opening Day” is the first day that the Speedway is opened up to all the teams for on-track activity, there have already been a series of events at the facility, starting with the track being used for part of the route of a local mini-marathon through the streets of the city of Indianapolis last Sunday, together with a balloon festival and a fireworks display.

Things got down to earth with more serious business on Tuesday with the launch of the new 2012 Dallara Indycar chassis designs, and then Thursday saw the Rookie Orientation Program start the first actual on-track action for seven of the rookies bidding to make the starting grid. And yesterday – Friday, May 13 – allowed the Firestone Indy Lights teams their first taste of IMS with a four hour open test session ahead of the Firestone Freedom 100 support race in a fortnight.

Opening Day itself on Saturday, May 14 sees all the IndyCar teams eligible to take to the track for the first time from noon until 6pm (local time.) That will allow the drivers to get used to the Speedway, and let the teams start dialling in the car to the track conditions.

The rest of the week continues to see the track open every day between noon and 6pm for IndyCar practice, with the morning period being used for Indy Experience two-seater and pace car rides.

Fast Friday on May 20 is when the main contingent of race fans start arriving and the stands fill up with spectators for the final six-hour practice session, which is usually when the teams are fine-tuning their qualifying pace and therefore should see some of the fastest laps of the week so far.

Pole Day on Saturday, May 21 is the first of the two qualifying days. After a final two hour practice period, the cars start to run qualifying laps between 11am and 4pm (local times), in an order determined by blind draw the day before. Each car gets to make three qualification attempts consisting of four laps comprising 10 miles in total. Drivers will generally be qualifying both their main car and their T-car (spare).

At the end of the first qualifying segment (which incidentally sets pit stall order), the fastest nine cars have a further 90 minute session between 4.30pm and 6pm that afternoon as a “shootout” to lock-in the positions of the front three rows of the Indy 500 race, including pole position: last year’s pole position speed was an impressive 227.970 mph, set by Penske’s Helio Castroneves. The order of the cars between 10th and 24th is also set – but they can still be “bumped” from the grid altogether by events on the following day.

Bump Day on Sunday, May 22 starts with a one-hour free practice, then cars are back on track between noon and 6pm for further four-lap qualifying runs with the cars that didn’t make it into the top 24 on Saturday competing to get it into the remaining nine positions available on the grid.

Once all 33 spots are filled, “bumping” begins: the car with the slowest time of the top 33 (whether set on the Saturday or Sunday, so changing weather conditions between the days can play a key role) is now “on the bubble”. If a car outside the top 33 sets a faster time than the car on the bubble, then the slower car is bumped off the grid, the order “shuffles up” to fill the gap, and the faster car enters the grid in 33rd position. The slower car can rejoin the qualifying process and attempt to bump its way back onto the starting grid; other cars coming close to being on the bubble can opt to delete their existing time and also re-enter qualifying at any time.

At the end of the process, we have the 33-strong grid for the Indianapolis 500, and everyone can take a breather. There is a relative lull for the next two days before the Wednesday, which is Community Day where the garage is open to the public and the drivers are out in force to sign autographs. The following day, Thursday May 26, sees practice and qualifying for the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race.

Carb Day – “Carburetion Day”- is Friday, May 27 and sees the final IndyCar practice session for one hour between 11am and noon, allowing teams to do any tweaks to their cars in response to changing weather or track conditions since the weekend. The name has remained despite the fact that no qualified car has used a carburetor since 1963.

These days Carb Day also sees the running of the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race from 12.30pm: last years’s race was won by Wade Cunningham with Charlie Kimball, James Hinchcliffe and Dan Clarke finishing close behind, after Pippa Mann started from pole position but was put out of the race by an accident on lap 3.

Then in the evening, Sir Jackie Stewart will be inducted into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Auto Racing Hall of Fame in a ceremony at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown.

After the 500 Festival Parade on Saturday May 28, it’s finally time for Race Day on Sunday, with driver introductions at 11.30am before the race itself starts at high noon (5pm BST) – and sometime later in the afternoon, we’ll have ourselves a winner.

The race itself lasts 500 miles (hence the name) and thus consists of 200 laps of the 2.5 mile oval circuit; it typically lasts a little over three hours, except if disrupted by rain. Monday, which is the Memorial Day public holiday (commemorating fallen US military personnel) in the US, is left clear in case the event is forced into a second day because of a rain delay. The last time the race was forced onto a Monday was in 1997, when more rain then forced a further rollover to the Tuesday; the most recent race hit by rain was in 2007, which was interrupted for three hours by rain on Sunday and was finally declared over after 415 miles (166 laps) when the rain returned a second time.

The winner receives the unmistakable Borg-Warner Trophy, given to winners every year since 1936 when it was first won by Louis Meyer – who coincidentally also started the tradition of the winner taking a drink of milk to celebrate.

Four drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 four times – AJ Foyt was the first (1961, 1964, 1967, 1977) and the feat was subsequently matched by Al Unser, Sr. and Rick Mears. Of the current crop of drivers, only Helio Castroneves has a chance to join that elite group in 2011, while Dario Franchitti has two wins to his name including last year’s victory. By contrast, motor racing legend Mario Andretti has won the Indy 500 just once, in 1969. Notable winners in their rookie years include Graham Hill (in 1966), Juan Montoya (2000) and Castroneves (2001).

The facility now covers an area of 559 acres and has seating capacity for 257,000 people together with further in-field capacity raising the potential number of spectators to 400,000 – making IMS the largest, highest-capacity sporting facility in the world. The two straightaways are 0.625 miles long with the turns banked at a fraction over nine degrees – comparatively flat by modern standards, and unchanged since IMS was constructed in 1909 as the first motor racing track in the world to be known as a “Speedway”, making it officially the first of its kind.

Although the 2011 race is billed as the centennial/100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 – the maiden race was run in 1911 and won by Ray Harroun in his famous yellow #32 Marmon “Wasp” – this is actually the 95th running of the race, not the 100th. That’s because the event wasn’t held in the war years 1917-18 and 1942-45. Consequently, you can expect the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to be engaging in another round of even greater hype and hooplah in five years time to mark the 100th running of the race the Americans love to call “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.

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