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Aleshin making himself at home at Indy PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, May 08, 2014 7:59 PM

Associated Press

 

INDIANAPOLIS — Mikhail Aleshin made his first trip to the U.S. last November when he was contemplating taking a ride in IndyCar. He stepped off a plane from Moscow expecting a balmy Indianapolis winter and learned the hard way it was colder than he was used to in Russia.

Fast-forward six months and the first Russian driver to compete in the IndyCar Series has adjusted quite well to his new home. Aleshin likes living in Indy, is finding his way in the open-wheel series and getting quite comfortable at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Four days after completing the Indianapolis 500 rookie orientation program, Aleshin was back at the speedway Thursday for the opening day of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He briefly sat atop the leaderboard in the second practice session and ended the day with the fifth-best overall time.

Scott Dixon paced the day at 1 minute, 10.4654 seconds. Aleshin, who was the fastest of the five rookies in Monday’s rookie program, posted a best lap at 1:10.6681 and told reporters he’s been awed by the speedway.

“When I had my (rookie) test, I understood why it’s so special because it really is very special,” Aleshin said. “It’s just amazing. You drive so fast. I think I really like the oval stuff. I just can’t wait ‘til I’m going to be racing with the guys around because that’s going to be exciting.”

Aleshin’s first experience on an American race track was a November test with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. But the 26-year-old said Russians are aware of the Indianapolis 500 and race fans in Europe try to watch the event each year.

But IndyCar is an unknown in his home country, something Aleshin believes will change later this month when he expects media attention as he prepares for his Indy 500 debut.

“IndyCar was never showed on Russian TV so much. We had a couple Indy 500 races a long time ago,” he added. “But from this year, it is on TV already, so people start to follow. For the 500 race, there is a lot of media coming here from Russia, as well.”

Here’s five things from the opening day of the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis:

WHAT TO EXPECT: Indianapolis Motor Speedway reconfigured its existing road course for this inaugural Grand Prix, which will be run on a 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit Saturday. It will look nothing like the Indianapolis 500 and the cars will race clockwise. Turns 2 through 6 run through the north portion of the infield and the exit of Turn 6 begins a long run through the middle of the facility into a left-hand turn.

The cars will race behind the Hall of Fame Museum and their final braking point will be in Turn 12, which is a right-handed turn in front of the South Vista.

“I think this layout, because it is smooth, the grip is quite high, you’ll see some really good racing,” said reigning series champion Dixon. “I expect it to be one of the best races we have this year just because of the layout of the track and how trim the cars have to be, and even the different configurations that teams may choose to run the race.”

BOURDAIS QUICK AGAIN: Sebastien Bourdais was again one of the fastest drivers on the track, clocking the quickest time in the morning and third-fastest in the combined two sessions.

It remains to be seen if he can translate that into a solid finish on Saturday.

Bourdais has been consistently quick since signing with KV Racing-SH, the team that won the Indianapolis 500 last year with Tony Kanaan. The Frenchman has nothing to show for his fast practice sessions, though, and his best finish this season was 13th at St. Pete. He’s been penalized by IndyCar five times in the first three races.

BAD WEATHER: The opening day of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis may have had the best weather of the 3-day event. Thunderstorms are expected in the Indianapolis area today, the day drivers will qualify for the inaugural road course race.

It could be dry for Saturday’s race but will certainly be cooler than the near 90 degree heat drivers prepared in on Thursday.

But it’s the rain for qualifying that could present this biggest issue.

“I think we have enough data to keep improving in the dry condition,” said Simon Pagenaud, who was second-fastest Thursday. “In the wet, you just deal with it. There’s not much you can do. Usually a good car in the dry is good in the wet. Hopefully it’s the case if it rains.”

THEY SAID IT: Aleshin’s career goals, like most European drivers, were always geared toward Formula One. He previously won the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship in 2010 and tested the Lotus Renault F1 car and Red Bull F1 car. But three races into IndyCar, he said his fans are enjoying the American series more than F1.

PENALTIES: Both Josef Newgarden and rookie Jack Hawksworth were penalized by IndyCar on Thursday for showing up late to the mandatory weigh-in session. Newgarden was docked six minutes of track time from Thursday’s second practice, while Hawksworth was held out for three minutes. The penalties correlated to how many minutes late each driver was to weigh-in.

Pennzoil’s “Yellow Submarine” scheme back at Indy: Pennzoil will return its iconic “Yellow Submarine” paint scheme to the Indianapolis 500 this month with 3-time winner Helio Castroneves.

The bright, distinctive design earned its nickname in 1979 when Johnny Rutherford first used the scheme, then won in the car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway a year later.

Pennzoil moved its sponsorship to Team Penske in 1983 and the organization won the Indy 500 with Rick Mears driving a similar yellow, black and red scheme in 1984 and 1988.

“My favorite memory of the Yellow Submarine is (it) winning the Indy 500,” said Castroneves. “I remember Rick Mears going down the straightaway and into Turn 1 — you could spot the car anywhere. But I am going to drive the car, what a tradition and what a great honor.”

Mears and Castroneves have combined for seven of Roger Penske’s record 15 Indianapolis 500 victories. When Mears retired in 1992, he continued to work with Team Penske as a driver coach and consultant, a role he still fills.

Pennzoil is returning the paint scheme as part of a monthlong celebration of the launch of its platinum and ultra-platinum synthetic motor oils with PurePlus Technology, which uses natural gas.

Rimes to sing national anthem at Indy 500: Country music star LeAnn Rimes will sing the national anthem before the start of this year’s Indianapolis 500.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced the selection Thursday. Rimes said in a statement that it is an honor to be picked to sing the anthem at the race’s 98th running on May 25.

Rimes had her first national hit in 1996 when she was 13 years old and has since won multiple Grammy Awards.

This year’s pre-race festivities will be highlighted by what actor Jim Nabors says will be his final singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana” at the track. The 83-year-old Nabors has performed the song nearly every year since 1972.

Drivers, teams contend with new oddities at Indy: Michael Andretti thought he had experienced everything at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — until he strolled down pit row Thursday.

Suddenly, the 51-year-old IndyCar team owner who grew up around this historic track, who raced against his father and his son here, who led more laps than any non-race winner in Indy history, was surprised at seeing tire marks going the wrong way.

“I wondered, ‘Why are they burning rubber coming into the pits.’ Then I remembered,” Andretti recalled before cracking a smile on Indy’s opening day. “You sort of get used to it.”

Andretti isn’t alone. Everyone is adjusting to Indy’s the new sights, sounds and schedules this May.

Traditionalists have already complained that it was a bad idea to run two major IndyCar races at Indianapolis in the same month, arguing the Grand Prix of Indianapolis will detract from the series’ marquee event, the Indianapolis 500. Of course, they also complained when NASCAR, Formula One and MotoGP all came to the speedway, too.

But this transition will be a little tougher on everyone.

Rather than attending opening day on a weekend, there were already two rookie practices and a road-course test session before the track officially opened for practice.

Rather than watching cars race counterclockwise through four left turns on a 2.5-mile oval all month, drivers will spend the first three days running clockwise around the reconstructed 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

Rather than seeing speeds top 225 mph, fans will deal with cars going more than 100 mph slower.

Qualifying for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis is scheduled for today with the race set for Saturday, a race that will be held even in light or moderate rain, something that should please Indy race fans who so often have to contend with long rain delays when the cars are on the oval.

That may not even be the oddest part.

“It is going to be really weird here Sunday when you get on the track and see the tire marks going the opposite direction we’re driving,” said Brazil’s Tony Kanaan, the defending Indianapolis 500 champ who now drives for Chip Ganassi. “But it’s just three days and then we have 15 days of the old way.”

Some are embracing the modifications.

Drivers have almost universally praised the road course, explaining that new passing zones and harder braking areas will make it more challenging to race and more fun to watch. Most also are following a normal road-racing weekend schedule for the first three days before switching to Indy mode for the rest of the month.

And there’s one more thing the drivers like.

“I feel fortunate we can try to win both,” said Castroneves.

Even the series’ marquee event, the 500, is changing.

Under the new format, the pole-winner will not be determined until the end of the second and final day of qualifications.

Organizers added an extra practice day, May 19, to give teams more time to focus on race setup since so many are expected to trim their cars for qualifying on May 17 and 18. And the 12:15 p.m. start for the May 25 race has made it possible for 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch to become the fourth driver to attempt “the double” — completing 1,100 miles of racing at Indy and Charlotte on the same day.

Darlington’s Wile thinks date change will stick

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Darlington Raceway President Chip Wile likes where his old, country track stands in NASCAR, even if it’s no longer the sports’ backdrop for honoring mothers this week.

The 65-year-old facility had spent the previous nine years building the formerly off weekend of Mother’s Day into a can’t-miss race for NASCAR moms, who walked across the stage with their sons or daughters during driver introductions and combined for the combined for the unique call of “Drivers and sons, start your engines!”

But Wile believes that the switch in is Darlington’s best interest long-term and will keep NASCAR’s oldest superspeedway relevant with a new generation of race fans.

“Look, it’s an old place but there’s lots of things going on,” Wile said Thursday.

Wile said he’s heard little except raves from NASCAR leaders and officials at Darlington’s parent company, International Speedway Corp. The compliments about the strong crowd and the good show continued last week at Talladega where Wile was in attendance.

The racing didn’t hurt either. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out front near the end until he was passed by Kevin Harvick with two laps left to win the Southern 500.

“Harvick kept texting me since saying, ‘We’ve got to do this or that at your track’,” Wile said. “So drivers understand this place is important.”

After a few weeks to review numbers and catch their breaths, Wile says track leaders have started plans to make things even better in 2015. He’s confident the April race weekend will stick and give fans something to count on each season.

That was certainly the case for more than a half century when the Southern 500, one of NASCAR’s crown jewel races, capped the summer season with its Labor Day weekend running. The tradition ended after 2003 when the event shifted to California. After the 2004 season, Darlington was reduced to just one Sprint Cup weekend each season. Night racing began the next year with the first of the “Lady in Black’s” first Mother’s Day runnings.

The track had sold out its first four Mother’s Day weekend races but attendance had fallen off in recent years. Wile said the track came close to a full house a month ago, although he would not provide details about attendance, citing track policy

A month ago, NASCAR President Mike Helton was on hand as Darlington unveiled plans to tie its long, successful past to its future. Helton was asked if Darlington could once again regain its Labor Day date, now at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and would not rule it out.

For now, Wile’s busy to make sure next April brings another strong crowd.

There will be some facility tweaks next time around, Wile added, similar to projects completed for this year such as adding more reliable hot-water sources for infield shower stalls.

Darlington plans to build on its past and connect with a younger crowd, using NASCAR great Bill Elliott and his son, rising star Chase Elliott, as faces of a continuing campaign. The elder Elliott, who earned the nickname “Million Dollar Bill” when he claimed the 1985 Winston Million bonus at Darlington, is glad there’s a place for Darlington on NASCAR’s schedule.

Wile hopes to make that happen the next 11 months. He’ll expects to roll out details about Darlington’s throwback 2015 race weekend throughout the year. He’ll open the track for a free Fourth of July celebration with fireworks and concert acts, part of tying the track to the community year-round.

 

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