Rookies carry confidence into Indy testing James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand have soaked up advice about taming the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from driver coaches Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr. They've competed on the 2.5-mile ribbon of asphalt with the tricky corners in the Firestone Freedom 100.
Still, it will be a significantly new experience for both during the Rookie Orientation Program on May 12 and their initial go-round of the four-lap qualification process a week later.
Also scheduled to participate are James Jakes (Dale Coyne Racing), Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing), Ho-Pin Tung (Schmidt Dragon Racing), Pippa Mann (Conquest Racing; the 2010 Firestone Freedom 100 pole sitter) and Scott Speed (Dragon Racing).
The evaluation program consists of turning consistent laps at four speed phases on the 2.5-mile asphalt oval: 200-205 mph (five laps), and 10 laps each at 205-210 mph, 210-215 and 215 or more. INDYCAR president of competition Brian Barnhart expects drivers to complete at least three phases during the session. Opening Day, which is open for practice for all cars, is May 14.
"The format for the month is good for us because it gives us a lot of track time and doesn't force us to sort of rush the issue and get the grip on one of the most difficult racetracks in the world," added Hinchcliffe, driver of the No. 06 Sprott car for Newman/Haas Racing. "For me, to be on the entry list for the 100th anniversary race is beyond words."
Hinchcliffe, who didn't compete in the season opener, is three points off the Sunoco Rookie of the Year pace set by Hildebrand through the first four races (all on road/street courses). Conquest Racing's Sebastian Saavedra, who competed in the '500' last May, is seven points out of the rookie top spot. Kimball (minus 11 points) and Jakes (minus 14) also are contenders.
Hildebrand, driving the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing car, is coming off his initial top 10 in the series on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on May 2. He's been running at the finish in all four events, but has had the disadvantage of an average starting position of 22.
"There has been more of a struggle than we all would have liked, but the big thing for us is that we've been able to power through in a sense in the races despite some lousy weekends otherwise," said Hildebrand, who posted a runner-up finish in the '09 Firestone Freedom 100 during his Firestone Indy Lights championship season. "We've had some definitive bright spots in different sessions and our pace in the wet (in Brazil) was as good as anybody. We really haven't put together a whole weekend on any of these road courses thus far, but we're learning an incredible amount every weekend and moving forward.
"Dealing with adversity sometimes tears everybody apart in a competitive environment, and with this team it's gone the other way. We're working closer and everybody's trying to help each other."
Hildebrand made two IZOD IndyCar Series road course starts in 2010 and now moves into the first oval stretch of the season with confidence in himself and the team's experience.
"Heading to Indy is a much more known quantity for us as a group; the team has had great success there over the last several years," said Hildebrand, referring to Panther Racing's consecutive second-place finishes the past two years with Dan Wheldon and Vitor Meira. "That's something we're looking forward to - going to a place where we know the setups.
"For me, it's massively exciting to compete in my first Indy 500. It will be my first time going 220 (mph). I have Buddy Rice, who has won the race and has the experience, driven the cars in recent history coming in as my teammate. I think that is an all-around confidence-inspiring situation going into (practice)."