Rookies earn their stripes at Indy ROP
While many Midwesterners were completing lunch, Pippa Mann dutifully completed the paperwork for engineers and exited the stuffy conference room with a broad smile. An hour earlier, she systematically completed all four phases of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie Orientation Program and exited the confines of the No. 36 Conquest Racing car with a broad smile.
"I really enjoyed it. It surprised me how difficult it was to stay within the limits that were set, especially toward the end when we put on our second set of tires," said Mann, who seeks to make her IZOD IndyCar Series debut in the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 on May 29. "I went out there and got into a rhythm really quickly because the new tires have so much grip, but was told to back it down a little. We completed all 35 laps of ROP in 35 laps so the boss (team owner Eric Bachelart) is happy.
"It was a good first day, and now we can spend some time on the car and spend some time on my fit to get at it Saturday."
That's Opening Day at the Speedway, when the seven ROP participants will be joined on the 2.5-mile ribbon of asphalt by any/all entrants for a practice session from noon-6 p.m. (ET). The day includes other fan events, including autograph sessions with Parnelli Jones and Danny Sullivan.
All the ROP participants -- JR Hildebrand (National Guard Panther Racing), James Hinchcliffe (Newman/Haas Racing), Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing), Ho-Pin Tung (Schmidt Dragon Racing), James Jakes (Dale Coyne Racing), Scott Speed (Dragon Racing) and Mann - completed at least three phases of the exercise. Jakes, driving a race car on an oval anywhere, will complete the fourth phase (10 consistent laps above 215 mph) any time before qualifications May 21. Hildebrand posted the quickest lap at 221.533 (on Lap 59 of his 68 for the day), while Hinchcliffe recorded the most laps (101).
ROP DRIVER QUOTES:
HO-PIN TUNG (No. 8 Dragon-Schmidt Racing): "It was a very exciting day. Everyone knows that the Indianapolis (Motor) Speedway is one of the greatest tracks in the world and to be here as a driver and to be actually driving a car here is a very special experience. I really have to thank Sam Schmidt and Jay Penske for giving me the opportunity to be here today. It's a great honor." (About passing ROP): "When I started today, I went through a lot of things with my driver coach, Jeff Andretti, and (INDYCAR's) Al Unser Jr. They were a great help to get me through the first few laps. From there, it went really smooth. We had to finish the program pretty rapidly because we only had one car available for our team, so my teammate Scott Speed had to finish ROP in my car. Basically when I was done, I got out of my car and handed off to Scott."
JR HILDEBRAND (No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing): "We were just trying to work our way through (ROP). We got through the phases pretty easily in the morning and I was having a good time. Buddy Rice, my teammate this year, and I went out on track late yesterday and I got a ride around this morning from Arie (Luyendyk). I felt pretty comfortable right away. Once we got going, I settled in. Obviously tire wear, because the track is pretty green, is something we had to pay attention to, so we had to be pretty efficient with the use of our tires. We ended up having a pretty good day."
PIPPA MANN (No. 36 Conquest Racing): "We went through all four phases on a couple of sets of tires, which was the plan. I really enjoyed it. It surprised me how difficult it was to stay within the limits that were set, especially toward the end when we put on our second set of tires. I went out there and got into a rhythm really quickly because the new tires have so much grip, but was told to back it down a little. We completed all 35 laps of ROP in 35 laps so the boss (team owner Eric Bachelart) is happy. It was a good first day, and now we can spend some time on the car and spend some time on my fit to get at it Saturday."
JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 06 Sprott Newman/Haas Racing): "The first couple of laps in the Sprott Indy car were certainly a wakeup call because I haven't been on an oval in a long time; since Homestead last October. The speed was a bit of a refresher the first couple of laps but as I got up to speed, again, like I said on the road and street courses, the car is a pretty logical progression from the Indy Lights car so I was very happy to see that. Obviously we were running a very conservative setup today just to make sure we got through Day 1 and rookie orientation. The car felt very good and the team worked well today. I am getting acclimated with the spotters a little bit which will be important come race time. Overall, I think it was a very good first day on all fronts."
Ribbs forms Firestone Indy Lights team, fields car for Austin: Twenty years after Willy T. Ribbs became the first African-American to compete in the Indianapolis 500, he has formed a Firestone Indy Lights team in order to help another African-American driver achieve his dream.
In partnership with Starting Grid, Inc. principal Chris Miles, Ribbs has formed Willy T. Ribbs Racing to campaign 21-year-old Chase Austin in the 2011 Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"As we celebrate the centennial of the Indianapolis 500, as well as the 20th anniversary of Willy breaking the color barrier at the Speedway, I felt it was imperative that Starting Grid build a program that would honor the past while establishing the foundation for a strong future in motorsports," Miles said.
Austin will take the wheel of the Willy T. Ribbs Racing/ Starting Grid Inc./Brooks Associates Racing entry in May 27 race, the premier event on the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights schedule. With sponsorship support from American Honda Motor Company, Inc., the car carries No. 75 in homage to Ribbs' car number when driving for comedian Bill Cosby in 1993 and 1994.
With his debut, Austin will be following in the footsteps of the only two African-American drivers to have competed at the Indianapolis oval; his team owner Ribbs (1991, 1993-1994) and George Mack (2002). Lewis Hamilton was the last person of African heritage to compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and is the only driver of African descent to have won there, having claimed the 2007 United States Grand Prix.
By qualifying for the Freedom 100, Austin will be the first African-American to start a Firestone Indy Lights race. A previous attempt to make the FIL field was made in 2003 by Lloyd Mack (younger brother of George), when he qualified but failed to race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Austin underwent a successful rookie test on May 9-10 at Chicagoland Speedway in preparation for the team's first Firestone Indy Lights competition, and feels confident about taking the green flag for 40 laps on the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"The test in Chicago went incredibly well," Austin said. "It probably went better than expected, being that these cars are so much different from stock cars. However, I adapted very quickly and was able to accomplish the team's goals for the test. As for competing at Indianapolis and for Willy T. Ribbs Racing, it is a tremendous honor. I have to thank Chris, Willy and American Honda for believing in me and providing this incredible opportunity. This experience has been amazing so far, and I hope it will not end any time soon."
Austin, much like his team owner, is no stranger to setting new benchmarks as he works his way up the racing ladder. Born in Eudora, Kansas, he spent his formative years competing in anything from tiny 900-pound midgets to intimidating, 700-horsepower dirt late-models. By 15 years of age, Austin was the youngest driver ever to sign a developmental contract in NASCAR, doing so with the Hendrick Motorsports team. He made history again in 2007 with Rusty Wallace Racing, becoming the first black driver to compete in a Nationwide Series oval event; highlighted by a sixth-place finish at Dover International Speedway. Austin has spent the past two seasons competing in the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series.
Ribbs' 23 years of professional auto racing included milestones as the first African-American to compete in open-wheel racing with 47 Indy car starts, and also included three NASCAR Cup races and 23 truck races, in addition to a test for a Formula 1 Grand Prix team.
"My first rodeo at Indy was 1991," said Ribbs. "It was without a doubt the greatest experience of my 23-year career. Without question, there is no bigger race on the planet; it is the biggest, most prestigious race in the world. To return in a team capacity, even for one event, is an honor and the direction I want to go long term. I've known about Chase for a long time. I could tell from the first time I spoke with him that he was very talented and that he was committed. To be successful in this business, ultimately, you must have commitment. Having Chase a part of INDYCAR is great for the sport and our sponsors, and I'm honored to bring him into the fold. I'm really happy he's doing it in INDYCAR, which is where he will have an opportunity to succeed."
INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard got a unique perspective on half the challenge that Bryan Clauson will face on May 27 during the Hoosier Hundred Media Day on May 12 at the Indiana State Fairgrounds.
Clauson, who will compete in both the Firestone Indy Lights Firestone Freedom 100 and the USAC Silver Crown's Hoosier 100 on the same day, took Bernard around the dirt oval in a two-seat USAC Silver Crown car.
"We were hauling down the straightaway, and when we came around the corner, that's when it got scary," Bernard said with a laugh. "The power in this thing is unbelievable. I was shaking. I wouldn't do this with anybody else, that's how much trust I have in Bryan."
The ride with Clauson gave Bernard a new appreciation for the short-track racing. A similar experience attending a race helped spur Bernard into creating the scholarship which is enabling Clauson to race in the seven oval races on the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights schedule.
"Our sport has been so instilled with USAC since the very beginning," Bernard said. "It has to be our job to make sure we're doing everything we can to work together. If we say we want the best Americans in the world, we have to prove it. And one of the best ways is to partner with USAC and ask its highest points finisher to compete in INDYCAR."
Added Clauson: "As long as he enjoyed it, I think I will keep him on my good side as best as I can."
Indianapolis 500 winners lend expertise to ROP: The speedometer inched above 90 mph heading into Turn 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Al Unser Jr. behind the wheel. Sure it was exceptionally slower than the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion is used to driving on the 2.5-mile oval, but on this early morning he was on a mission to relay pointers to even Rookie Orientation Program participants.
BTW: He was driving with his left hand, using his right to point out details on the track, as the speedometer topped 100 mph on the frontstretch.
"You have lots of time out there today so have respect for the racetrack, focus and patience," said Unser, who was joined by two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk in an identical Chevrolet Impala on the racing surface. "The car will let you know what it's doing. All your moves should be nice and smooth, and the more you'll run the more you'll start noticing things."
Such as: The proper attack on the acceleration lane out of the pits on cold tires. Check mirrors when joining traffic coming off the acceleration lane. Stay in the middle of the track on the backstretch coming off the acceleration lane. Check the position of the right-front tire for position upon entry to the turns. Look up on pit lane as cars pop out on you. You don't have the road course downforce.
"Everything is anticipation," Unser added. "If you react, it likely will be too late. Your head is ahead of the car."
Luyendyk, a 17-time Indy 500 starter who went through a rookie program in 1985, noted that the 41 driver/car combinations entered have more practice time in the upcoming week than the other 16 IZOD IndyCar Series events combined.
"It gives you time on the track without the fast cars around you and you feel a little bit intimidated by everyone being there at the same time," said Luyendyk, who was coaching Charlie Kimball of Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. "Today they go out there a little more relaxed. The (program) is necessary because it gets you mentally more ready to run in traffic at high speeds."
Kimball, driving the No. 83 Levemir and NovoLog FlexPen car, dispatched with the four speed phases before noon and was using the post-lunch break to get used to the car anew as the crew shed some downforce.
"As you build up speeds over 215 mph, what you do with input becomes even more critical," said Kimball, who also received pit lane input from two-time Indy 500 champion Dario Franchitti. "What you're doing with your hands and where you're looking and what you're thinking, and a lot of times everything just quiets down because that is what the car is set up to do.
"To do my first laps in an IndyCar at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on a perfect day, away from the fanfare that is Opening Day and to get my head around it is a great way to go about it."