By Jake Thompson
INDIANAPOLIS — Saturday and Sunday marked the opening weekend of the 97th Indianapolis 500 as teams took to the track both days to get in the month’s first practice laps.
Cooler temperatures prevailed throughout the area over the weekend, but drivers made the most of their opportunities.
Andretti Autosport rookie driver Carlos Munoz, who passed his rookie test Saturday, turned the fastest lap of the month so far at 223.023 on Sunday. Munoz, though, sounded a bit like a veteran afterwards.
“It’s nice to be in the top…it’s still a long week and a long ways to go,” Munoz said. “I’m still learning, especially on the group side. I have great teammates that help me a lot and say to me what I do wrong or stuff like that.”
But his time on the track did not come without some drama as the Munoz put two wheels into the Turn 1 grass late Sunday afternoon while running with teammate Marco Andretti.
“I think it was a little bit of misunderstanding,” Munoz said. “I didn’t see him coming… it was close but it’s racing for sure. I was lucky to continue.
“After that, each lap I was more and more comfortable behind the guys. As I (said), I still have a lot to improve.”
Ryan Hunter-Reay (222.285) came in second fastest on the weekend, followed by E.J. Viso (222.523), Andretti (222.485) and rookie A.J. Allmendinger (221.279).
Hunter-Reay was cautiously optimistic after his first session Sunday.
“We really don’t know where we stack up yet because there hasn’t been a full field out there,” the defending IZOD Series Champion said. “Today was a good day to just check some things off the list. We went through some of the bigger changes that were made throughout the winter and then we had a chance to run with the teammates which was interesting at times.”
Munoz, Andretti, Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe all drive for Andretti Autosport.
On Saturday, five drivers — Munoz, Ed Carpenter, Josef Newgarden, Charlie Kimball, and Alex Tagliani — all crested the 220 mph mark.
Carpenter turned the fastest lap Saturday with a 220.970.
“There were some things we wanted to try to do (Saturday) regardless of the weather,” Carpenter said. “It’s still very early in the process.”
Three-time winner Helio Castroneves was the first on the track Saturday as he was in 2010 and 2011.
“It felt really good to be back… always a special feeling when you take the track for the first time,” Castroneves said. “We were able to shake down the No. 2 IZOD car for A.J. (Allmendinger) and do the same for our car, which is what we wanted to accomplish.”
Longtime fan and mother starts practice Sunday
Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard was the honorary starter for Saturday’s practice and Indianapolis resident Emily Sylvester, a longtime Indy 500 ticket holder and mom, kicked off the start on Mother’s Day.
The honor of waving the green flag to start the day’s practice meant a lot to Sylvester as her family have been ticket holders for the previous 44 years.
“It was a very special feeling,” Sylvester said. “My mother passed away suddenly last November 19 at age 89. She was a race fan, and we always got together at race time with my dad, four generations of us. It’s very special for us on Mother’s Day. It’s in memory of her.”
Three rookies pass orientation
Rookie drivers A.J. Allmendinger Carlos Munoz and Tristan Vautier all passed the three-phase rookie orientation Saturday.
The three phases, set by IndyCar, are based on track and weather conditions. Phase 1 required the drivers to turn 10 laps at 200-205 mph followed by Phase 2, which requires 15 laps at 205-209 mph and finally, Phase 3, which had drivers turn 15 laps at 210 mph or more.
Allmendinger led the trio with a fast lap of 219.39 while Munoz (216.987) and Vautier (214.747) followed.
Allmendinger, who has run at Indy before in NASCAR, said the experience was certainly different.
“Obviously, it’s two different race cars, completely different race cars” Allmendinger said. “The line and the way the track feels, that I kind of knew, but from there it’s a completely different technique of how to get in the corners.”
But even with the experience gained from his time running the Brickyard 400, nerves still took over while Allmendinger was in the car.
“The first few laps when I was trying to go wide-open, the right foot was quivering,” he said. “I had to get the left foot to hold it down and say ‘OK, it’s time to get used to this.’ It was enjoyable.”
Vautier, who was coached by two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Arie Luyendyk, had run the track in the Indy Lights car, but realized it was different with practical knowledge.
“Everything happens faster in these cars and you need to anticipate everything,” Vautier said. “It’s easier to make a mistake and you have to be on it all the time.
“It was great to have Arie as a coach because he has so much experience here that you know you can trust what he’s saying to you.”
For Munoz, it was just the beginning of an impressive couple of days.
“It took me a few laps to adapt to the track and new No. 26 Unistraw Chevrolet,” Munoz said. “My teammates James (Hinchcliffe) and Marco (Andretti) supported me throughout each of the phases and gave me some good tips.”