Seven drivers will be the first to hit the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway today in preparation for the 2011 Indianapolis 500. While none of these drivers will be favorites to win the race, they are getting some valuable experience for the next few weeks.
The Rookie Orientation Program kicks off later today as the drivers look to get accustomed to the speeds and driving lines of the track. Three American drivers (all from California) will join two drivers from England, one driver from Canada and one from China, to complete the day's Orientation.
Popular rookies James Hinchcliffe (Newman/Haas Racing) and JR Hildebrand (Panther Racing) will join James Jakes (Dale Coyne Racing), Pippa Mann (Conquest Racing), Charlie Kimball (Chip Ganassi Racing), Scott Speed and Ho-Pin Tung (Dragon Racing) in today's session.
Hinchcliffe and Hildebrand have gotten advice about the Speedway from Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr., and they have both competed here in the Firestone Freedom 100. Still, they both realize that this is a whole new beast they will be facing this month.
The cars are obviously much faster, bigger and heavier than what they raced in the Indy Lights Series. The competition will be much more difficult, making things a little crowded out on the track.
The Orientation Program consists of turning consistent laps at four speed phases: 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 today.
Entering the Speedway this morning felt good, even though "Opening Day" doesn't kick off until this coming Saturday. Just being back inside the track and in the garage area was great, but it felt strange. With only these seven drivers and not many other people around, it had a different vibe to it.
As the morning continued, some of the drivers mentioned being "a little nervous" for the first time, but they all knew this is something that is going to make them well prepared for the next two weeks before the race. Practicing with the veterans will probably help them more, but this is the best way for them to start.
The qualifying session is going to be completely foreign to them all, and staying calm will be key. Hinchcliffe probably said it best when he spoke of how they wouldn't feel "rushed" today and they could ease into things.
These guys are going to have to get used to the speeds that go along with the Indianapolis 500. The pressure to make the race is going to be even greater this year, with at least 41 entries as of this morning.
Hildebrand says he is also feeling more pressure with his team finishing in second place in each of the last two years here with Dan Wheldon. He knows he has big shoes to fill, but he is excited to get going.
I am also ready to get things going. We still have a little more time before the cars will hit the track, but the anticipation here in the garage area is the same all around.