Indy's 'Rites of Spring'

Opening day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has always signalled the 'Rites of Spring' for any Hoosier-born sports fan or 'gearhead'.

Indy's 'Rites of Spring'

It means the first day of practice for the Indianapolis 500, where shirtless fans sit in the stands drinking beer and eating fried chicken while high-speed Indy cars take to the track in preparation for the biggest race in the world.

This year's Indy 500 has an extra dose of drama and interest that has returned it to glory.

In addition to three teams from the rival CART series joining the regulars of the Indy Racing League, NASCAR Winston Cup star Tony Stewart has joined the field and will be officially announced as a driver for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing today (Monday morning).

Sunday's opening day of practice provided plenty of news. Lyn St. James - the first woman to be named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 1992 - officially retired from the Indy 500. Greg Ray, the most recent winner in the IRL, was the fastest driver of the day with a lap at 224.301 miles per hour in a Dallara-Oldsmobile Aurora.

If that wasn't enough, Marlboro Team Penske - which competed earlier in the day in the Lehigh Valley Grand Prix at Nazareth, Pennsylvania - flew to Indianapolis after the race in time to get all four cars including the backups ready for some laps in the final hour of practice.

Six Penske crew members and both drivers - defending CART champion Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves - put in double duty at Nazareth and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"I think it's tremendous," team owner Roger Penske said. "I remember every year we have tried to get here and be here on the first day and it's part of being prepared. Greg Ray jumped out and set a speed there that people will have to meet. That reminds me of Rick Mears putting out a lap like that.

"I think it's great. This has always been the biggest race in the world, we came here to run and we are excited to be back."

De Ferran crashed in the CART race and finished 23rd. Castroneves finished 11th before flying to Indianapolis.

"We didn't have a good day at Nazareth, Gil got himself tangled up and Helio spun it out on a restart," Penske said. "Hey, that's all part of it. We have to get the job done and coming here is going to make a big difference."

De Ferran was able to have the eighth-fastest speed at 219.243 miles per hour in a Dallara-Aurora. Castroneves had the 14th fastest lap at 216.608 mph.

"I think the team did a terrific job getting everything together and we were able to get over here and run all four cars," Penske said. "That's what we wanted to try to accomplish and we were able to do that. That's a pretty good day for us.

"For Gil and the guys, we had kind of an average day today at Nazareth. We were really excited to get here. I think the fact we were able to shake down both cars without a problem, now we can get down to serious business over the next couple of days."

While the Indianapolis 500 has returned to its traditional three-week format that includes one full week of practice followed by Pole Day next Saturday and second-round qualifications next Sunday, then another week of practice with the final round of qualifications in two weeks, Team Penske doesn't have that much time.

The team must get both drivers into the race next weekend because they have to fly to Japan and participate in a CART race at Twin Ring Motegi in two weeks.

"We have to get qualified so we don't have a lot of time to waste," Penske said. "We have to execute here and there is certainly a lot of pressure here and we have to make it happen."

Among the IRL drivers who impress Penske is Sam Hornish, Jr, the 21-year-old who won the first two races of the IRL season.

"He is a talented young driver, he's with a good team and it will be interesting to see his speeds along with Michael Andretti's because the two of them will make a real good combination."

Penske's two drivers can now spend the next week concentrating solely on getting into the Indy 500 field.

"It was good to get some running in today so we could see if something went wrong," said de Ferran, who last ran here in 1995. "We didn't have any problems. I can't wait to get rolling tomorrow."

Castroneves' car had a bad battery and his telemetry didn't work on his practice laps. He also said he was tired from competing in a 225-mile race followed by a plane flight to Indianapolis.

The day began as the four former winners in this year's Indianapolis 500 field - Al Unser Jr. in 1992 and 1994, Buddy Lazier in 1996, Arie Luyendyk in 1990 and 1997 and Eddie Cheever in 1998 - took the first laps on the track in ceremonial formation.

St James then took several farewell laps around the 2.5-mile oval as she said goodbye to an event that she has competed in seven times.

"It's time," St James said. "Sometimes, you have to step back and take stock of what reality is. I've had a wonderful career, and I'm retiring from active Indy racing with many wonderful memories. Coming back and qualifying last year, pulling the team together the way we did after the crash, is one of the proudest moments of my career.

"I think it's fitting that the 2000 race would be my last. If I had to end it, that was as good a way as any."

Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and IRL founder Tony George honored St James for her career.

"I told her she was a pioneer," George said. "She said she wasn't, but she was. Racing is in her blood, and I'm sure it was a tough decision. After a lot of thought, she decided to retire, and we're happy that she was able to get one last ride around the Speedway."

There were 38 car/driver combinations that took to the track on Sunday, but none were faster at the end of the day than Greg Ray.

"The wind kind of died down," Ray said. "We put on a new set of tires. We changed some things on the aero package. It was a combination of all those things. We are working on getting a balance on things. At Indy, the balance on your qualifying car is one way, and the balance on your race car is a little bit the other way. We're just working on a happy medium.

"There are literally 20 combos of teams and drivers that can go out there and put a car on the pole and win the race. The competition is the fun part, and there is going to be a lot of competition here."

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