Indy practice begins, but no more ‘Happy Hour’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Goodbye, Happy Hour.

Normally, the final hour of Indianapolis 500 practice each day would be the busiest time on the track. With the sun beginning to fall behind the towering grandstands along the front straightaway, the track would cool slightly – and produce significantly faster speeds.

Teams would scramble until the checkered flag signaled the end of practice at 6 p.m., each trying to squeeze an extra mile or two per hour out of their cars.

Even in qualifications, there was often a flurry of attempts early in the day, almost no activity in the heat of the afternoon and then another frenzy as the shadows lengthened late in the day.

No more.

Last month, for the first time in more than 30 years, Indiana went on daylight-saving time. That means the same conditions that were so conducive to speed aren’t likely to arrive until after the track has closed.

“It’s got to change,” Michael Andretti said. “It’s not by accident that all those speeds come out that last half hour. It’s because of the angle of the sun. It’s even in (turns) 3 and 4 where there is no shadow. But it’s just the way the sun’s hitting it. The track’s not as hot as it was.”

Practice for the May 28 race began at noon Tuesday, and after a ceremonial parade lap by defending champion Dan Wheldon and five other former winners, almost two dozen drivers took their initial laps within the next 45 minutes.

That was the busiest time all day, and there were only five cars on the track when rain ended practice more than an hour early.

Penske Racing teammates Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves were the leaders at more than 224 mph in their backup cars, with Wheldon and his teammate Scott Dixon right behind at more than 223 mph. All of those speeds came in the first hour of practice.

Later, Hornish and Castroneves came out in their primary race cars and posted the fifth- and sixth-fastest laps, also at more than 223.

“It was a pretty good run,” Hornish said. “We wanted to make sure we got out in both cars because we knew there was a possibility of rain today.

“That’s all it took,” he said of the fast, early laps in his backup. “When we got back out with the primary car, we couldn’t quite get that speed. But Helio and I being 1-2 is a pretty good day.”

The first of four days of qualifications is Saturday.

Last year, Wheldon turned the fastest speed on the first day of practice at 5:10 p.m., 10 minutes into Happy Hour.

And the fastest of the month, a lap of 229.331 mph by Danica Patrick, came at 10:44 a.m. on the second day of qualifications, before the track heated up.

The track record, 239.260 mph by Arie Luyendyk a decade ago under different chassis and engine specifications, was set at 1:04 p.m., but the final 21/2 hours of practice that day were rained out, denying him a chance to go even faster during Happy Hour.

The change to daylight-saving time, at least this year, might force some serious strategy moves as teams try to figure out the most advantageous time to practice and to qualify.

“Before, you hated to be an early number,” Andretti Green Racing general manager Kyle Moyer said of the qualifying order. “Now, all of a sudden, you want to draw in the top 10, especially the way it’s going to be a shootout. … I don’t think it’s going to be a 5 o’clock shootout; now you’re just going to run all day long.

“The biggest thing is you’ll see a lot more cars out at noon every day instead of waiting around for 5 o’clock,” Moyer said.

Steve Ragan, the chief mechanic for Panther Racing and driver Vitor Meira, said the demise of Happy Hour will change everyone’s approach to practice.

“Wind, shadows and all that changes,” he said. “You’re just going to have to look at how everyone approaches it the first couple of days.”

AP-ES-05-09-06 1841EDT

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