Indy 500 veterans get limited work on opening day

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Tony Kanaan thinks Indy's new schedule is all about simplification. Tim Cindric contends it has only made things more complicated.

Either way, the biggest changes in racing have given the Indianapolis 500 a fresh new look.

"We don't need it (two weeks of practice), but it's part of the history and the tradition," said Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy champ. "With this race being so important, it's nice to have all that practice and to really fine-tune it. That's one of the reasons, I think, that this is such a great race."

But even a 94-year-old classic needs an occasional overhaul.

So race organizers, trying to save money and pump new life into Indy's old qualifying format, embraced a litany of changes this year.

What has been billed as the month of May was trimmed to a fortnight by eliminating two of the traditional four qualifying days. The usual rain in Indy in May could cause even more havoc for teams trying to find the proper balance between qualifying setup and race setup.

It's only the start.

— Next Saturday's top nine qualifiers will have to requalify in a 90-minute late afternoon shootout, meaning the pole winner could make as many as five four-lap qualifying runs — a first at a track now a century old.

— Teams are now being limited to 33 tire sets for the entire month, forcing some drivers to run 30 to 35-lap intervals on tires in practice. Most teams want to save 10 to 12 sets for the May 30 race and a few more sets for qualifying.

— Veterans got two hours of track time during Saturday's rain-shortened opening practice and are scheduled to get only three more hours Sunday. If the rain returns Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, as forecast, the already compressed schedule could become tighter for everyone.

"It's a mess because you don't know what the weather is going to be," Kanaan said after driving all five of Michael Andretti's cars Saturday. "You've got to be concerned about race setup leading up to the race, but you've got to be concerned about qualifying leading up to qualifying, too."

It's not the first time Indy has had a two-day qualifying format. It was also done from 1998 to 2000, the infancy of the Indy Racing League, before reverting back to the old ways in 2001.

Opinions about the changes are almost as varied as the approaches.

Cindric, who works for the most successful team in Indy history, Penske Racing, declined to say how the team would split its workload between race setup and qualifying setup because of the usually unpredictable weather in Indy.

Mike Hull, managing director for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Franchitti's team, said his drivers will likely work on race setup until more rubber is on the track before working on qualifying trim.

John Barnes, co-owner of Panther Racing, wants his drivers to focus almost exclusively on race preparation, rather than qualifying setup, because drivers have only one more scheduled practice day next week.

The danger is that it could create a wider gap between the haves and have-nots in the IndyCar series — and there was evidence of that discrepancy in Saturday's speeds.

Three-time Indy 500 champ and three-time pole winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil topped the first speed chart with a fast lap of 226.603 mph. Franchitti was next at 226.535 and Scott Dixon, Franchitti's teammate, was third at 226.237.

"It was just the right time at the right moment," Castroneves said. "There were two cars in front of me. So it's going to play a lot of tricks during the month, or the half-month of May, to find out who is running a clean lap."

Of the 11 drivers in the rookie orientation program, none ran more than 23 laps and eight-time Indy starter Tomas Scheckter was fastest at 221.616.

Kanaan thinks the key to this month is keeping things simple.

"If you had a deadline to get things done tomorrow and you had a deadline to get things done five days from now, you'd look at it and add things to it and try different things," the Brazilian said. "It's the same thing with a car. So we can't do as much of that this week."

Others think the solution will take better planning — and a little luck with the weather to stay on schedule.

"You're used to having two trains of thought, qualifying and race, now you're doing both simultaneously," Cindric said. "We have to balance the challenges, the weather and whether we're working on race or qualifying setup. I think it's much more complex."

But, clearly, many of those around the track acknowledge that change was needed.

Even if it doesn't make getting ready for the Indianapolis 500 any easier for the drivers and teams.

"Honestly, it's hard, but we always want to change to make it better to make it exciting for the fans," Castroneves said. "As long as they explain it well for the fans, I'm sure it's going to be really tough and fun."