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Drivers First Focus on the IMS Road Course

A long-awaited, much-anticipated return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway required drivers to have tunnel vision on Thursday.

If it’s humanly possible at this historic venue, they were expected to block out the most important and celebrated race of the year. At least for three days.

Before racers can commit mind, body, soul and their cars to the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 29, they focused on the first day of practice for Saturday’s third Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Before these competitors can concentrate on preparing for 200 laps at the highest speeds they will run all year in the Verizon IndyCar Series, they have to adjust to the Speedway’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

Adjust or else, that is.

“This is a typical race weekend,” said defending champion Will Power of Team Penske. “It’s run like any other weekend during the year, so that’s how you treat it. It’s not even a thought in your head, the 500, you’re not even thinking about it. You’re trying to get the most out of every session.

“Anyone who’s thinking about the 500 is probably not going to be competitive here.”

Power’s No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet finished second overall on the speed chart with a lap of 125.624 mph after two 75-minute practice sessions. The only driver quicker than the 35-year-old Australian was his racing rival/Kiwi buddy Scott Dixon, whose No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car topped out at 125.743 mph.

Dixon, a four-time series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner, has encountered a pair of humbling GP results at this track, 15th and 10th. He’s an accomplished road racer with 19 career wins on road/street courses, so those IMS road course runs are atypical. 

If nothing else, Thursday provided an encouraging start for the 35-year-old Australian-born New Zealander.

“Just taking it day by day, man,” said the defending series champion. “We’ve got so many things to focus on just in one day. You’re constantly learning, especially with the big differences we have here with the road course and then the fastest speedway that we come to.

“Yeah, trust me, there’s going to be loads of pressure no matter what weekend it is. Just take it day by day.”

Graham Rahal, fourth on the speed chart with the fastest Honda, said he never let his mind drift from the GP.

“I haven’t even thought about the 500,” Rahal said. “Today, not one single moment has the 500 crossed my mind.”

The driver of the No. 15 Steak ’n Shake car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Theodore Racing finished second in the Grand Prix last year.

“You’ve got to focus on this one,” said the 27-year-old son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. “For me, it’s a good opportunity for us to gain some points, so I’m excited about being here. I love racing on this road course. For us, we had a great result last year. I enjoy it. 

“It’s another challenge. Trust me, I’ve got another cold, like the Month of May has already worn me down, but I like it and it’s another opportunity for fans to come out, to be at the track, to be a part of it, to see more racing, to have some fun.”

Rahal's best lap was 125.453 mph, a mere .0002 of a second behind Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, series points leader in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

“We’ve been competitive,” Rahal added, “but we need more.”

The same could be said for the Ed Carpenter Racing duo of Josef Newgarden and JR Hildebrand, who ranked seventh and 17th.

“To me, they’re so disconnected,” Newgarden said of the Angie’s List Grand Prix and Indy 500. “It’s great to be here and I think it’s really cool to have another event at this track, especially it being a road course because it brings the whole package of what Indy car racing is to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“But they’re so different. If we have a bad weekend at the GP, to me, that means nothing for the 500. And vice versa. If we win the GP of Indy, that doesn’t mean much for the 500. There’s nothing that transfers.”

Newgarden, who drives the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet, has finished 20th and 17th on the road course.

“It would be great to win both,” he said. “I think we’ll be strong in both. But they don’t really relate. They’re two different experiences, which is what they should be.”

Hildebrand is driving the No. 6 Preferred Freezer Fuzzy Vodka car on a part-time basis, so the Grand Prix helps him get re-acclimated with being in a car. But beyond that, there’s not much of a correlation from one event to the next.

“I think as drivers, even when it just comes down to getting better at turn 10, you have to be willing to compartmentalize the factors that are at play,” said the 2011 Indy 500 runner-up. “To just be racing at this level, it becomes a part of your process of driving a car, managing outside distractions, and you become keenly aware of the mental attitude you need to have to go compete at a high level.”

The 82-lap main event is scheduled for a 3:50 p.m. Saturday start. As soon as it ends, race teams have Sunday to exhale and switch gears before Monday’s opening practice for the Indy 500.

“There’s nothing about anything that goes on this weekend, besides if you wreck a bunch of stuff, that impacts what we do come Monday,” Hildebrand said.

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