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Daunting Reality of Finding Speed Keeps DragonSpeed Grounded in First Indy 500

Whatever excitement that existed in being at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has since subsided for DragonSpeed.

The race team, which has excelled in European LMP1 and LMP2 sports cars, is well aware of the daunting challenge ahead as 36 drivers compete for 33 spots in the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

The No. 81 10 Star DragonSpeed Chevrolet driven by Ben Hanley completed the Rookie Orientation Program on Wednesday, the initial step in a steep learning curve for a 34-year-old British driver without any super-speedway oval experience.

While they’re just getting started on setups, the reality is DragonSpeed’s best lap out of 90 completed Wednesday ranked last in 36th on the speed chart. The clock is ticking on finding enough speed for Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying this weekend.

Race fans historically love an underdog and appreciate candor, which DragonSpeed team principal Elton Julian brings to the equation. This team has come so far in such a short time, first figuring out how to put together an Indy car in January, and a confident Julian sounds as upbeat and eager as anyone in Gasoline Alley.

“First and foremost, it’s just appreciating the moment. OK, we’ve done that. We can move on from that,” Julian said. “Now we start to do the work on the track.

“I’ll be content when we’re in the field. But that’s the beauty of it all. I love it. Don’t forget, there used to be the days when there were 67 deals trying to qualify. You’ve got to beat people to get in.”

The team established a baseline setup in Tuesday practice but also encountered some wiring issues that have since been corrected. Julian reiterated before Wednesday’s practice that DragonSpeed will maintain a methodical approach through the week.

The goals couldn’t be more clear. No. 1, qualify. No. 2, finish the “500.”

“You’ve got to make the field,” Julian said. “There’s no guarantees, unlike Le Mans, where once you’re invited you know you’re racing. This is special. And I appreciate that.

“The pressure exists, of course. We would be massively disappointed if we didn’t make it.”

Hanley is in his fourth season with DragonSpeed, which won the 2017 European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship. He’s made two NTT IndyCar Series starts this season as part of a five-race plan, both on road courses as he finished 18th at St. Petersburg and 21st at Barber.

“We know it’s not just another race,” Hanley said. “We’re learning a hell of a lot each time we go out on track. The small differences make big gains around here.

“I’m really focused on qualifying on Saturday. We’ve got to get through that. We know three cars are going home, and we know that could be anybody. Priority No. 1 is to be in the race. We’ve got to achieve that.”

Hanley acknowledged it was quite a thrill to drive around Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s famed 2.5-mile oval for the first time Tuesday. But as Julian reminded, that was yesterday.

“All the rookies, we all have a lot to learn,” Hanley said. “You look at all the veterans here, and you can tell straight away that they’re up to speed on the second lap while we’re building ourselves into it. Each time we make a change, we anticipate what the car is going to do, but you still need to ease into it, and it takes a few laps to get going.”

The small team will keep plugging in this bid to make a name for itself. Julian pointed out that DragonSpeed is the one team that doesn’t have an owner’s name in the title.

“It’s not about me,” he said.

It’s about DragonSpeed qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

“It would mean a lot, of course,” he said. “Actually it’s not so much the positive of making the race – it’s the negative of missing it.”

When he left his Los Angeles residence to fly to Indianapolis, Julian’s two daughters asked if Dad would be home next week.

“Hopefully not,” Julian said.

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