Today’s Verizon IndyCar Series open test at Gateway Motorsports Park provided a glowing example of what happens when INDYCAR, its teams, drivers and a racetrack work together for the good of all.
A strong turnout of fans came to the 1.25-mile oval in the shadow of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch to watch the full field of Verizon IndyCar Series entries practice in preparation for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline on Aug. 26. Fans, drivers and race officials came away from the day pleased.
“This is not very common, going to places like this and having practice and (so many) people are coming over (to watch),” said Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves, who won the most recent Indy car race at the track in 2003. “It feels like a qualifying day. It is great and it shows that we do have a market here.”
Twenty-one drivers turned laps in the two sessions, led by Conor Daly of AJ Foyt Racing, whose best lap in the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet was 176.907 mph (25.4371 seconds). Castroneves was second fastest in the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet (174.559 mph), with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya third (174.339) in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevy as he prepares to run in the two races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway later this month.
Daly said the egg-shaped oval drives more like a road course, which is fine with him.
“I like this place, I think it’s really fun,” said the 25-year-old son of retired Indy car and Formula One driver Derek Daly. “Turn 1 is super ‘road coursey.’ It’s a real fight getting into the center of it (Turn 1), and with the wind the way it is, it’s obviously a little sketchy on the exit of Turn 2, but, man, I like it.”
Torrential rains in the area made the test itself questionable. But following extensive work this morning to get the track ready, a total of 873 laps were turned before the second session ended early. INDYCAR and Gateway Motorsports Park issued a joint statement regarding the early conclusion.
“Gateway Motorsports Park and INDYCAR overcame tremendous challenges to conduct a successful series open test session today, despite 9.5 inches of rain in the two days leading up to the event,” the statement read. “Officials worked tirelessly to prepare the racing surface, which included drilling holes to relieve pressure of ground water and additional proactive measures.
“During the course of today’s practices, conditions developed that made it necessary to stop the test early, within an hour of the scheduled end time. The conditions will be promptly addressed by INDYCAR and Gateway officials, and all are confident of a successful resolution when the series returns to the track. It was a valuable day for teams to gather information for the race event in August, and a great day for the fans who attended and were able to see their favorite cars and drivers up close.”
The lone incident during the test came in the first session, when JR Hildebrand made contact with the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. Hildebrand was uninjured but the car was too damaged for him to continue.
Castroneves said it was crucial for teams and drivers to turn laps and hone in on race setups for the night race in August.
“It’s huge just to get the rhythm, the momentum,” he said. “This is a very tricky place, especially Turn 1. Basically, if you don’t do a good job in Turn 1, your lap time is gone. You’ve got to open up the lap very well. It’s great to be having a day here (to practice), for sure.”
During one of the delays, most of the drivers walked onto the track at the start/finish line and delighted fans by signing autographs and posing for photos through the catch fencing. Track owner Curtis Francois smiled as he witnessed the generous gesture and pointed to it as another cooperative move to build excitement for the race under the lights later this summer.
“We’ve been working really hard over the last five years to re-energize the fan base, motorsports in general,” Francois said. “I think they understand that we’re sincere, that we’re going to keep at this until we get this figured out in a way that they understand that motorsports are here to stay and that motorsports is a growing opportunity for a great place to take your family.
“We started laying a foundation to make sure that we built the core of the track from the ground level,” Francois added. “That started with the fans and it also started with doing upgrades to the facility. Anywhere that we saw that the racers and the fans in any way touched the track, we’ve tried to make sure that was a great experience for them. That is coming true today.”
Team owner/driver Ed Carpenter agreed with Francois’ assessment.
“So far from what I’ve seen, Curtis and his team at Gateway are doing a really good job building excitement,” Carpenter said. “It makes us look forward to getting back here in August.”