Teams shift gears as practice opens for 101st Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Simon Pagenaud’s mind actually shifted gears as he was about to finish fourth in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on Saturday.

“I saw the checkered flag and my first thought was ‘Indy 500,’” Team Penske driver Pagenaud said. “I’ve been thinking about that race for a year now. That’s my No. 1 goal this year, so I’m going to go all in.”

Race teams spent Sunday’s “off day” working on their oval track cars in Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway after Team Penske’s Will Power won Saturday’s grand prix. Meanwhile, IMS workers converted the track layout from the 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course back to the historic and iconic 2.5-mile oval with its four 90-degree turns.

Practice for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins at noon ET today and streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. The schedule calls for five consecutive days of practice, then two weekend days of qualifying in preparation for the May 28 main event (11 a.m., ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

Intriguing storylines, once again, will be in abundance for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The motorsports world has been captivated by two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso skipping the Monaco Grand Prix to attempt his first 500. McLaren, in its first IMS ride in 38 years, is teaming with Andretti Autosport to back the Spaniard’s No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti car with the classic papaya orange livery.

“With Alonso coming, the whole entire world is going to be watching, even more than usual,” Pagenaud said. “We’re going to have a repeat of (anticipation for) the 100th this year, and it’s going to be amazing.”

A sellout crowd watched last year’s race and attendance is expected to surpass 300,000 again. A Facebook Live stream of Alonso’s IMS test May 3 drew more than 2 million views. Alonso, who ranks sixth on F1’s all-time win list with 32 victories, is a social media sensation with 2.46 million Twitter followers @alo_oficial.

Pagenaud, the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, is leading the series points again, 10 ahead of four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon finished second in the INDYCAR Grand Prix and is one of seven former Indy 500 winners on the entry list.

Although he's been capably quick at times, Pagenaud's best finish in five Indy 500 starts was eighth in 2013.

Ever since Power won his series title in 2014, he’s spoken of the urgency to cement his racing resume with what has proven to be an elusive Indy 500 triumph. Power, a 30-time Indy car race winner, came closest when finishing second to teammate Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015.

Montoya, a two-time Indy 500 winner, returns in a part-time ride with Team Penske’s powerhouse five-car team. That includes three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who is looking to join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser as the only four-time victors.

Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske celebrated his 19th trip to IMS victory lane on Saturday at the grand prix. That includes a record 16 Indy 500 triumphs. Pagenaud’s assertion that this race is his No. 1 goal is a given for Penske each year.

“You wouldn’t believe the efforts the team has put into the research-and-development side to be strong in the Indy 500,” Pagenaud said. “We’re very excited. It’s going to be a great month.”

Castroneves and Brazilian buddy Tony Kanaan, who won the 2013 Indy 500, are celebrating their 20th season in Indy car racing. Kanaan is driving again for Chip Ganassi, who has celebrated four Indy 500 wins as an owner and is fielding four cars.

Alonso is part of a massive, six-car Andretti Autosport effort, which includes defending Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi and 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Another driver who hasn’t been shy about his Indianapolis 500 focus is Graham Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. Bitterly disappointed after finishing 14th in his ninth Indy 500 start a year ago, Graham Rahal spoke of an Indy emphasis during offseason media day and sounded energized after finishing sixth Saturday in the INDYCAR Grand Prix.

“Hopefully it’s a good one,” the Rahal Letterman Lanigan racer said. “We’ve worked hard for it. This team has worked hard for it. Our guys are prepared. We’re ready to go.”

Longtime Hoosier fan favorite Tony Stewart is also returning to IMS this May, not as a driver but as a sponsor on Jay Howard’s No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. Stewart, a two-time Brickyard 400 winner, won the 1997 Verizon IndyCar Series championship and started five Indy 500s before venturing off to NASCAR, where he won three series titles. He retired from NASCAR after last season.

Stewart, who grew up idolizing Foyt, also will enjoy the race day thrill of turning a parade lap in Foyt’s Bowes Seal Fast roadster that won the 1961 Indianapolis 500.

Rookie orientation and veteran refresher testing runs from noon-2 p.m. ET today, with the track open to all competitors from 2-6 p.m. Testing continues from noon-6 p.m. through Friday.

Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for the 101st Indianapolis 500 and for more information on the complete schedule at IMS.

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