INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana – Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Johnny Rutherford is often asked what it’s like to drive an Indy car at speeds faster than 220 mph.
“Lone Star JR” offers a succinct stock answer, which qualified as sound advice for drivers participating in the rookie orientation program on Monday for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
“First off, you’ve got to really want to,” Rutherford said.
There’s no questioning that desire in the most seasoned rookie, two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, who chose a one-off Indy 500 debut at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year over his full-time job driving in F1 at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Before all the cars were on track for the open four-hour practice session, Alonso handled his traffic initiation like a seasoned pro over 35 laps that produced a top speed of 221.634 mph. His No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda was fastest among those up to speed during the two-hour rookie orientation/veteran refresher session.
When the track opened to everyone, Alonso ranked 19th out of 32 cars on the speed chart with a lap of 223.025 mph. He turned 55 laps overall between the two sessions.
Rutherford, named a Team McLaren ambassador for the 500, met the Spaniard after the morning drivers’ meeting. The Hall of Famer’s insight is applicable for any driver.
“He needs to go out there and learn it on his own,” Rutherford said. “There’s some ground rules that he’s been through at the drivers’ meeting. That’s hard to remember, all of that stuff when they tell you, but something will happen and he’ll remember, and it’s a learning curve.
“This is his first real test, to go out with traffic, with other cars and experience the draft and the turbulence and the different things that happen when you’re running in crowds. But he’s a race driver and he knows that, when it gets to a certain condition, you just don’t push it any more. That’s the thing he’s going to have to learn about running 200 mph in traffic. That’s not easy.”
Rookie Jack Harvey, an Alonso teammate, found it difficult to steer in the day’s only incident as a handling issue on a warmup lap caused his No. 50 Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda to brush the SAFER Barrier in Turn 2. Harvey, 24, from Bassingham, England, was checked, released and cleared to drive. His top speed of 214.473 mph ranked 31st.
“It’s been a pretty challenging day for what was meant to be an easy process,” Harvey said.
British rookie Ed Jones, 12th in the Verizon IndyCar Series points in what has been a promising debut, ranked 22nd with a speed of 222.533 mph in his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Jones, 22, started this season with a 10th-place finish in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and then was sixth in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Jones proceeded to breeze through the three phases of rookie orientation in less than a half-hour Monday.
“It was a good day,” Jones said. “We completed the rookie orientation in the morning and that went very well, and then we started progressing after that. We started gaining experience on the track with the car, working on getting close to the other cars and getting comfortable. I'm looking forward to progressing throughout the week.”
Happy Hour issues with the car’s rear suspension kept Alonso, 35, from running more than 20 laps in the second session.
“It was good fun,” Alonso said. “I’m looking forward. Still a long way for me to learn, but I definitely feel some good steps today.”
Although Alonso has his share of experienced advisors in Michael and Mario Andretti as well as Gil de Ferran, his face lit up when meeting Rutherford, 79, who is as affable and approachable as anyone in Gasoline Alley and considered one of Indy car’s greatest ambassadors.
Two of Rutherford’s three Indy 500 victories — in 1974 and 1976 — came while driving a Team McLaren papaya orange car. McLaren is at the speedway for the first time in 38 years.
Another retired racing legend reminded Rutherford today that the rest of the motorsports world is paying close attention to Alonso.
“I got an email from Sir Jackie Stewart this morning, saying he thought a great deal of Fernando and, ‘Wish him well,’” Rutherford said.
Today’s second day of practice is open to all cars from noon-6 p.m. ET and streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets and check the daily schedule for the Indianapolis 500.