Race organizers shake up May schedule in Indianapolis

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Helio Castroneves feels like the good old days are coming back to Indianapolis.

The new IndyCar aero kits have distinctively different looks, fans are talking again about increased speeds and possible bumping for the Indianapolis 500, and the drivers have booked almost the entire month for the historic Brickyard. The three-time Indianapolis 500 champion believes this is how the month of May should be.

Meanwhile, race organizers are attempting to make the month more fan-friendly with a revised schedule that includes one practice session that runs beyond the traditional 6 p.m. close and new, larger, high-definition video boards.

It's a combination that could rev up interest in the series' biggest month.

"I'm quite happy we're going back to the future because it's about the drivers and the unique cars," said Derrick Walker, IndyCar's president of operations and competition and a former team owner in the series. "We've got car competition now, we didn't have that last year. And that is a tradition here."

Fans got their first real look at the new oval cars during Sunday's opening festivities.

And the most visible distinction between the Hondas and Chevrolets this year will be the rear wing.

Honda has added two center pillars that loop around the wing and a narrow carbon fiber strip on each side that connect the each side of the outer wing to the rear wheel guard. Chevy has stuck with a standard-looking rear wing.

The real test will come on the track: Which engine-manufacturer has the better design and how fast will the cars go in qualifying and during the May 24 race?

Most expect them to surpass last year's pole-winning speed by 3 to 4 mph, which could be a precursor to even bigger things at next year's centennial race.

"We could be breaking records at the 100th running," series chief Mark Miles said. "Last year, we got over 230. I can't predict what it will be this year, but I certainly think the consensus is that it will be faster. How much, we'll have to see."

There's a lot of work still to do before they get to that point, though, and the revised schedule has created some new challenges.

Defending grand prix winner Simon Pagenaud, of France, acknowledged Wednesday he was so excited about his oval car that that his engineer actually had to remind him on the radio Sunday that he needed to think about conquering the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course before worrying about race setup for the 500.

But around Indianapolis Motor Speedway headquarters and throughout Gasoline Alley, people are thrilled with the plan.

"It just feels like it's a huge event, a big party for us," said Pagenaud, who is now driving for Roger Penske's powerhouse team.

And that's exactly what organizers wanted to create.

They reclaimed the first Sunday of the month with the oval test turned practice, then took a three-day break before bringing out the road-course cars. After Saturday's race, the series will take a rare Mother's Day off so teams can get their oval cars ready for Monday's practice and workers can convert the track.

Then they'll have five days of oval practice leading up to the May 16 qualifying and the May 17 shootout for the pole. Organizers will give the cars one more practice day, the Monday of race week, before the annual Carb Day festivities on May 22.

It hasn't been easy.

"The hardest part of my job is balancing the tradition side, which makes IMS so special and that has been in our DNA for 105 years, and how to survive the next 105 years," speedway president Doug Boles said. "That's a daily battle — how do you keep what the fans love and give them something new?"

So far, the results look promising.

Boles said opening day attendance was up from last year's first oval practice day, and it hasn't taken long for some of the series' favorite drivers long to jump on board.

"I understand with the financial situation why they cut it back," said Castroneves, one of Pagenaud's new teammates. "But I love it (the whole month). People say having two races ruins the tradition. No. Having two races, it's like Christmas twice in one year. It's a holiday all month."

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