INDIANAPOLIS -- Indy Racing League officials hope slower cars will improve safety at this year's Indianapolis 500.
They've accomplished the first part of their goal.
Speeds were down drastically from a year ago at Sunday's opening practice for the race, and they were even slower than in open testing less than two weeks ago. There were no crashes.
Until the final hour Sunday, only one driver, Dan Wheldon, topped 218 mph. Four drivers beat that speed in the final 60 minutes, but only two - Scott Dixon and Helio Castroneves - were faster than 219.
Drivers believe things could change significantly when qualifying begins Saturday.
"I believe there will be many factors to improve the speed and everybody's going to test the whole week long what they think is right the decision," Castroneves said. "I do think it will be five mph, at least, faster."
Part of the reason for Sunday's slowdown was by design. Smaller engines and a new aerodynamic package will be used for the first time in the race on May 30.
IRL officials reduced the size of the engine from 3.5 liters to 3.0 in an effort to drop speeds by about 10 mph. They thought that would make it safer after two horrific crashes late last year.
Kenny Brack, the 1999 Indy winner, broke his right leg, sternum, back and both ankles in a crash at Texas in October. He's still recuperating and is out of this year's race. Less than two weeks later, Tony Renna was killed while testing for Target Chip Ganassi at the 2 1/2 -mile oval in Indianapolis.
The other issue was weather. It was a sunny, hot, windy day in Indianapolis, hardly ideal for fast speeds - and the results were apparent.
Only five drivers topped 218, and of the 33 cars on the track, only 12 were over 217 - nearly 15 mph slower than last year's pole-winning speed.
"They never are at Indy," Wheldon said of the conditions. "It's a different place. That's why it's important to have balance and never let the track frustrate you."
About the only frustration Wheldon had Sunday was not finishing among the day's three fastest cars. He was easily the best in early practice when he clocked a 218.007 mph. When shade began covering the front straight, the speeds increased, but Wheldon was already finished for the day.
New Zealand's Dixon, last year's IRL points champ, took advantage. He turned a 219.760 lap in his No. 1 car to give Ganassi's team the best lap of the day. Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 champ from Brazil and last year's pole winner at 231.725, was second at 219.752.
"Toyota's making great gains with their engine, but it doesn't really mean anything till Saturday," Dixon said.
Mexico's Adrian Fernandez, back at Indianapolis for the first time since 1995 after moving to the IRL from Champ Car, was third at 218.342. Panther Racing's Tomas Scheckter, a South African, was fourth at 218.308.
Sam Hornish Jr., the fastest driver in both days of open testing, was sick and did not drive Sunday. The fastest American was rookie Ed Carpenter, who was seventh at 217.405. Carpenter is the stepson of IRL founder Tony George.
Some teams, though, acknowledged they were playing it safe Sunday.
"We'll see as we get closer to qualifying day," Castroneves said. "We have to be patient and wait for the right time."
Drivers still expect speeds to climb steadily as teams tinker with engines to find the proper qualifying setups and more power. During the two-day open test, April 28-29, the speeds increased each day from a closed test in early April.
The average of four qualifying laps is used to determine the 11-row, 33-car starting grid. Pole Day is the first of three qualifying days.
So what will it take to get the inside of Row 1?
"I'm still thinking it's going to be 225, because I think the track probably will pick up a couple miles per hour from today," Dixon said. "I think it will be 224 or 225."
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