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April 30, 2014

Drivers give thumbs up to Indy’s new road course

INDIANAPOLIS — IndyCar drivers were unified Wednesday: The new road course at Indianapolis is a whole lot better than the old one.

Heck, they couldn’t even find anything to complain about.

After a six-hour test session on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile course, virtually every driver who took laps around Indianapolis Motor Speedway raved about the course, praising everything from the curbs to the turns to the chicanes.

“I’m impressed,” defending series champion Scott Dixon said after posting the fastest lap of the day, 126.161 mph. “The track was just so much fun today. It’s a demanding circuit, the cars all seem very close so I think that’s going to create some fantastic racing. The sections, especially seven, eight, nine, 10 really keep you on your toes.”

Dixon was just one of the guys who applauded the modifications even in chilly, overcast weather.

The old course had been routinely panned by racers on two and four wheels for being too slick, having too many different track compositions and a lack of passing areas. A $5 million-plus offseason facelift has changed everything.

France’s Simon Pagenaud said fans could see side-by-side racing through the first four turns on race day. There are hard-braking turns everyone acknowledges will test the drivers, and speedway President Doug Boles said there are still some finishing touches that need to be applied.

Those who competed on the old Formula One course, which opened in 2000, contend the modifications have been worth every penny. Just ask Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya or Japan’s Takuma Sato.

“There are two or three really hard-braking turns, so I think there will be a lot of late-braking carnage that will make fans very happy,” said England’s Martin Plowman, Sato’s teammate.

That, too, was by design.

Track officials have been seeking ways to improve attendance on at least two of Indy’s three major weekends — the Brickyard and MotoGP. They’re hoping the changes in IndyCar’s maiden Indianapolis road race on May 10 will appeal to all fans. Practice for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis begins May 8, with qualifications scheduled the next day.

In close consultation with drivers, the speedway devised a blueprint that called for tighter turns, created more passing and better sight lines.

“I think one of the reasons the drivers like it is that we asked for their input,” Boles said. “We wanted to create a track that was good for the fans and when you create a track that’s good for the fans, you create a track that’s good for the drivers, too.”

Boles said ticket buyers are being advised to find seats where they can see three or four turns or up to half of the entire track. A crowd of about 40,000 is expected to attend the first of Indy’s two May races.

Indianapolis 500 practice begins on the traditional 2.5-mile oval May 11, with the marquee race of the IndyCar season set for May 25.

One thing the road race won’t have is record speeds.

Dixon and 2012 Indy pole winner Ryan Briscoe were the only drivers to top 126 mph on Wednesday. Pagenaud jumped to third when practice was extended by five minutes with a fast lap of 125.876, just ahead of three-time Indy 500 champ Helio Castroneves (125.397).

Now they can’t wait to get back.

“I love it, I had a blast,” said Graham Rahal, who races for his father’s team and helped do some tests on the new configuration last fall. “It’s probably a little better than I expected. I thought it would be fun but this could my favorite course already and we just got here.”

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