Helio, Dario go for history at the Indy 500

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When it comes to their thoughts on becoming a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Helio Castroneves (pictured, right) and Dario Franchitti (pictured, left) couldn’t be more different.

Castroneves, the gregarious Brazilian that has become famous at Indy for his joyous fence-climbing victory celebrations, is clearly humbled by his accomplishments at the Brickyard. That said, his humility isn’t completely overpowering. In fact, he approaches the subject of a potential fourth victory in the “500” with what appears to be a mix of anticipation and awe.

And he certainly appreciates his little race with Franchitti to join the four-time winners’ club, one of the bigger storylines going into Sunday’s race.

“I like [the pressure],” he said on Thursday. “I believe it pushes me and it pushes everyone [on the team]. It’s [Franchitti’s] first time and our third or fourth time to be in this position [to win a fourth Indy 500] and I think having competition makes you better.

“I feel that not only myself but the entire Penske team wants to bring it home before they bring it home.”

As for Franchitti, the laid-back Scotsman who has primarily made his mark on Indianapolis in more recent years, he has always been reluctant to discuss where he thinks his place in history may be. When one takes into account his three “500” wins and his four IZOD IndyCar Series championships, one assumes that Franchitti’s place is rather high up already.

But he’s still wary to put himself alongside his heroes of Indy: Drivers such as four-time winners A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser, as well as others like his fellow Scot Jim Clark and Dan Gurney.

“It’s always weird to get involved,” said Franchitti. “There’s something not quite right about feeling in the conversation. I view them on the pedestal.”

Still, while he isn’t as effusive as Castroneves on talking about his achievements at Indy, he is still thankful for the the opportunity he gets every May to be in one of the world’s most iconic sporting events.

“I’ve said it before, but the more you do it, the more you appreciate it,” Franchitti said. “First year [at Indy], I was like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Then I finished the race and I was like ‘Yeah, I get it.’ [The feeling has] increased year by year.”

Castroneves and Franchitti have had relatively quiet months of May (the former starts 8th on Sunday, while the latter goes from 17th), but all of that is about to change as the spotlight heads squarely towards them. History at Indianapolis is on the line and everyone, from the diehards to the casual onlookers, will be keeping an eye on their progress on Sunday.

This year’s race marks the first since 1987 that will see two three-time winners attempt to join Foyt, Mears and Unser in one of racing’s most exclusive clubs. Castroneves and Franchitti may have different viewpoints on what it would mean to ascend to that legendary status, but both men will give everything they have to get there.

IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.