Familiar faces, fond farewells and bumping headline Indy 500 lineup

Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The throwback month is in full swing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Danica Patrick started tuning up for her final race on the historic 2.5-mile oval more than a week ago. Helio Castroneves has been peppered with questions about becoming the fourth four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

The seemingly indestructible A.J. Foyt came back less than two months after surviving a second bout with killer bees. Even real, live bumping should be on the qualifying weekend docket.

For race organizers it’s a dream script: Familiar faces, fond farewells and a return to traditions with a whole new look.

“The story line of Danica, the story line of bumping not just for the fast nine but to get into the entire field, gives us an opportunity to talk about what we love so much, that’s the activity on the racetrack as we lead into the Indianapolis 500,” track president Doug Boles said.

Even this year’s new-look cars have an old-fashioned flavor. They’re sleek, speedy and have been all the rage around Gasoline Alley and other tracks around the country where passing has become the norm.

When testing began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late April, IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye noted the 1,284 total passes through IndyCar’s first four races was nearly double last season’s pace. In Saturday’s IndyCar Grand Prix, there were 214 more passes – the highest total since the 225 passes in 2014.

There were also nine lead changes in the race and a record-tying seven drivers actually led laps.

Not enough?

Speeds could be higher when practice begins Tuesday, too. If the weather cooperates, qualifying will take place Saturday and next Sunday and the race will be run May 27.

Longtime fan favorite Tony Kanaan got the new cars topping 226 mph on the first day of testing.

And it’s not just numbers that have people buzzing.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull believes the retro appearance has made it easier to explain how these cars work even to casual observers.

It’s all part of a plan.

“We wanted to get our identity back, what an IndyCar is supposed to look like,” Frye said. “A lot of input from the fans, a lot of input from the paddock, all the teams. We came up with what we did. We’re really proud of where we’re at with the car.”

But fans also like talking big names and they’re back, too.

The second and final part of Patrick’s farewell tour drew dozens of reporters to testing. She’s driving for Ed Carpenter Racing in the neon green Go Daddy car that made her an Indy sensation as a rookie in 2005.

So, fittingly, she intends to end her racing career at the same track.

During testing, Patrick took time to reflect on her earliest days in the series and started asking photographers along pit lane whether they were around for her first race.

She has six career top-10 finishes in seven Indy starts. Adding another might be her toughest act yet after spending six seasons in NASCAR. But if she can turn back the clock and recapture one last memorable result, it could be the perfect finish.

“I remember watching the Indy 500 the first year I wasn’t in it and I missed it. I remember that feeling,” she said.

“As time wore on I missed that relevancy of being in the game and being someone like before the race of `Who do you think is going to win today?’ My name did not pop up in NASCAR. Then that first Daytona 500 when I was on the pole, and other than that most of the races weren’t like that. I missed being relevant, so I’m going to try to be that here this month.”

The only thing bigger than Patrick’s return might be if Castroneves can reach victory lane in his second and last scheduled start on the series this season.

Helio Castroneves looks to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 2018. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m back!” the Brazilian said after turning his first laps in Team Penske’s No. 3 Chevrolet. “I’m excited to go out there and put on a great show for the fans there.”

Add 35 confirmed driver-car combinations attempting to qualify for the traditional 33-car starting grid and it’s no surprise why tickets are selling at a brisker pace than 2017.

It’s a month that has the potential to be even better than the good, old days.

“I think from first to 20th, the 21st car ran 220,” Frye said, referring to the early testing at Indy. “Again, it’s a real good group. I think this year’s field will be as strong as it’s been in a long time.”

AJ Foyt Racing promotes Benjamin Pedersen from Indy Lights to IndyCar for 2023 season

Benjamin Pedersen AJ Foyt
AJ Foyt Racing
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Benjamin Pedersen is the first driver to land a promotion from Indy Lights into IndyCar for next season as AJ Foyt Racing confirmed Wednesday he’ll be part of its 2023 lineup.

Pedersen, a 23-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and the United States, spent last season running the full Indy Lights schedule for HMD Motorsports. Linus Lundqvist, his teammate, won the Lights title, and Pedersen finished fifth in the final standings. Pedersen earned his only win earlier this month when he led every lap from the pole at Portland.

Pedersen also ran four races for HMD in 2021 with back-to-back runner-up finishes in his debut. Pedersen landed on AJ Foyt Racing team president Larry Foyt’s radar through a “trusted colleague” and Pedersen spent most of last season shadowing the IndyCar team.

His promotion to IndyCar comes ahead of all four drivers who finished ahead of him in the Indy Lights standings, including champion Lundqvist.

“We are really looking forward to having Benjamin as part of the team,” Larry Foyt said. “His enthusiasm is infectious, and he is 100 percent committed to IndyCar, AJ Foyt Racing, and doing the best he can to win races.

“It’s been great to have him embedded with the team this past season, and everyone is excited to hit the ground running when testing begins. It is also great to have a multi-year program in place, which will help him and the team grow together.”

Foyt did not announce a car number for Pedersen. Kyle Kirkwood spent his rookie season driving AJ Foyt’s flagship No. 14 but Kirkwood is moving to Andretti Autosport. The team has not yet announced if Dalton Kellett will return for a fourth season, and a third car for Tatiana Calderon was pulled from competition after seven races because of sponsorship non-payment. Shutting down Calderon’s team removed the only semi-regular female driver from the IndyCar field.

Pedersen, however, was signed to an agreement Foyt said “spans multiple seasons as the team plans to develop the young rookie and is aligned to a longer-term plan for AJ Foyt Racing.”

Pedersen was born in Copenhagen but raised in Seattle and currently lives in Indianapolis. He said his time shadowing the IndyCar team has given him a jump on his rookie preparations.

“I’ve spent a lot of time this season with AJ Foyt Racing learning the ins and outs of making the jump to IndyCar and it’s been really nice to do that in conjunction with my Indy Lights season,” Pedersen said. “IndyCar has been my target goal since I started open wheel racing in 2016. The racing, atmosphere, fans, events, tracks, etc. are all awesome.”