Fast Friday gets frightening at Indy with winds making drivers uncomfortable at 240 mph

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INDIANAPOLIS — First came the wind on “Fast Friday” for the 106th Indy 500. These were 41 mph gusts that created some of the most challenging conditions in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history — and the rain was expected to follow.

It put the NTT IndyCar Series on its heels as race officials scrambled to save qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Not a single drop of rain had fallen when IndyCar adjusted its Saturday schedule in hopes of avoiding any disruption to qualifying for its marquee event next weekend.

Weather conditions at the speedway have changed daily since the track opened on sunshine-soaked Tuesday for Indy 500 prep. Wednesday was a washout, Thursday was just a regular day at the speedway and wind-whipped Friday saw nail-biting speed on the track.

HOW TO WATCH: Weekend qualifying schedule for Peacock and NBC

PRACTICE SPEEDSFriday session l Combined 

Drivers were on edge and few willing to complete a full four-lap run without lifting off the gas during blistering fast mock qualifying runs.

Conor Daly, with a Chevrolet engine for Ed Carpenter Racing, maxed out at an eye-popping 243.724 miles per hour (392.24 kph) in Turn 3, where the wind was fiercest and blowing south to north from Turn 2.

“After the first run, I was hoping we’d do as few laps as possible,” Daly told NBC Sports’ Dave Burns. “But we have to be sure we’re ready for (Saturday). I think qualifying is just so important, and it’s so hard to pass in this current era, so we’ve got to make sure we’re starting up front. I think our car’s got some great speed, but these track conditions just were awful today, and it’s been tough to put together four (laps).

“It’ll be the same for everyone when the money is on the line (Saturday and Sunday). It’s going to be a real challenge. It just comes down to how much downforce can you get away with running and how much do you want to risk it all?”

“Nothing prepares you for going into Turn 3 at 240 mph. It’s not very pleasant for anyone,” said Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin.

Two-time winner Takuma Sato topped the speed chart for the third consecutive session with a late lap at 232.789 mph. He bumped Alexander Rossi from the top; Rossi ran only one full lap all day.

It was a six-hour session in which IndyCar allowed a horsepower boost ahead of qualifying, which is scheduled to begin Saturday for the 33-car field. The pole will be awarded Sunday in a shootout among the fastest six drivers.

The 90 horsepower boost allows drivers to take it right to the edge, but few were willing on this Fast Friday. It was just too windy, the risk far greater than any reward. Completing a full four-lap qualifying run was supposed to be the goal; not wrecking an Indy 500 racecar became the priority.

“I’ve seen some tough conditions over the years, but it’s usually on days when it doesn’t really matter,” said 2013 race winner Tony Kanaan. “If this was a Tuesday, you wouldn’t see a single car on the track.”

Plastic bags and hot dog wrappers floated from the grandstands onto the track and the safety vehicle doubled as a garbage truck making trash pickups. Spectators tugged tight on their caps to prevent them from flying away, and the flags over Pagoda Plaza whipped all afternoon in sustained winds that Indy meteorologist Kevin Gregory of WRTV measured at nearly 25 mph.

Strategy varied across the paddock. Scott Dixon didn’t even get in his car until the final hour of the day and with 49 minutes remaining rocketed to sixth on the chart at 231.530 mph. The Iceman then backed out of his run.

Six minutes later, teammate Jimmie Johnson returned to the track with a car repaired from an earlier brush with the wall. The seven-time NASCAR champion and four-time winner of the Brickyard 400 completed a four-lap run at 229.094 mph, second fastest on the day at the time.

“Just shake it off,” Johnson said about completing the run after smacking the wall. “I’ve hit plenty of things throughout my career in racing. Luckily, it wasn’t a full yard sale, it was just crossing the line a little bit.”

Johnson eventually fell to fifth behind Pato O’Ward, Sage Karam, 20-year-old rookie David Malukas and then Kanaan, who went 230.517 mph over his four laps.

O’Ward was the first driver to finish a qualifying run and he ran just 12 laps all day. That was double the number turned by his Arrow McLaren SP teammate, two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who at 46 made it clear this week he won’t take unnecessary risks in a car.

O’Ward said his four-lap run was “a bit terrifying to do” but worth having the data and knowledge compiled.

“The biggest thing is the consistency,” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “One lap is balanced, and then you’re guessing where the balance is going Lap 2 or 3. That’s going to be tough. Whoever can find the best consistency in a good, solid speed is going to be the best way to do it. We can pull out a quick lap but four of those, not so much.

“It’s the worst unpredictability that I’ve ever had around this place. Last year we saw that with many cars, but it wasn’t that drastic. Today with the wind especially … you have to treat these like planes. You’re going way too fast to not take into consideration the wind directions. The balance of the car is shifting massively from one end of the track to the other end. You have to be really proactive, but you’re sort of guessing sometimes, because you don’t really know where it’s going until you get a full run under your belt. That first run, it was decently hairy.”

Rossi was second fastest (231.883) on his only lap of the session. Though the 2016 Indy 500 winner was frustrated to sit around without learning much, he was happy to avoid the “pretty wild” conditions.

“The biggest issue is the gusts,” Rossi told Snider. “Sustained winds isn’t that big of a problem because you know what’s coming. The randomness of it, there’s no tool to adjust to that, other than turning down the wind. It’s a challenge. I did that run, and it was messy, not nice, pitted after a lap and don’t have much else to say.”

The shifting weather has made it difficult for teams to find any rhythm, though six-time series champion Dixon has been consistently fast every day.

But others have posted faster single laps, and Sato has been sneaky good late in all three days of practice. The Japanese driver for Dale Coyne Racing has posted a big lap in the final hour to claim the top of the board, and twice this week bumped Dixon from the lead.

With only 33 cars in the field, there won’t be any bumping in qualifying as every entrant is guaranteed a starting spot May 29.

To ensure there was still some intrigue, IndyCar and speedway owner Roger Penske changed the qualifying format to create a Fast Six shootout early Sunday evening for the Indy 500 pole.

But the Saturday forecast calls for rain and IndyCar moved its schedule up to start the first day of qualifying earlier.

Should all 33 cars not have an opportunity to complete a four-lap qualifying run because of rain, nothing that happens Saturday will count, and the entire field will return Sunday to do it all over again.