It took a little longer than anticipated, but Danica Patrick is officially cleared to drive when Indianapolis 500 practice begins on May 15 after completing her veteran refresher test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Patrick was among three Indy 500 veterans and three rookies who turned laps Tuesday on the 2.5-mile oval. Each successfully passed the testing phases involving progressively increasing speeds. Like Patrick, Jay Howard and Sage Karam completed the two veteran refresher portions, while Kyle Kaiser, Matheus “Matt” Leist and Robert Wickens ran through the three required rookie phases.
INDIANAPOLIS 500 ROOKIE/REFRESHER TEST: Combined results
Driving the No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, Patrick is back at Indianapolis for the first time in seven years as she looks to conclude a groundbreaking career in the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 27. Overcoming water temperature issues and an ill-handling car along the way, Patrick wasn't able to check off her refresher phases until the final 10 minutes of the three-hour afternoon session.
“It's been seven years since I drove an Indy car here,” said Patrick, the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 (as a rookie in 2005) and the best female finisher of the race (third place in 2009). “Yeah, it's been a long time.
“So I just wanted to get through today, get more comfortable, be able to get on with the job. There's been a lot of anticipation on this day for me.”
The 36-year-old admitted she’s still not comfortable in the car, citing how heavy the wheel without power steering felt despite her noted fitness routine. She expects to resolve some of the issues during a manufacturer test day on Wednesday at IMS, the final on-track availability on the oval prior to Indy 500 practice opening on May 15.
“My old engineer Matt (Barnes) ran me today,” Patrick said. “He made it easier to drive. It's still not by any means where I want it, but it was enough that we could complete today.
“I think that once I'm flat out the whole way around, I'm feeling comfortable, feeling the changes, you can really work from there.”
Howard used Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate James Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda to complete his refresher in fast fashion.
“Today was excellent,” said Howard, seeking to make his third Indy 500 start. “I’m really happy, the car feels better than it did last year, which is great. … I’m really happy, really confident – certainly no complaints. I’m looking forward to a good month of May.”
Karam is chasing his fifth straight Indy 500 start, driving a fourth time for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The 23-year-old Pennsylvanian finished his refresher as the afternoon session ended.
“This is most comfortable I have been here at Indy in the very first day of running,” said Karam, driving the No. 24 WIX Filters DRR Chevrolet. “Usually, the cars don’t feel the best after a refresher day, but this is the best I have ever felt after Day 1. The car felt good coming through the refresher speeds and even better when we added speed.”
The Indianapolis 500 rookies had the first three hours of the day to complete their programs. Kaiser, driving the No. 32 NFP/Juncos Racing Chevrolet, breezed through his in less than 30 minutes.
“I went out, felt comfortable, we knocked out the laps,” said Kaiser, who moved up to the Verizon IndyCar Series this season after winning the 2017 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship. “No hiccups on anything, which is exactly you want on a day like this.”
Wickens also resorted to using Hinchcliffe’s car to finish rookie orientation after his No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda suffered gearbox issues after the first phase. Undeterred, the Canadian posted the fastest lap of the day at 220.111 mph.
“We had to scramble a little bit to get James' car ready because it wasn't scheduled to be going on track, so we had to do some quick fixes and get everything ready to go,” said Wickens, who has a pair of top-four finishes in the first four races this season.
“It wasn't ideal because we didn't really do a seat fit for me in his car. Apart from the seat going in, everything was more ‘get on with it, get the orientation done.’ We were actually a little pressed for time to get all the phases through in the time allocation we had.”
Leist is already a winner on the IMS oval, taking the checkered flag last year in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race. The 19-year-old Brazilian needed less than an hour to run through his rookie phases in the No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.
“The feeling was not that much different than Indy Lights,” Leist said. “The Indy Lights cars have less downforce and go 20 mph slower in the straights, but the feeling is pretty much the same. This car has more downforce so you feel a little more comfortable with the speed, so it was not a big deal for me.”
Wednesday is set aside for Chevrolet and Honda to conduct manufacturer testing at the track involving 12 drivers. Then focus turns to the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, which runs May 11-12.
The INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 12 (3:30 p.m. ET) and the 102nd Indianapolis 500 on May 27 (11 a.m. ET) both air live on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.