Alexander Rossi

Helio Castroneves, the reigning champion of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, delivered a strong message to his fellow Meyer Shank Racing members during a dinner Wednesday night.

“We’re still the defending champions,” the Brazilian said Thursday at “500” Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We’ve got to execute like that.”

Castroneves will drive the same No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Radio Honda in which he won last year’s race, but there are many differences, beginning with where he and the machine will start this year. The position will be from 27th rather than eighth, which requires a different pursuit.

Castroneves spent most of last year’s race running in the top five of the 33-car field, a luxury that allowed his car to have better aerodynamic conditions than he will encounter in the second half of the pack. That changes things, he said, and he must be more in tune with the competitors ahead of him to gain spots as they slip up.

The other year-over-year difference is where Castroneves is pitting. For the first time in his 22 years at IMS, his box will be at the entrance to pit road – the second stall from the entry, to be accurate. He knows that could be an issue as he will slow down and turn sooner than most.

“(Trailing drivers) aren’t used to me pitting there, so we have to be careful,” he said.

Not All Onboard Videos Alike

Several drives admitted having studied Castroneves’ onboard footage from last year to see how he manipulated traffic, particularly in the closing laps when he outdueled Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing). Alexander Rossi (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda of Andretti Autosport) was not one of them.

Rossi said it can be difficult to know what a driver is thinking about a move, hence the misleading information that can be derived from watching someone else’s drive. Also, there are surprises, such as in the closing laps of the 2019 race when race leader Simon Pagenaud snaked his way down the straightaway as the train of challengers mirrored.

“I didn’t know what to do with that,” Rossi said. “He got that from watching cycling.”

Pagenaud, a Frenchman who is a big Tour de France follower, held on for his first “500” victory.

Much Talk About Shenanigans

Media Day also featured its share of conversation about the shenanigans happening in the driver motorhome lot at IMS. Already, an assortment of creative pranks have been played.

Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport) was surprised by a phone call from IMS Security saying his scooter was on the roof of the Pagoda.

“Yeah, that’s mine,” he told the caller. “I guess she had a good view (of the track).”

Rookie David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) said he heard “a ruckus” outside of his motorhome the night Alexander Rossi’s golf cart got placed on top of four garbage cans, but he stayed quiet and remains vigilant in case he is the next to be pranked.

“I keep my stuff locked up, triple checked,” he said.

Conor Daly (No. 20 BitNile Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing), who had his portable pool pranked last week with water-absorbing balls, said there is more the public doesn’t hear about (until now). Including: Josef Newgarden forgetting to lock his motorhome only to find noise-making (and fake) crickets chirping inside.

“I got a text at 1:47 in the morning asking where the crickets are,” Daly said, laughing.

Gentlemen, Start Your Nerves

Arrow McLaren SP teammates Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist took questions Thursday about the comfort of starting next to each other on Row 3.

Rosenqvist said anxiety comes with it.

“The last guy you want to take out of a race is your teammate,” he said. “I don’t want to get a call from Mr. Brown.”

Zak Brown is the team principal of Arrow McLaren SP.

Boles: Sunday’s Race Nearly Sold Out

IMS President J. Douglas Boles said approximately 10,000 reserved seats remain on sale for Sunday’s “500,” and he expects less than half that many to be available when the race begins.

No tickets remain on the front straightaway and very few are left in the track’s corners. The North Vista has the most tickets available. Boles said total attendance on Race Day figures to be about 325,000.

Boles said he expects a crowd of between 18,000 and 20,000 for Sunday’s Indy 500 Snake Pit Concert presented by Coors Light, an event held in the infield.

Odds And Ends

  • Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) is one of the few rookies who have driven at IMS when a large crowd was on hand. That is something that can be intimidating at first glance. “I don’t know if it will give me an advantage,” he said, “but I’ll be ready for it.”
  • Ed Carpenter (No. 33 Alzamend Neuro Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing) finished second in the 2018 race to Will Power. But he said the 2014 race won by Ryan Hunter-Reay is the one that got away. Carpenter collected in a Lap 176 crash with James Hinchcliffe after leading 26 laps. “We were really strong that year,” he said.
  • Carpenter said he is proud that his race team has delivered the highest-qualified Chevrolet each of the past three years, and Carpenter qualified second to Pagenaud’s Chevrolet in 2019. Rinus VeeKay and Carpenter will start third and fourth, respectively, Sunday with only two Hondas in front of them.
  • British rookie Callum Ilott, who previously raced primarily in Europe, has been surprised by all of Indy’s traditions. “At first I was asking why we’re doing this,” he said. “I’ve learned not to ask questions because it’s the same answer.” Ilott said he’s usually racing against friends and family in junior categories. When he raced at Le Mans last year, COVID-19 restrictions were in place and the event’s annual town parade was canceled.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) has a son, Sebastian, who is a talented driver rising through the ranks. But Montoya said his daughter, Paulina, is similarly enthralled with motorsports. “She watches all of the races and practices,” he said.
  • Montoya said racers can plan strategy all they want, but the course can change with the first reaction. “I remember the start of a Formula One race where I was determined, with the standing start, to go to left around a guy,” he said. “I dropped the clutch and went right, and I was thinking (to myself), ‘You’re such an idiot.’”
  • Grosjean said the “500” has surprised him in many ways. “I’ve watched (past races) from Europe, but it’s bigger than I thought it was,” he said. He noted how many people have been on the property for practice days, and he heard there were an estimated 50,000 on hand for Sunday’s PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying.
  • Don’t be surprised if several teams try different strategies in Sunday’s race. Veteran driver JR Hildebrand (No. 11 Homes For Troops Chevrolet of AJ Foyt Racing) said doing the expected “a lot of times doesn’t wind you up in a better spot.” Hildebrand starts 17th.
  • Rossi said Graham Rahal last year “put together a blueprint” for how to get from the back to the front. Rahal saved fuel in the first stint and got the caution he needed to cycle past many drivers in front of him. Rahal had the lead by Lap 79 and was leading again when his rear tire came off following his third pit stop.
  • Many rookies sleeping in their motorhomes are unaware of the Speedway’s tradition of setting off a cannon early in the morning signifying the spectator gates are open. Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) knows about it, but he isn’t concerned. “I don’t hear much when I’m sleeping,” he said.
  • Gates open at 8 a.m. Friday for Miller Lite Carb Day. The two-hour NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice is set for 11 a.m. with the Ruoff Mortgage Pit Stop Challenge at 2:30 p.m. Live coverage will be available on Peacock Premium, the streaming service of NBC Sports.