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It Takes Two: Grand Prix joins 500 in celebrated Month of May

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IndyCar drivers (from left) Will Power, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves soak in the scene prior to the 2012 Indianapolis 500. (Photo/Tom Russo/Daily Reporter).
IndyCar drivers (from left) Will Power, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves soak in the scene prior to the 2012 Indianapolis 500. (Photo/Tom Russo/Daily Reporter).

For the better part of a century, the Month of May has started quietly, with cars turning laps and fine-tuning for days, building momentum throughout the month through Pole Day, Bump Day, Carb Day and eventually bursting into the crescendo that is the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – 33 cars, 200 laps, 800 left turns and one champion of the Indianapolis 500.

This year, the Month of May will start with a bang, and then rebuild momentum through its traditional steps to build to the ultimate Memorial Day weekend apex.

For the first time in its history, the cars and drivers of the Indianapolis 500 will compete in two races at 16th and Georgetown – the Grand Prix of Indianapolis will be held Saturday afternoon on a reconfigured 2.4-mile road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the traditional Indianapolis 500 on the 2.5-mile IMS oval on May 25.

Track activity will begin Thursday with practice for the Saturday race. After the winner of the first IndyCar road race to be run at IMS is crowned, the track will be converted to the oval, the cars will go back to turning left, and practice will begin for the Indianapolis 500.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis track will be significantly different than the last time high-powered open-wheel cars competed at Indianapolis. The circuit used for the 2000-07 Formula One United States Grand Prix had a unique mix of speed. It used Turn 1 of the oval, plus the south short chute and the main straightaway – and a very technical infield section that included multiple 180-degree corners, including a double-hairpin that came one turn before the cars exited onto the oval just outside Turn 2.

The 180-degree corners have been eliminated, the entrance to the complex of turns inside the oval’s Turn 4 (road course Turn 1) has been moved farther up, creating a big passing zone, and another chicane has been added to bypass the oval’s Turn 1 and create another passing zone connecting the short chute and the main straightaway. The 14-turn course has been praised by drivers for its raciness, and should lead to a spectacular show.

“It’s a beautiful layout,” driver Simon Pagenaud said after a testing day held April 30. “They’ve done a really, really good job here. It suits the IndyCar really well, I think. It’s very smooth.  It’s the smoothest track we go to. It’s enjoyable. Quite a bit of high-speed corners, medium-speed corners, a lot of braking, which is going to be good for racing.”

While races – some combination of Formula One, Grand Am sports car and MotoGP motorcycle events – have been held on the road course each year since it was built, this weekend marks the first time a race will be run on the track in its current configuration, as the road course was rebuilt over the winter with the bulk of the changes coming inside the oval’s Turn 4 and Turn 1.

According to the drivers, the main passing zones will be at the end of the two straightaways – the frontstretch heading into the infield section, and at the end of the Hulman Boulevard straight that serves as the backstretch, both of which are tight, flat 90-degree turns.

Driver Juan Pablo Montoya has driven the most races on the Indy road course – having driven in the USGP, and also joining Chip Ganassi’s team for the Grand Am races held during Brickyard 400 weekends. He called the new circuit “phenomenal.” The last – and only – time Montoya ran an IndyCar at Indianapolis, he won the 2000 Indianapolis 500, and the road course had not yet been used.

As far as predicting a winner? Good luck. Not only is it a first-time race on a track nobody has driven on, the field has been extremely tight when the drivers have been on-track. The top seven drivers were within a half-second on a 2.436-mile lap during the test day, and the top 19 were within a second. Scott Dixon, Ryan Briscoe and Simon Pagenaud had the top three times.

Of the permanent road courses driven by the series the last two seasons, only Ryan Hunter-Reay has won twice. James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball and Will Power have also won non-street road races since the new cars were introduced in 2013.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis will also feature a few new twists. IMS is where the flying start was introduced in 1911 – which has become a staple of American racing in the years since. Saturday’s race will feature a Formula One-style standing start, which IndyCar has introduced at road races where doubleheaders are run.

And, of course, it will lead into practice for the Indianapolis 500, giving teams and drivers an extra something to shoot for at the sport’s epicenter before beginning preparations for its biggest race.

There will be a few other changes to the month – the most notable being a radical change to qualifications.

The procedure has been modified to finish with the run for the pole – rather than the race to stay off the bubble. The starting field will be set on Saturday, May 17, but no positions will be set. Cars will have to put together another four-lap run the following day to set their positions, with the top nine from Saturday getting an opportunity for a pole shootout from 2-2:45 p.m. on Sunday. Essentially, the order is reversed, putting bumping before the run for the pole.

Because Sunday has often been used for teams already in the field to practice race setups, a midweek practice session has been added after qualifying concludes, giving teams a chance to recoup lost practice time prior to the Carb Day shakedown runs.

The Month of May will have a much different feel in 2014, with essentially three different weekend races put together, one on the road course, one involving solo runs on the oval, and the Indianapolis 500. But the crescendo will be little different.

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