IndyCar race: Indianapolis 500


By Cole Coonce

Editor’s Note: Veteran motorsport scribe and bank robber Cole Coonce will be chiming in with his observations on the IndyCar scene all month as we approach the Indy 500, set for Sunday, May 28th.

When is a two-time Formula 1 champion also a rookie? When it’s Fernando Alonso — the  F1 driver’s champ in both 2005 and 2006 — suiting up for his Rookie Orientation Process this morning in pursuit of a position in the grid in the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.

Over one half-million motorheads fired up their phones and browsers to watch streams of “Freddie Eyebrows” climb the speed charts and complete rookie orientation today.

Yes, the talk of Gasoline Alley right now is Alonso’s blowing off of Monaco this year for Team McLaren to test his mettle against Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Will Power and thirty other elite open-wheel daredevils at Indy.

“It was difficult to reach the minimum (speeds),” Fernando reported in pit lane, after turning laps of 220-mph. “And now we start the real thing.”

Fernando Aloso Indy 500

Former F1 champ Fernando Alonso is the talk of IndyCar right now and is on the precipice of running his first Indy 500 . Earlier today he participated in Rookie Orientation at the Brickyard

Alonso had never driven an oval before today, and he will be losing his cherry in a race that doesn’t care about pedigree. To that end, he is following in the heavy footsteps of a series of F1 interlopers who have butted up against the yard of bricks: Jim Clark, Graham Hill, and Juan Pablo Montoya have all had their mug’s likeness plastered on the Borg-Warner trophy.

“I expect him to be in the mix,” said McLaren executive director Zak Brown at a recent presser. “He’s the best racing driver in the world…”

Perhaps. But there was a time when the world’s greatest driver tested an IndyCar but passed on any further pursuit. In December of 1992, Ayrton Senna suited up for Roger Penske for an impromptu IndyCar test at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix.

Like, Alonso, Senna was also driving for McLaren, and, also like Fernando, was frustrated with McLaren’s place in the F1 grid.

“Normally, Formula 1 drivers get on the pace immediately,” then-Penske engineer Nigel Beresford told about the Senna test. “Ayrton started doing some pretty slow laps initially, and that was a surprise.”

Beresford continued: “This car had a sequential gearbox and Senna had to get used to manipulating a gear shifter again. On occasion, he would lose his way through the gears. He would stop the car completely, select first gear and then go again. He told me the engine was very drivable, and found the car pretty heavy — not as nimble as a much lighter F1 car — and added he did not know the revs he was pulling because the engine sounded so different.”

Unfortunately, the coda for Senna’s IndyCar experience was much different than Alonso’s.

“He came back into the pits and said ‘Thank you very much, I’ve learned what I need to know.’ He got out of the car and that was that,” Beresford stated.

Driving last year’s model on old tires, Senna turned 49.5-second laps on the Firebird road course, 6/10th slower than Penske’s star-driver Emerson Fittipaldi. A quarter of a century ago, Senna adapted quickly to a different discipline. Today, Fernando Alonso did the same, in a car prepared by Andretti Racing.

“You have the theater, but you have to have the players,” Mario Andretti said about the media impact of Alonso’s involvement.

And yes, IndyCar needs any bump it can get.

To wit, last Saturday night in Phoenix, an estimated 8000 fans attended IndyCar’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

Vintage Indy race cars

Historic open wheel racers made slow-paced laps at IndyCar’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix last weekend at P.I.R.

Attendance was in the toilet and there were no passes for the lead. The race was a stiff. The most memorable aspects of the show happened hours before the green flag. Fans who arrived early were privy to a poignant moment during ceremonial parade laps featuring the men and machines from IndyCar’s days of yore. Among the vintage Indy entries idling around the Phoenix oval in double formation was Parnelli Jones’s “Ol’ Calhoun,” Kevin Cogan’s 1982-vintage Dan Gurney “Eagle,” some Watson roadsters and Lil’ John Buttera’s 1982 Eagle driven by Dennis Firestone. Among other rare iron, Pancho Carter drove his old Drake V-8. But the quietest car there was the one that spoke the loudest: Joe Leonard’s rear-engined Pratt & Whitney gas turbine-powered four-wheel-drive Lotus “wedge” — the entry that took the Pole at the 1968 Indy 500.

Leonard led 31 laps of the 1968 race. While in front of the field on Lap 192, Leonard suddenly slowed down into Turn 1 infield grass, after a fuel pump shaft broke while victory appeared imminent.

And almost fifty years in Phoenix, Joe Leonard’s turbine once again lapped the oval alone, alone this time in a missing man formation.

As the silent-but-deadly machine made its way around the Arizona asphalt in front of the hardcore railbirds, the announcer delivered the somber news: “Unfortunately Joe Leonard died this afternoon.”

Welcome to the Month of May, Fuel Curve readers. And welcome to the circle of life.

"Cole Coonce" (born 1961) is an author and literary journalist. Coonce started writing for automotive and drag-racing magazines in the 1990s, with a series of "new journalism"-type features published by Super Stock & Drag Illustrated, Full Throttle News, Popular Hot Rodding, Gearhead, and Hot Rod Magazine. During that period, he penned the non-fiction novel "Infinity Over Zero," a history of the land speed record that is the only non-partisan account of how Andy Green and the Thrust SSC jet car broke the sound barrier while setting the only supersonic Land Speed Record.
In 2001, he was honored by the Goodguys Rod & Custom Association for "Outstanding Journalistic Vision." In 2004, he won the Los Angeles Press Club's Best Sport Feature Award for "VIVA LA NITRO!" a cover story in Los Angeles CityBeat that re-lived the sojourn of Chicano funny-car driver Tony Pedregon.