Helio Has Practice Covered To A “T”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 25 2009
Helio Castroneves on pit road in Edmonton. (IndyCar photo by Shawn Payne)

Helio Castroneves on pit road in Edmonton. (IndyCar photo by Shawn Payne)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

From PR to RPMs, Helio Castroneves had the field covered during Friday’s opening round of practice for the Rexall Edmonton Indy.

Team Penske’s Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe stood 1-2 on the speed chart after practice on the 1.9773-mile, 14-turn Edmonton City Centre Airport circuit. Castroneves posted a quick lap of 1 minute, 1.5467 seconds (115.405 mph) on his 13th and final pass of the afternoon session. Briscoe – pole-sitter for the inaugural IndyCar Series race in Edmonton, Alberta, last summer – had posted the quickest lap of the day (1:01.9820/114.595 mph) only six minutes prior to Castroneves’ hot lap.

Additionally, Will Power – driver of the No. 12 Penske Truck Rental Dallara/Honda _ was first during the morning session and third overall (1:02.0853) at the close of practice. Power finished third at Toronto two weeks ago, his second podium in four starts this season.

“It’s a great start for Team Penske,” Castroneves said. “It shows what we can do as a three-car team with Will, and it shows that it helps everybody. It’s not over, though. We need to keep it up for qualifying and the race. It’s great to have a healthy competition inside the team. We’re working on keeping it inside the team for the weekend.”

Earlier, Castroneves displayed his considerable public relations savvy with an item intended purely for fans of Canadian open-wheel star Paul Tracy. Hoping to avoid the boo-birds at a second consecutive Canadian venue, Castroneves sported an “I (heart) Canada” T-shirt with Tracy’s No. 15 inserted in the maple leaf heart.

Castroneves, the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, drew the ire of Tracy fans in Toronto when his No. 3 Dallara/Honda got tangled up with Tracy’s car as they squabbled for second place late in the race on the Exhibition Place course. A chorus of sustained boos – a sound the effervescent Brazilian isn’t accustomed to hearing – rained down from the grandstands when he returned to pit lane.

Castroneves sported a special T-shirt made just for this weekend. (IndyCar photo by Shawn Payne)

Castroneves sported a special T-shirt made just for this weekend. (IndyCar photo by Shawn Payne)

“I will use it (the shirt) most of the weekend,” Castroneves said. “I admire the fans. They’re supporting their people and that’s the way it should be.”

Both Tracy and Castroneves dismissed the incident as a typical racing deal.

“He’s the last person I would want to tangle with,” said Castroneves, who was declared winner of the 2002 Indy 500 over Tracy after a controversial finish and drawn-out legal battle. “It’s unfortunate because it (the Toronto incident) cost me a lot of points in the championship. That’s what people sometimes don’t understand. I was just trying to finish the race.”

Tracy, driving the Edmonton Honda Dealers/WoundedWarriors.ca entry for KV Racing Technology, agreed. “I think it cost me a good finish in Canada, but for him it effectively ended his championship run,” said Tracy, who finished fourth on the Centre Airport course last year. “To make up that (78-point) difference in the last six or seven races is too difficult.”

Tracy made his only IndyCar Series start of 2008 at Edmonton, advancing 11 positions to finish fourth. He has returned this weekend with four additional IndyCar Series races on his resume.

Tracy also represented WoundedWarriors.ca – a non-profit charity that supports Canadian soldiers wounded overseas – at the Toronto venue. For a donation this weekend, spectators can sign Tracy’s fire suit, which will be auctioned as a fund-raiser.

“I met some of the soldiers in Toronto who had just come back from Afghanistan. They were just so proud to have someone represent them,” Tracy said. “Being Canadian and supporting the Canadian troops and bringing awareness is important.”

For his part, Castroneves is scheduled to sign his “I (heart) Canada” t-shirt and present it to Tracy as a donation to WoundedWarriors.ca Saturday morning at Tracy’s pit box.

Meanwhile, defending Edmonton race-winner Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth-fastest (1:02.3164) in his No. 9 entry at the close of practice. Rookies Raphael Matos (1:02.3383) was fifth in the No. 2 US Marines Luczo Dragon Racing car and Mike Conway was sixth (1:02.4343) in the No. 24 Charter Media/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry.

Early in the afternoon session – when the ambient temp was 88 degrees (F) and the track 112 degrees – Dan Wheldon’s car spun exiting Turn 3 and made front-end contact with the concrete barrier in Turn 4. The incident collected the car driven by Danica Patrick, although both drivers were uninjured.

“It was driver error,” said Wheldon, driver of the No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara/Honda. “I hit a curb which sent me to the other side of the track and a wheel went onto the grass and I ended up spearing it into the wall. It’s unfortunate for the team. Our guys will build the car back up and we’ll be back out there (Saturday). We thought we’d made some headway from the first session; we looked at the data and thought we knew where we needed to improve and felt pretty confident in that. But that was just my mistake and unfortunately I took Danica with me, which is a shame.”

Patrick said she was anticipating the day’s afternoon session in her No. 7 Boost Mobile/Motorola Dallara/Honda. “We made some changes to the car after this morning’s practice, but then got caught up in Dan’s incident which cut the afternoon’s session short,” said Patrick, of Andretti Green Racing. “I think we will be back on track (Saturday) but I really wanted to see if the changes we made were going to be the answer for having an ideal car for the qualifying run.”

A final one-hour practice is set for Saturday morning. Peak Performance Pole Qualifying is scheduled for 3:20 p.m., EDT, with a one-hour recap show to be telecast by VERSUS at 6 p.m. Sunday’s race will cover 95 laps/186.2 miles beginning at 5 p.m., EDT.

Tire-wise, Firestone Racing has returned with the same primary tire specification used in the 2008 Rexall Edmonton Indy. Also, the softer-compound alternate tires will be used at the track for the first time in the IndyCar Series.

Six different drivers representing six different teams made the final round of qualifying at Toronto – the Firestone Fast Six. Conway, part-time competitors Alex Tagliani and Power were competing for the top qualifying position against Firestone Fast Six regulars Dario Franchitti, Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson. For the record, 11 different drivers have competed in the four Firestone Fast Six sessions this season. Last year, 10 different drivers participated in the Fast Six through the six road/street events.

For the eighth time this season, the results in Toronto prompted a shake-up atop the championship point standings. Race-winner Franchitti holds a two-point lead (347-345) over Ganassi teammate Dixon – specifically, the two bonus points the Scotsman has earned for most laps-led. Briscoe – who has finished second in five of the last six races including Toronto – is third, 13 points behind.

Also on Friday, J.R. Hildebrand qualified on pole for the Firestone Indy Lights Grand Prix of Edmonton. Hildebrand, the Firestone Indy Lights championship points-leader, posted a quick lap of 1 minute, 5.9065 seconds (107.771 mph) to earn his fourth pole of the season. He will be joined by first-time front-row starter Richard Philippe in Saturday’s 50-lap Grand Prix of Edmonton. The race will be telecast at 4 p.m., EDT, on Monday on VERSUS.

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, July 25 2009
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