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New road race creates odd opening day at Indianapolis for drivers, teams

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INDIANAPOLIS - Michael Andretti thought he had experienced everything at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — until he strolled down pit row Thursday.

Suddenly, the 51-year-old IndyCar team owner who grew up around this historic track, who raced against his father and his son here, who led more laps than any non-race winner in Indy history, was surprised at seeing tire marks going the wrong way.

"I wondered, 'Why are they burning rubber coming into the pits.' Then I remembered," Andretti said before cracking a smile on Indy's opening day. "You sort of get used to it."

Andretti isn't alone. Everyone is adjusting to Indy's the new sights, sounds and schedules this May.

Traditionalists have already complained that it was a bad idea to run two major IndyCar races at Indianapolis in the same month, arguing the Grand Prix of Indianapolis will detract from the series' marquee event, the Indianapolis 500. Of course, they also complained when NASCAR, Formula One and MotoGP all came to the speedway, too.

But this transition will be a little tougher on everyone.

Rather than attending opening day on a weekend, there were already two rookie practices and a road-course test session before the track officially opened for practice Thursday.

Rather than watching cars race counterclockwise through four left turns on a 2.5-mile oval all month, drivers will spend the first three days running clockwise around the reconstructed 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.

Rather than seeing speeds top 225 mph, fans will deal with cars going more than 100 mph slower. Defending IndyCar champ Scott Dixon had the fastest lap Thursday in the two 45-minute practice sessions, 124.606. A year ago, Ed Carpenter's pole-winning four-lap average for the 500 was 228.762.

Qualifying for the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis is scheduled for Friday with the race set for Saturday, a race that will be held even in light or moderate rain, something that should please Indy race fans who so often have to contend with long rain delays when the cars are on the oval.

That may not even be the oddest part.

"It is going to be really weird here Sunday when you get on the track and see the tire marks going the opposite direction we're driving," said Brazil's Tony Kanaan, the defending Indianapolis 500 champ who now drives for Chip Ganassi. "But it's just three days and then we have 15 days of the old way."

Some are embracing the modifications.

Drivers have almost universally praised the road course, explaining that new passing zones and harder braking areas will make it more challenging to race and more fun to watch. Most also are following a normal road-racing weekend schedule for the first three days before switching to Indy mode for the rest of the month.

And there's one more thing the drivers like.

"I feel fortunate we can try to win both," said three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves, a Brazilian who drives for Roger Penske.

Even the series' marquee event, the 500, is changing.

Under the new format, the pole-winner will not be determined until the end of the second and final day of qualifications.

Organizers added an extra practice day, May 19, to give teams more time to focus on race setup since so many are expected to trim their cars for qualifying on May 17 and 18. And the 12:15 p.m. start for the May 25 race has made it possible for 2004 Cup champion Kurt Busch to become the fourth driver to attempt "the double" — completing 1,100 miles of racing at Indy and Charlotte on the same day.

"People in Indianapolis are spoiled because this is probably the finest oval in North America and this road course is probably the best in North America," said Mike Hull, Ganassi's managing director. "These are the race tracks we should be showcasing."

Along with the versatility of the drivers and the cars, too, — even if means breaking in some new traditions.

"I think it's exciting to be showcasing it right here because this is what our series is all about," Andretti said. "It's a big challenge for the drivers and the teams, but it's a challenge I really enjoy because when you get a champion, you get a true champion in all disciplines and that's what I love about our series."

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