Despite a few bumps, new Indy track gets off to smooth start

Having survived an earthquake and a hurricane last week, Baltimore Grand Prix CEO and president Jay Davidson joked that he was "waiting for the locusts."

What descended Friday amid the deafening roar of 180-mph Indy racecars along the 2.03-mile track were a few mild complaints about the pit road area, but otherwise high marks for the track's race readiness for the inaugural event.

With a mix of smooth blacktop straightaways that reminded a few of the drivers of other street courses in Brazil and Canada, and slippery stretches of concrete that could make some spots downright treacherous if there's any precipitation this weekend, the track received mostly positive reviews before and after the practice sessions were concluded.

"There are some spots that need to be fixed," three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves of Brazil said during a three-hour wait while crews were completing the reinstallation of safety fencing that had been temporarily removed in advance of Hurricane Irene. "Every time there's a first race for a street course, you're always going to have a tendency to get better for the following year. Especially when you're going to be here for four or five years."

Another former Indy 500 champion, Dario Franchitti of Scotland, said that he will have his "hands full" negotiating the twists and turns and more than a few bumps, but the more difficult the track, the better the chances for either he or another of the top IZOD IndyCar Series drivers to win on Sunday.

"I'm just figuring my way around," Franchitti said after completing 24 laps of practice. "I still think there's a couple of areas that I could improve on. It's a challenge for the engineers, for the drivers. I'm pretty busy out there hanging on to the thing."

One of the biggest concerns appears to be the rather unwieldy pit road area, where some drivers will enter from the left, meaning they will exit into the fast lane, while others will enter from the right, and reenter in the slow lane. All the drivers will have to negotiate a sharper-than-normal turn right at the end of the pit area.

"I noticed that, why are we going to the right and the left," Castroneves said of pit road. "A hairpin curve on each side. It is awkward. I guess that's the only way for them to put all the cars. That's a good problem to have. We have about 27 cars.Hopefully there's an opportunity to change, if there's too much risk involved, even if we have to move the walls a little bit away"

Another area that seemed to raise a red flag — and maybe a yellow one come the weekend — was the part of the course that crosses the light rail tracks. Chicanes — artificial surfaces used to create extra turns in order to slow the drivers down — have been installed there and in one other strategic place along the course.

"It's too rough, we can't be going over those railroad tracks at 140 miles an hour the way they are," said Ryan Briscoe of Australia. "It's going to be very challenging, we're going to have to be very technical, we're going to have to ride the curves and set the car up for it. It looks like it's going to be pretty easy to make mistakes in those chicanes."

Franchitti said that he negotiated the train tracks while avoiding the chicane there and declared it was "doable."

Turn 1 certainly got the attention of most drivers, where 2008 Indy 500 champion Scott Dixon crashed Friday at the beginning of his fourth practice lap

"It's a tight corner [coming out of the pit road]," said Briscoe, who wound up crashing on Turn 5 on the 12th lap of his practice session."It's going to make for excitement, but there is room to get through two-wide. The braking is going to be interesting, but until we're heading down there at 170 miles an hour, I'm not sure what it's going to feel like with that rise in the track. I think it looks great. I think it will be a good Turn 1."

In preparation for their first trip to Baltimore, the drivers and their engineers spent time with simulators to approximate what to expect once they got on the track. Many drivers agreed that they got as much, if not more, out of walking the track when they got to town.

"The visuals are good, but the track walk is the best [way to judge the track] because you can get a real visual for what it looks like," said Danica Patrick, who did her walkaround during rush hour Wednesday night. "Those are important to do especially on a new track."

By the time the Indy car qualifying starts Saturday, most of the drivers will have started to feel comfortable with the new track.

"Street courses especially, there's no room for error," Briscoe said. "You need to respect the circuit and the dangers when learning a new street course. You've got to take full advantage of the practice sessions. You need to be very careful about how you approach finding your limits. You need to work up to it on a couple of practice sessions before qualifying. When qualifying comes, that's when you need to be ready to go all out, because starting in front is going to be imperative."