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Rain-Plagued Rookie Orientation Program Gets Under Way

May 5, 1996

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ Indiana’s fickle weather certainly hasn’t been hospitable to the 20-some rookie drivers trying to learn their way around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The annual Rookie Orientation Program was rained out on Saturday and halted again Sunday after less than one hour, time for only nine drivers to begin practice and for just five to start the successive 10-lap phases of the mandatory Indianapolis 500 rookie test.

Full practice for veterans begins on Tuesday, with qualifying on May 11-12 and May 18-19. The race will be on May 26, the same day as the U.S. 500 at Michigan International Speedway with most of the top Indy drivers.

The fastest before the rain hit on Sunday was Tony Stewart, who topped out at 193.957 mph after completing the first phase of the test. Mark Dismore, who completed the test in 1991 before breaking his neck in a crash, passed the first two phases and had a fast lap at 193.569.

The test phases are in 5-mph brackets beginning at 185.

``In April, I tested a little over 1,100 miles out here, so I’ve got a little bit of a jump on some of the rookies that haven’t had the opportunity to come test right now,″ said Stewart, a Rushville, Ind., driver who last year became the only one to win U.S. Auto Club sprint, midget and dirt car championships in the same season.

``I didn’t feel like I was pressured to get up to speed at a certain rate,″ Stewart said of his introduction to Indy. ``I could take my time, and if I didn’t feel comfortable, I slowed down and started over. So I feel like it’s been a big advantage coming into the ROP.″

And that’s what the ROP was designed to do.

The ROP began in 1981 as a way to familiarize newcomers with the narrow, flat 2 1/2-mile Speedway oval without the bother of running in traffic during practice in May.

``The teams jump at the chance to get the track time. It’s tough enough to come here and run 220 mph, let alone work up to speed with guys coming around you at 230,″ said Dick Jordan, USAC’s communications director. ``This gives them an opportunity to build up to speed without the other pressures at the same time.″

There have been 89 rookies in the race since 1981. Eighty of them participated in the ROP. Since 1986, the only rookie starter who did not go through the ROP was Nigel Mansell, the defending Formula One champion who signed up for the program in 1993 but had to withdraw while he was recovering from back surgery.

Still, Mansell needed special approval by USAC to pass up the orientation program, and he was required to take the mandatory driving tests once the track opened the following week. Except for that year, and 1983, when Teo Fabi declined the rookie program but set a track record in qualifying to win the pole position, every other Indy rookie of the year since 1981 has participated in the ROP.

Others who practiced on Sunday included Michele Alboreto, a former Formula One driver; Richie Hearn, the Toyota Atlantic champion last season; and Buzz Calkins, the Indy Racing League series leader after two races.

Also practicing were Justin Bell, Brad Murphey, Joe Gosek and Michel Jourdain Jr.

``We just want to get through the ROP,″ Stewart said. ``And hopefully the weather will be good the next few days where we can kind of get a little bit of a head start on the veterans going into pole day.

``I feel like I’m a patient guy. I go at my own pace,″ he said. ``I don’t try to push anything. I try to take it all in stride.

``We do everything very methodically. We don’t try to get ahead of ourselves, because that’s when you get in trouble. So as long as we keep doing things the way we are, I think we’ll be all right.″

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