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ROP is rite of passage for Indy rookies

May 4, 1997

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ The Rookie Orientation Program has become as much a part of Indianapolis 500 tradition as the balloons and infield barbecues.

The U.S. Auto Club long ago gave up the pretense that it was optional. Any driver who doesn’t participate might as well stay home. He won’t be in the race.

``It’s designed to take new drivers who haven’t had an opportunity to run at this track before and put them through a program that gradually introduces them to the facility and to running in various speed categories,″ Indy chief steward Keith Ward said Sunday.

``It’s very helpful. They have the track to themselves, so there’s no pressure. They can gradually work up to where they’re comfortable. We’ve had very few instances where guys didn’t get through the program.″

Rookie orientation, rained out Saturday, got underway Sunday and will wind up on Monday. The track will open for full practice with veterans on Tuesday, four days before the start of qualifications for the May 25 race.

Seventeen rookies started the race last year. At least 11 are expected to try to make the lineup this year.

The ROP was started in 1981, and 97 of the 140 drivers who took advantage of the program earned starting spots in the race. Since 1986, the only rookie starter who did not go through it 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.

Before any driver takes to the track, though, he has to attend class.

``We talk about the facility and what we expect them to do, how to run the track, where the fire trucks are located and all the safety equipment is located, where all the observer posts are, all the things they need to know out on the track in case of a crash or have a car that’s disabled,″ Ward said.

``Then we take them out in pace cars with experienced drivers. Right now, we’re using primarily Al Unser Sr. and Johnny Rutherford. That gives them an opportunity to run with somebody who can show them the line and show them the things they ought to be concerned about.″

There are four initial phases of the rookie test, starting at 185 mph and increasing to any speed above 200 the driver feels comfortable running.

``What we’re really looking for is not just speed but some kind of discipline and consistency,″ Ward said.

``After they go through that, and if they’re still on target, we have one final deal which generally we do after we get everybody on the track practicing. We get veteran drivers to sit on each of the turns and they observe these guys running in traffic.″

The top rookie last year was Tony Stewart, who started from the pole after his teammate _ veteran Scott Brayton _ was killed in practice. Stewart led the first 31 laps of the race and 44 laps altogether before an engine problem gave him 24th place.

``It’s a little more relaxed,″ he said of his second trip to Indy. ``You come here in your rookie year, you’re pretty overwhelmed by all the glamor and everything.

``To get your first year out of the way, it gives me a little more focus on the job at hand. I just feel it’s easier to be a little more focused this year on getting the job done.″

Stewart last week signed a contract to drive the NASCAR Grand National series next year for Joe Gibbs, with the intention of moving to the Winston Cup series in 1999.

On Sunday, he said he also will remain with Team Menard in the Indy Racing League at least through the 1998 season.

``It’s no secret that Tony has been looking at NASCAR, and some of that had to be worked out before we could negotiate,″ car owner John Menard said.

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