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Two-time winner cherishes role in Indy 500 tradition
INDIANAPOLIS -- As Helio Castroneves rode a golf cart through Gasoline Alley and headed for pit lane, the cheers grew to a crescendo.
It seemed as if the Brazilian was everybody's favorite Thursday as he prepared to race for an unprecedented third straight Indianapolis 500 victory.
Castroneves and 31 other drivers who qualified for the 500-mile event took part in the traditional "Carburetion Day" practice -- the only time between the end of qualifying and the start of Sunday's race the cars are allowed on the 2 1/2-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
"Carburetion Day" is part of a long list of Indianapolis traditions. The name was first used when Indy car engines still had carburetors and it has remained long after fuel injection was adopted.
It's the kind of tradition that Castroneves loves.
"Everything here is history and history," he said. "Everybody seems to know so much of it, and I'm learning."
Castroneves already is a part of Indy lore after becoming the first driver in 20 years -- and only the fifth in 86 races -- to win back-to-back at the Brickyard.
Based on his reception by the several thousand fans Thursday, a lot of people want him to get the third one. And he's thoroughly enjoying the attention.
"Crossing Gasoline Alley, guys are calling your name, they want you to autograph their kids' shirts. It's so incredible."
Castroneves said he has been able to put aside the distractions enough to get his Team Penske Dallara ready to race.
"Yes, oh yes. It seems to be working very well," he said. "The time you spend with the car needs to be quality time, producing, developing ideas. That's what's been successful with this team."
Castroneves also is adding to the lore of Penske Racing, the most successful team in the history of American open-wheel racing.
When he starts from the pole Sunday, it will be the record 12th time a car owned by Roger Penske has led the field to the green flag. His two Indy victories have also raised the Penske record for Brickyard wins to 12.
Kenny Brack, driving for Team Rahal, posted the fastest lap Thursday at 228.707 mph, followed by Andretti Green Racing's Robby Gordon -- who will drive in both the 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in Concord, N.C. on Sunday -- at 227.850.
"It's been a fantastic day for us," said Brack, the 1999 Indy winner. "It's race preparation, so we've done a lot of stuff in the few laps that we've been able to run and the car seems to run fine. So, let's hope it stays the same until Sunday."
Gordon, who will attempt "The Double" for the fourth time, flew immediately to Concord, where rain washed out a scheduled stock car practice.
"Our main focus today was just making sure the car shifted gears, the aero balance was right and the gearing was right," Gordon said. "The car feels very good and I'm very confident.
"We've got our fingers crossed that the weather will cooperate."
The National Weather Service forecast for Sunday called for partly cloudy skies in both cities, with highs in the 60s here and in the 70s in Concord.
Gil de Ferran, Castroneves' teammate, was close behind Gordon at 227.812 mph, with former Indy Racing League champion Greg Ray and rookie Scott Dixon next at 227.790 mph and 227.714 mph.
Castroneves was sixth-fastest at 226.993 mph and was happy with what he and the team accomplished in 22 laps.
"We ran just enough laps today to make sure everything is OK for Sunday," he said. "I'm very happy with the car. It's handling well and we're in good shape for the race. Now we'll just have to stay focused and see how things play out on May 25."
Robby McGehee was the only one of the 33 starters who didn't turn a lap Thursday. McGehee was a late addition to what is now a three-car Panther Racing team, joining two-time defending IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. and Billy Boat.
"Frankly, we haven't gotten everything together in terms of crew," said the disappointed McGehee, who will race here for the fourth time. "We have our race engine on the dyno, which will be installed later today or tomorrow morning.
"I think, especially because I have so few laps" this month, "I'd have liked to run today. But the team's working really hard to get it together and we'll be strong and ready to go on Sunday."