Times Staff Reporter
Even after 100 years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is still the place to be in the month of May.
The Speedway has officially entered its Centennial Era, which will last until 2011 to mark the 100th anniversary of the first racing of the Indianapolis 500.
"It is always great to be at the Speedway whether it is the Centennial Era or not," John Dick, engineer for Paul Tracy, said. "There is no other track like it in the world."
The first motorsports at the speedway occurred Aug. 14, 1909, with seven motorcycle races, which were sanctioned by the Federation of American Motorcyclists.
However, the early days were marred with concerns over the surface of the track, which was initially comprised of crushed stone and tar.
Soon after, Indiana native Carl G. Fisher initiated a plan to pave the surface with 3.2 million paving bricks, giving the Speedway its nickname, "The Brickyard."
Throughout the years, tarmac has replaced the majority of the bricks, although three feet of the original bricks remain at the start/finish line.
Thursday, May 7 marked the first full day of practice for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 as rain forced the cancellation of much of Wednesday's session.
Even with the busy schedules of making up for a lost day, many drivers took the time to stop and consider the historic element of the Speedway.
"Being at the Speedway is always a great experience, but to be here during the Centennial Era makes it all the more special," driver Justin Wilson said.
At 6'4", Wilson is the tallest driver attempting to compete in the 2009 Indianapolis 500, and is looking forward to all the festivities the event brings.
"It's going to be a great month for the drivers, owners and the fans," he said. "Hopefully we can qualify well and put together a great race."
Indy 500 rookie Raphael Matos said he appreciates the history the Speedway is excited to add his name to the list of drivers who have competed in the race.
"This is a special place with a lot of history and it is very nice to have my first opportunity to be in the race on the tracks 100th year," Matos said. "It is the biggest race on the planet and I am so proud to be able to represent the Air Force and I hope to do well."
On the day, the 32 drivers who practiced combined to turn 2,199 laps, topped by Matos' 132. Marco Andretti led the pace with a best lap speed of 225.478 mph, followed by Helio Castroneves (225.237 mph) as the only two drivers to top the 225 mph mark, while only four other drivers eclipsed 224 mph. Wilson was 21st with a top lap speed of 221.200 mph, and Matos was 26th at 220.227 mph.
The quick practice times were a harbinger of good things for both Castroneves and Andretti.
Castroneves claimed the pole position last weekend and Andretti will start eighth on the grid with Matos in 12th overall, outside of row four.
The Speedway has also been a favorite place for driver Graham Rahal, who was not born at the time of father Bobby Rahal's Indy 500 victory in 1986.
"Both myself and the team is really exited to be here and it would be great to pick up a victory in the Centennial Era," the 20-year-old Rahal, who was the youngest driver at practice, said. "We have a few years in the era to do that, but it would be incredible to pick up a win not just this year, but on the 100th anniversary of the race in 2011, which would also be the 25th anniversary of my dad's victory."
Rahal had and impressive practice Thursday with a top lap speed of 222.996 mph, which was good for ninth on the day.
Rahal went on to qualify as fourth quickest in his McDonald's sponsored car.
Rahal, Wilson and Matos will be heading up a strong group of young drivers with potentially four rookies and 12 who could have their second career Indianapolis 500 start.
The 2009 running of the Indianapolis 500 is set to begin at 1 p.m., EST, Sunday, May