INDIANAPOLIS – Whatever excitement that existed in being at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has subsided for DragonSpeed.
The race team, which has excelled in European LMP1 and LMP2 sports cars but new this year to the NTT IndyCar Series, is well aware of the daunting challenge ahead as 36 drivers compete for 33 spots in the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
The No. 81 10 Star DragonSpeed Chevrolet driven by Ben Hanley completed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval rookie orientation Wednesday, the initial step in a steep learning curve for a 34-year-old British driver without any superspeedway experience prior to this week, other than a one-day test last month at Texas Motor Speedway.
While they’re just getting started on setups, the reality is DragonSpeed’s best lap out of 71 completed Wednesday ranked last on the speed chart. The clock is ticking on finding enough speed for Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying this weekend.
Race fans historically love an underdog and appreciate candor, which DragonSpeed team principal Elton Julian brings to the equation. This team has come so far in such a short time, first figuring out how to put together an Indy car in January, and a confident Julian sounds as upbeat and eager as anyone in Gasoline Alley.
“First and foremost, it’s just appreciating the moment. OK, we’ve done that. We can move on from that,” Julian said. “Now we start to do the work on the track.
“I’ll be content when we’re in the field. But that’s the beauty of it all. I love it. Don’t forget, there used to be the days when there were 67 deals trying to qualify. You’ve got to beat people to get in.”
The team established a baseline setup in Tuesday practice but also encountered wiring issues that have since been corrected. Julian reiterated Wednesday that DragonSpeed will maintain a methodical approach through the week.
The goals couldn’t be clearer. No. 1, qualify. No. 2, finish the race.
“You’ve got to make the field,” Julian said. “There’s no guarantees, unlike Le Mans, where once you’re invited, you know you’re racing. This is special. And I appreciate that.
“The pressure exists, of course. We would be massively disappointed if we didn’t make it.”
Hanley is in his fourth season with DragonSpeed, which won the 2017 European Le Mans Series LMP2 championship. He’s made two NTT IndyCar Series starts this season as part of a five-race plan, finishing 18th on the street course at St. Petersburg and 21st on the road course at Barber Motorsports Park.
“We know it’s not just another race,” Hanley said. “We’re learning a hell of a lot each time we go out on track. The small differences make big gains around here.
“I’m really focused on qualifying on Saturday. We’ve got to get through that. We know three cars are going home, and we know that could be anybody. Priority No. 1 is to be in the race. We’ve got to achieve that.”
Hanley acknowledged it was quite a thrill to drive around the famed 2.5-mile oval for the first time Tuesday. But as Julian reminded, that was yesterday.
“All the rookies, we all have a lot to learn,” Hanley said. “You look at all the veterans here, and you can tell straight away that they’re up to speed on the second lap while we’re building ourselves into it. Each time we make a change, we anticipate what the car is going to do, but you still need to ease into it, and it takes a few laps to get going.”
The small team will keep plugging in the bid to make a name for itself. Julian pointed out that DragonSpeed is one of few teams that doesn’t have an owner’s name in the title.
“It’s not about me,” he said.
It’s about DragonSpeed qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.
“It would mean a lot, of course,” he said. “Actually it’s not so much the positive of making the race – it’s the negative of missing it.”
When he left his Los Angeles residence to fly to Indianapolis, Julian’s two daughters asked if Dad would be home next week.
“Hopefully not,” Julian said.
Indy 500 practice continues Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ET each day, with a livestream broadcast available on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.
Saturday’s opening qualifying day streams from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. on INDYCAR Pass before NBCSN takes over for the final dramatic hour. Qualifying on Sunday airs live from noon-3 p.m. on NBC before NBCSN covers a practice for the 33 qualifiers from 3-6 p.m.
The 103rd Indianapolis 500 airs live on NBC beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 26.