The welcome sight of Indy cars turning left on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval ushered in the official start of practice for the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Tuesday, in preparation for the 102nd running of the iconic race on May 27.
Team Penske's Simon Pagenaud led the way as all 35 entered drivers completed laps on the 2.5-mile superspeedway. The driver of the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet ran a best lap of 225.787 mph in the two-hour session that started the day. Teammate Helio Castroneves, in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet, was fastest in a three-hour end-of-day session at 224.665 mph. Castroneves' lap ranked second overall to Pagenaud.
"The (No.) 22 Menards car is looking really, really fast," said Pagenaud, the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series champion whose best Indy 500 finish in six tries was eighth in 2013. "It was a very productive day, so, yeah, (I) felt pretty happy.
"We obviously are still learning a lot about the aerodynamics of the car. It's quite different to what we had the past few years. There's still a lot to learn for everybody, I believe, but we're on the right track."
In between the two open practices, a two-hour session allowed Dale Coyne Racing's Zachary Claman De Melo - named early Tuesday to replace the injured Pietro Fittipaldi in the No. 19 Paysafe Honda - to complete his Indy 500 rookie orientation program and one-off veterans James Davison, Oriol Servia and Stefan Wilson to finish refresher programs.
The day also featured the official return to Verizon IndyCar Series racing for Danica Patrick, who's looking to complete the "Danica Double" and end her racing career in the Indianapolis 500 after racing in NASCAR's Daytona 500 in February.
Patrick ran 91 laps and was 20th on the overall speed chart with a lap of 222.728 mph in the No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.
"I felt like it was a really solid day," said Patrick, the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 (19 laps in 2005) and highest female finisher in race history (third in 2009). "I feel like the car has a lot of good natural speed in it. It was very smooth. We tried a handful of things and found some stuff that worked.
"I would say today went really well. We accomplished what we wanted to. We ran alone, we tried things, we got the car to turn a little bit better. We got in traffic for a good few laps, quite a few."
Castroneves likewise made his official return to the IMS oval. After 20 years driving Indy cars for a living, the 43-year-old Brazilian moved full time to Team Penske's new sports car program this season, but is back this month in search of a record-tying fourth Indy 500 triumph.
"We started right away with a good pace," Castroneves said. "Good job (by) everyone, running issue-free. We still have a long way to go, but it was a very base test with the new car actually, with traffic and everything. Looking forward to another day tomorrow, so we continue to work and pursue that right result."
Patrick's teammate, ECR owner/driver Ed Carpenter, logged the fastest lap of the day without benefit of a tow from a car in front, 221.564 mph, in the No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet. In total, 2,261 laps were turned by the 34 drivers without incident. Practice was stopped twice for a total of 71 minutes for light rain and lightning at the track.
Qualifying to determine the 33-car field takes place Saturday and Sunday. ABC will broadcast the climactic two hours of qualifications each day, from 4-6 p.m.
The 102nd Indianapolis 500 airs live beginning at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 27 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.