With Pietro Fittipaldi not present, the group of four Indianapolis 500 rookies this year was reduced to three for Rookie Orientation Program testing Tuesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which saw two former Indy Lights drivers become eligible for this month’s edition of the famed race with ease.
Kyle Kaiser and Matheus Leist, now Verizon IndyCar Series drivers after finishing first and fourth in last year’s Indy Lights points standings, checked off the three Rookie Orientation Program phases quicker than the more experienced Robert Wickens who battled gearbox issues in the three-hour session.
After turning in 10 laps at 205–210 mph, the trio of rookies was required to speed up to 210–215 mph for 15 laps before completing 15 more laps at 215 mph or above. Kaiser needed less than half an hour to satisfy the requirements, while Leist did so within the first hour. Wickens, despite turning the fastest lap, used the closing minutes of the session to complete the program.
Though Kaiser was third quickest among the three rookies on Tuesday, it was the simplicity of the session that made his first day in an Indy car at IMS extra remarkable.
“Overall we had a really smooth run, which is exactly what we were all hoping for,” Kaiser said. “We went out and were the first to finish with our (Rookie Orientation Program) testing. We only went through two sets of tires doing it and the car felt great. We had good speed considering we didn’t even get into trimming the car at all and we were running competitive times.”
The $1 million prize for winning the Indy Lights title aided Kaiser in reaching a deal to contest four IndyCar races in 2018 with Juncos Racing — a new face within the series in its own right. After taking to Phoenix and Long Beach in Juncos’ No. 32 Chevrolet, Kaiser will close out his season with the two Indianapolis rounds.
“I am really happy with the team and I am looking forward to getting back on the road course now,” he continued.
“This was a good first taste of the oval and I am looking forward to more this month.”
In going fast enough to be approved to participate in practice for the upcoming 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500, Leist drew upon the setup his Brazilian countryman and teammate Tony Kanaan took to the top of Monday’s open test timesheet as well as his Indy Lights experience as the reigning winner of the Freedom 100.
“The car was feeling good all day long, so pretty happy,” the 19-year-old Leist commented after contributing 71 laps to the total of 197 turned during the Rookie Orientation Program session.
“The feeling was not that much different than Indy Lights. The Indy Lights cars have less downforce and go 20 mph slower in the straights, but the feeling is pretty much the same. This car has more downforce, so you feel a little more comfortable with the speed, so it was not a big deal for me.”
Grinning over the speed of his No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, Leist was thinking well into the future of IndyCar’s marquee month.
“We’ll see how it’s going to be in qualifying, but so far so good. I’m looking forward to the month of May.”
Kaiser and Leist will be able to bring their Indy Lights experience back to the forefront during the next race: the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course, another circuit also featured on the Indy Lights calendar. The event, scheduled for May 11–12, is all that stands between the young rookies and their Indy 500 debuts.