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Weather keeps engineers busy
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

The race for Indy's coveted pole position is underway. Scott Sharp set the bar for his fellow drivers with his opening day 227.571 mph lap around the famed "Brickyard". Between now and Saturday when track public address announcer Tom Carnegie intones, "The track is now open for qualifications," Sharp's pursuers will have one eye trackside and the other skyward.

It may not rain in Indianapolis in the summertime, but it does in May. Hoosierland's ever-changing weather plays a big role in teams' decision making throughout the course of their stay in Gasoline Alley.

Robby McGhee
Robby McGhee's car slides through Turn Three during opening day practice at IMS on Sunday.
"Unless you have crewmembers watching other teams fill up their car's tanks, you're never sure whether or not the laps are a qualifying simulation or work on a race setup," explained two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk.

Sunday's extended forecast of showers through Thursday put some team's original plans in abeyance.

"I'm sure that's part of the reason why we saw so much speed on the first day," said Luyendyk.

Teams have differing levels of meteorological assets. While some teams simply rely upon Internet and local TV forecasts, many top teams purchase Internet radar and computer models used by forecasters.

The litmus test, though, comes when a car goes out on the track for the five-lap, 10-mile run that will determine this year's MBNA pole winner.

"You will really see guys pick up the pace come Thursday," says Sharp. "By then, you have a better idea what the real conditions might be on Saturday.

After 25 years of covering qualifying, one thing is a certainty: The forecast can change. At best, every day is a calculated guess what the next day's weather will be.

Despite all the miles, all the tweaks, all the laps teams log between now and Saturday, the most crucial laps are those turned in Saturday's warm-up session just before the track officially opens for first day qualifications. That final session is pressure packed. Some say the only thing that rivals it is the last hour of qualifying on "Bubble Day".

To make the best use of the last practice, teams need a deep database of performance information. That comes with testing, and now the days (or lack of them) leading up to Saturday.

This is where team engineers earn their salaries. They pour over data acquired over each run and interpolate it in a pro-active manner. It forms the choreography for the last practice -- shocks, spring ride heights and wing angles. You don't want to waste your time guessing; you need to have an equation that you turn to based upon the conditions presented.

With so many cars fighting for one of the 33 available spots in this year's race, this dance with the unknown is not just about winning a spot on the front row. Speculation has already begun about what it will take just to make the field.

Yes, there are two additional days of qualifying after Saturday's pole day, one Sunday and then "Bubble Day" the following Sunday. But teams can't count on similar conditions.

The weather is Indy's "X" factor. A time to befriend forecasters and hope that your pick is a winner.

Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.

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