Newman Haas RacingDarrell Ingham/Getty ImagesSebastien Bourdais, center, was the last in a long line of Newman/Haas Racing championship drivers. He is flanked by team owners, Carl Haas, left, and Paul Newman.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It still seems strange -- not to mention inaccurate -- to talk about Newman/Haas Racing in the past tense.

After all, NHR is still in operation at the team's longtime base in Lincolnshire, Ill., with Brian Lisles leading a small crew. However, Newman/Haas hasn't fielded a car in the IndyCar Series (or any other series) since the end of the 2011 season, and most of the team that won 107 open-wheel races and eight CART- and Champ Car-sanctioned Indy car championships has moved on to new opportunities.

Of course co-owner Paul Newman passed away in 2008, and Carl Haas is in declining health and retired from public life. But last weekend in Indianapolis, about 70 Newman/Haas team members, along with friends and families, came together to celebrate the team's long and successful run at the top.

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Carl Haas and Paul Newman
Jamie Squire/Allsport/Getty ImagesTeam owners Carl Haas, left, and Paul Newman might have seemed like an odd pairing, but together they ran one of the most successful teams in the history of Indy car racing.

Formed by former Can-Am competitors Newman and Haas in 1983 to field cars in the CART/PPG Indy Car World Series for Mario Andretti, Newman/Haas was a stalwart Indy car team for nearly 30 years.

From 1983 to 2011, Penske Racing was the only team that won more races; Chip Ganassi Racing, which began fielding Indy cars in 1990, won fewer races but boasts one more championship than NHR.

"You couldn't find two more opposite people [Newman and Haas] to work together, but they created one of the best race teams in America," said Sebastien Bourdais, who won four Champ Car-sanctioned titles for NHR between 2004 and '07. "I had a really enjoyable time driving for Carl and Paul, and obviously a lot of other people have really fond memories, too."

Bourdais, Cristiano da Matta and Michael Andretti -- representing 70 of Newman/Haas' 107 wins and six of the team's eight Indy car championships -- all attended the NHR reunion.

Guillaume "Rocky" Rocquelin, who engineered da Matta and Bourdais to four series championships in his five-year tenure with Newman/Haas, sent a video greeting. Rocquelin is now Sebastian Vettel's race engineer for Red Bull Racing in Formula One.

Now retired from racing, da Matta flew from Brazil to Indianapolis just to see his old teammates.

"I wouldn't have missed it for anything," he said. "The most favorite time of my career is the two years I was with Newman/Haas. Everyone, from Carl and Berni [Haas, Carl's wife] to all the guys that worked on the cars to the people who worked in hospitality, we are all a family."

People often think of Newman/Haas as "Mario's team," but Michael Andretti was actually the lead NHR flag-bearer for many years. Michael earned 30 of his 41 Indy car race wins while driving for Newman/Haas, as well as the 1991 CART-sanctioned championship.

Michael revealed that, as a 20-year-old aspiring racer, he had a hand in the creation of Newman/Haas Racing.

"Carl was smart," Michael said with a laugh. "He hired me first to drive his Formula Ford car as a way of getting closer to dad. Then he got dad to drive his Indy car. So I helped start it all."

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Cristiano da Matta
Jonathan Ferrey Allsport/Getty ImagesCristiano da Matta, left, said he wouldn't have missed the reunion for anything. Here he is celebrating winning the opening CART race of the 2002 season with team owner Carl Haas and teammate and third-place finisher Christian Fittipaldi.

Michael graduated to Indy cars at the end of Newman/Haas' first season in the CART series, but it wasn't until 1989 that Michael joined NHR for four memorable years teamed with his father.

"It was the most special time in my career, no question," Michael said. "We were a family there. It was everything you wanted in a race team. Carl and Paul would give you the equipment and support, and you wanted to do it for them. Great times, and it's so cool to see so many people here."

Andretti actually drove two stints for Newman/Haas; 1989-1992, the four years he lined up alongside his father in what Mario called "a dream scenario." Then, after a year of Formula One and a year with Ganassi's Indy car team -- in which he scored Chip Ganassi's first two race wins as a sole team owner -- Michael returned to Newman/Haas from 1995 to 2000.

Michael then drove for Team Green in 2001 and 2002, eventually acquiring ownership in the team now known as Andretti Autosport. In many ways, Michael's team has taken on the role Newman/Haas used to play as the main competitor for Penske and Ganassi.

It's not a surprise that, when NHR ceased racing operations, several team members found work with Andretti Autosport, and Michael said his time with Newman/Haas shaped his vision of how to operate a race team.

"There were times when Carl would do things and you'd think 'Why are you doing it that way?'" Andretti said. "Now, being on this side of the fence, I understand things that he would do and why he would do things. It's a different world being on the other side, for sure. But I definitely learned a lot from Carl and Paul."

POMONA, Calif. -- I have friends in the media who have ridden in a Shadow Can-Am car and a two-seat Indy car around Laguna Seca, and others who have been a passenger in a DTM car with Bernd Schneider at Hockenheim or in "maximum attack" mode next to Markus Gronholm through a rally stage.

But not too many of them have run an 8-second pass at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona like I did Saturday morning.

Mind you, I wasn't driving. The NHRA, in partnership with legendary drag racing instructor Frank Hawley, occasionally gives media members rides in a custom two-seat rail dragster with a 720-horsepower Chevrolet engine.

Hawley pilots the side-by-side special while the lucky press hack just tries to relax and take in the sensory overload that is part and parcel of drag racing.

Apart from actually taking the wheel, it's the best way to learn about what a drag racer experiences. Noise, vibration and harshness -- it's all there on vivid display when you're riding along. And it gives you even more respect for the guys and girls who wrestle those 10,000-horsepower nitro-fueled cars in the top classes down a 1,000-foot strip in less than four seconds as many as eight times in a race weekend.

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Courtesy NHRA John Oreovicz, left, gets some advice about running a dragster down the line from drag racing instructor Frank Hawley.

Hawley and his assistant explained how to operate the safety equipment in the unlikely event of an accident, and strapped me into the surprisingly spacious auxiliary cockpit. After being towed to the staging area by a golf cart driven by NHRA PR supremo Scott Smith, it was time to flip down the visor and go.

Riders are treated to the whole sequence of events leading up to a run, including a full burnout. Oddly enough, until we actually staged for the pass, my sense of smell overrode everything else. I remember smelling BBQ chicken during the tow through the paddock, and the strong waft of burned rubber as we pulled into the water box.

I was wearing earplugs, and this wasn't a nitro car, so the sound wasn't all that overwhelming to someone who has spent most of his adult life at racetracks. The physical force that hit my body once Hawley dropped the throttle seemed to be on a delayed reaction, the sensation reaching my brain only a second or two down the line. I've driven some reasonably fast cars in my time, but I've never experienced the rush of accelerating to 150 mph that quickly.

Of course, 8.666 seconds passes before you know it, and by the time my mind slowed down to start to pay attention to what Hawley was doing, we were already in coast-down mode, having crossed the line at 154.33 mph.

From my vantage point in the media center directly behind the start line, I've been struck this week by how much the nitro cars in particular move around during the course of a 1,000-foot run. But from inside the car, "my" run looked comparatively smooth and serene.

Hawley, who has taught drag racing techniques to thousands of students during a 30-year career, said that many drivers tend to over-drive the car.

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Kristy Swanson
Albert L. Ortega/Getty ImagesWhen it comes to rolling NHRA-style, actress Kristy Swanson says check it out.

"The steering movements you need are very, very small and very, very precise," said the man who trained professionals ranging from Antron Brown to Tony Schumacher. "It's very easy to overcorrect."

Hawley has operated a drag racing school for years from a base in Gainesville, Fla., and he is expanding to offer a West Coast option at the newly reopened drag strip at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Just $399 gets you a half-day Dragster Adventure course in a 700-horsepower single seat dragster similar to the two-seater I rode in. The $599 Dragster Adventure challenge gets you a full day with numerous quarter-mile passes, including side-by-side racing in an Eliminations-style competition.

It's often said that drag racing doesn't translate well on television. That's true to some extent, though the format (and frequent delays) of the events are made-to-order for edited highlights packages.

What TV doesn't get across are the sights, smells and ground-shaking sounds of the sport. Sitting in the grandstands as a spectator certainly checks all those boxes, but riding (or driving) a dragster is an even more effective way to experience everything drag racing has to offer.

But don't just take my word for it. A couple hours after my quick trip down the famous Pomona asphalt, Hawley gave a ride to actress Kristy Swanson of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" movie fame.

"If you've never done this, you need to go do it," she enthused. "I just struck that off my bucket list. It's really incredible."

POMONA, Calif. -- The SoCal locals apologized for the cool temperatures and relative lack of sunshine for the first day of Qualifications at the 54th annual Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.

But the many NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series teams that are based in Brownsburg, Ind., weren't complaining. After all, the wind chill back at home this morning was something like 15 degrees below zero.

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John Force
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsJohn Force started his 2014 Funny Car title quest with a national record on the first day of the Winternationals.

Meanwhile at Pomona, the partial cloud cover, combined with ambient temperatures in the 60s and track temperatures peaking in the 80s, made for nearly perfect drag racing conditions. That much was evident when John Force ran a track-record 3.983-second pass in his first run of the new season.

The 64-year-old legend obsoleted his first record run in the cool of the evening, going even faster at 3.966/324.17 mph. It's Force's first national record since 2004, though it's provisional for the time being because it could still be beat over the rest of the Pomona weekend.

"That old Ford Mustang, she's dancing!" exclaimed the 16-time and defending Funny Car champion after his first run. "When you win the championship, you come back and you never know how your old junk is gonna run."

After going even faster in the cool of the evening, he added: "How about that? I saw [teammate Robert] Hight run 3.99 so we knew it was out there. Didn't think it would run that quick, but you never know what Jimmy Prock is up to. He's got his stuff together. Never thought it would run a 96. That impressed me -- I told 'em 'Check the clocks!' "

"This is great for us," deadpanned crew chief Prock. "We worked on our stuff a little bit and it's a good start for us. The team is doing a great job."

It was a great day in general for John Force Racing, which announced a five-year contract extension with Auto Club of Southern California and a new major associate sponsorship agreement with PEAK Antifreeze and BlueDEF Diesel Exhaust Fluid.

Mike Neff, the crew chief for Robert Hight's Auto Club-sponsored Mustang out of the JF stable, said that Friday's conditions were pretty much ideal for speed.

"It's the beginning of our season, and everyone is trying different things trying to get them sorted out," Neff said. "Any time the air temperature is in the 60s and the track temp is in the 80s, I think you'll see some very good times."

Ron Capps was having a spectacular run in Round 2 in his Don Schumacher Racing Dodge, but blew an engine just short of the line. He still stopped the watches in 4.014 seconds for the fourth fastest time of the day despite rolling through the trap at just 304.67 mph.

"I'm OK," Capps said. "That was pretty sudden. Something came up and hit my helmet and went across the shield and there was a lot of fire, but IMPACT did a great job with the safety equipment."

"Funny Cars are fun to drive, but that kind of thing is going to happen to you once in a while," he added. "That was an exciting shutdown, but we're in the show, right?"

Courtney Force rebounded from a DNS in Round 1 (broken throttle stop) to post a 4.046-second pass in Round 2 with the top Funny Car trap speed of the day at 320.13 mph, putting herself solidly into the top five.

Defending Top Fuel champion Shawn Langdon started the 2014 season the way he left off, leading Round 1 with a 3.746-second pass to edge Doug Kalitta. Antron Brown went 3.734 in the very last run of the day to claim FTD honors.

2012 champion Allen Johnson's Dodge was fastest in Pro Stock, running 6.517/212.530 mph in the second session, while Vincent Nobile's 6.528/212.290 mph in the first session was good enough for P2 in his first official day on the job for KB Racing.

"The air got better and we missed it pretty horribly the first run," Johnson said. "We knew we had a little in the bank if we could get it through second gear.

"We'd like to get in the 40s here [a run in the 6.4-second bracket]," he added. "That would be a dream come true. If the weather gets a tick better, you might see a 49-9 [6.499] or something."

Saturday will feature two more rounds of qualifying, with Eliminations set for Sunday live at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN3 and highlights on ESPN and WatchESPN at 8 p.m. ET.

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Every time I visit my father in Portland, it gets me to thinking that the Indy car circuit should still be stopping here.

CART and Champ Car staged Indy car races at Portland International Raceway from 1986 to 2006, and for most of that time, it was a pretty successful event.

Portland is the only major U.S. market I can think of that features a natural terrain road course within 10 minutes of the city center. PIR will never be mistaken for Road America or Spa-Francorchamps, but it was a track that the drivers generally liked, and it was convenient for spectators.

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Gavin Lawrence/Getty ImagesAJ Allmendinger won the Champ Car World Series' Grand Prix of Portland on June 18, 2006.

Portland produced some memorable races from the start, when Mario Andretti passed his out-of-fuel son Michael in the sprint to the finish line to steal the inaugural victory. There was another photo finish in 1997, as Mark Blundell passed a prematurely celebrating Gil de Ferran at the stripe to claim PacWest Racing's first win.

But as is the story with several once-thriving Indy car events, Portland fell off the schedule when it lost its title sponsors -- Budweiser and the now-defunct chain of G.I. Joe's sporting goods stores. That left the promoter unable to afford a race-sanction fee, and the rest is history.

I also thought of Portland a couple of weeks ago when I was at the IndyCar Series doubleheader at Houston. That event made me reminisce about Cleveland, and Road America, and Michigan, and Phoenix, and a couple of other tracks that really ought to be on the modern Indy car schedule.

Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, so it makes sense for INDYCAR to try to crack that market. But staging races on a hastily erected, poorly conceived temporary circuit does not portray the IndyCar Series in a very positive light.

Of course the reason the IndyCar Series was racing in Houston is the money was there for it to do it. Shell Oil is headquartered in Houston, and it wanted a race in its hometown. Voilà!

I couldn't help but wish that Shell, or a similar company, would spend its sponsorship dollars at a more enjoyable venue for the participants and spectators. Like Road America. Or Portland.

Or Cleveland. In fact, Houston promoter Mike Lanigan also owns the rights to stage an Indy car race in Cleveland. But while Lanigan can't find the sponsorship to revive the popular Cleveland race (it was run from 1982 to 2006), the money dropped into his lap for the reviled Houston.

For longtime enthusiasts, it's frustrating to watch Indy cars bounce and lurch around on a slow, wall- and fence-lined parking-lot track like Houston when they really should be stretching their legs on proper racetracks, whether they are ovals like Michigan or purpose-designed road courses like Road America or Portland.

I would also argue that a purpose-built racetrack, whether a road course like Portland or an oval, is safer in most regards for drivers and spectators than temporary circuits are.

Cleveland is the rare example of a temporary track that really works. The unique Burke Lakefront Airport circuit creates exciting racing, and the entire track is visible from the grandstands, which is a rare treat in road racing. And only a small portion of the track is constrained by the walls and fences that are always a potential threat for drivers and cars.

Shell, or any other potential event sponsor, could create a ton of goodwill among Indy car racing's competitors and fan base if it just listened to what they are saying. Absolutely no one was clamoring for the revival of the Houston Grand Prix. But seemingly everyone wants to be at Road America.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles has said that the 2014 IndyCar Series schedule won't feature any significant changes, but a shake-up could be in store for 2015. Let's hope the future takes Indy car racing back to tracks where they belong.

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's fair to say the prospect of an IZOD IndyCar Series race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course has polarized fans of Indy car racing and of IMS itself.

Brickyard loyalists would love to set the clock back to 1968, tear up the road course and reinstate the Indianapolis 500 as the only game in town, with a 30-day buildup of practice and four full days of qualifying.

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Moto GP
Mirco Lazzari gp/Bongarts/Getty ImagesRoad course races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway definitely have a different vibe.

I tend to agree with Bobby Rahal, who believes that tradition got thrown out the window as soon as IMS invited NASCAR to race on its hallowed rectangular oval.

The introduction of the Brickyard 400 nearly 20 years ago turned Indianapolis into another NASCAR town, and the recruitment of Formula One to the newly built IMS road course in 2000 only pushed Indy car racing further down the Speedway's pecking order.

But for a number of reasons, the Indy 500 has returned to the top spot here at our local racetrack, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's new boss, Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, wants to reinvigorate the "Month of May" concept.

That's why Graham Rahal and Ryan Briscoe were pounding around the IMS road course on Wednesday in a pair of Dallara DW12 Indy cars. The test was billed as exploratory, but you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be an Indy car race on the IMS road course next year -- especially now that I'm starting to hear rumors that the IndyCar Series' event in Sao Paulo is going to fall by the wayside.

The notion of an IndyCar road race weekend kicking off the Indianapolis 500 activities has some old timers up in arms, but it's not the worst plan the Speedway could come up with.

"We've lost the whole 'Month of May,' and I think it would be cool to bring it back," said Graham Rahal, who was set to test a number of road course configurations Wednesday, running both clockwise on the Moto GP layout and counter-clockwise on the circuit most recently used by the Grand-Am sports car series.

"People complain a lot about this track, but I think it's a hoot," he continued. "Sure, there's not a lot of grip, so I wouldn't want to go around on a motorcycle. But sliding the car around out there is a lot of fun and I think we could put on a great race."

Indeed, the IMS road course has endured a fair bit of criticism, ever since seven-time Formula One world champion (and five-time Indianapolis GP winner) Michael Schumacher branded it "Mickey Mouse" back in 2000. Champion MotoGP riders, including Valentino Rossi, haven't been any kinder in their assessment of the two-wheeled layout.

But Rahal and Briscoe came away enthusiastic, especially after INDYCAR competition president Derrick Walker showed them plans for potential modifications to the track that would open up the slower parts while creating at least one additional hard braking zone to promote passing.

One potential plan would see the cars running in the same direction as motorcycles and oval races, but proceed all the way through Turn 1 of the oval before diving into the infield for a sequence of turns. Graham Rahal suggested cutting out the current Turn 7-8-9 complex in favor of a very fast right-hander leading onto the Hulman Blvd. back straight.

My own suggestion is to cut out the fiddly bits altogether and create an extremely fast, 6-7 turn road course similar to Monza before it was slowed down by chicanes. The course would need to offer at least one hard braking zone and tight corner for passing, but an average speed faster than Juan Pablo Montoya's 2002 Monza F1 record of 161.4 mph (including chicanes!) would easily be possible. From my perspective, making Indianapolis the fastest road course in the world would only be appropriate.

I'm always amazed at how the character of IMS changes when the facility is used for a road racing event, especially an international flavored one like F1 or MotoGP. The challenge for Speedway management would be to create an Indy car event that has its own unique atmosphere and enhances everything already in place for the Indianapolis 500.

It's unrealistic to think that IMS will fill the massive facility with fans for an early May Indy car race, nor even attract a crowd of 100,000. But with the opening weekend of Indianapolis 500 practice reportedly drawing fewer than 7,500 fans, any moderately successful full-fledged race weekend would improve the Speedway's bottom line.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway traditionalists can howl in protest all they want, but it's clear that plans for an Indy car road race are well under way. Whether it happens in 2014 or further down the line, I hope the naysayers give the event a fair chance and eventually lend their support to the track they love so dearly.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Media dinners can go one of two ways.

Some can be a great opportunity to get to know a driver or key team member in a casual setting. Others are less satisfying, cold and calculated affairs in which pretty much everyone involved would rather be someplace else.

I suppose you could technically say that I attended a media dinner on Monday night. Yes, there were a handful of media members there -- myself, Robin Miller from Speed Channel, photographer Michael Levitt and Dave Furst of WRTV-6, the local ABC affiliate.

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Mike Levitt/LATJohn Oreovicz, top, celebrates the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Indianapolis 500 with Bobby Unser, Parnelli Jones and Johnny Rutherford.

But Steve Shunck, the former CART and INDYCAR publicist now working on behalf of BorgWarner, didn't invite us to Mo's Steakhouse in downtown Indianapolis because he was looking to place a story.

Though it probably wouldn't hurt to mention that in addition to providing the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy to the winner of the Indianapolis 500, BorgWarner supplies the turbochargers for all of the Chevrolet and Honda engines in this year's Indy field.

No, Shunck just figured as friends who have a genuine, longtime love for Indy car racing that we would enjoy spending an evening with his pals Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford.

Looking at Parnelli, still fit as a fiddle at 79, it's hard to believe that 50 years have passed since his famous victory in the 1963 Indianapolis 500. The statistics don't show it, but Jones was one of the dominant drivers of his era, especially at Indianapolis over the six-year period from 1961-67.

Rutherford and Unser were Indy rookies in 1963, set to enjoy long and prosperous Indy car careers. Both ended up winning national championships and tasted three wins apiece at Indianapolis -- Unser in 1968, '75 and '81, Rutherford in 1974, '76 and '80.

Unser and Rutherford had their wives along, and our table was completed by longtime Indy car mechanic and crew chief Tim Coffeen. There was no business being conducted, no message to convey, no reputation to rescue, no product to sell.

Just a group of good people, talking racing.

Miller, who has been around long enough to be old friends with all three legends, brought a stack of photographs from his vast collection. They got passed around the table, bringing back the memories.

They talked about Bud Tinglestad, Bobby Grim, Jud Larson, Joe Leonard, Lloyd Ruby, and Don Branson. Winchester, Salem, Trenton and Langhorne.

Unser got positively weepy when he saw a picture of his 20-year-old self, barreling up Pikes Peak back in 1955 in a homebuilt jalopy.

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Mario Andretti
Courtesy of John OreoviczMario Andretti had plenty of stories to tell, and Bobby Unser, for one, was a captive audience.

"What a s---box!" needled Jones.

They talked in reverence of A.J. Foyt the racer, and they all had a funny story about Gordon Johncock.

Actually, they all had several hilarious Gordon Johncock tales.

As if the evening couldn't get any better, after dinner, a guy who has been around almost as long as Jones, Rutherford and Unser stopped by our table and offered to buy a round of wine.

Mario Andretti didn't break into Indy cars until 1964, but he immediately established himself as a star on and off the track. That much was obvious by the camaraderie he shared with his old friends.

Mario didn't have any obligation to visit, but he stayed and talked for an hour, trading quips with all the former racers.

"Remember going back and forth to Monza in '68?" Andretti asked Unser, before they shared the tale of trying to compete in the Italian Grand Prix and the Hoosier Hundred -- during the same weekend.

They chartered helicopters and private jets. They slept on the floor across the aisle of their TWA flights to and from Milan.

Although he was a native Italian, Andretti got Unser to drive their rental car over there and Uncle Bobby nearly ended up in jail.

"Twenty thousand will take care of it," Andretti told his American companion.

Unser panicked, not realizing that 20,000 Italian Lira amounted to about $10.

In the end, they weren't even allowed to race in Italy, on a rules technicality. In any event, it makes doing a double like Indianapolis and Charlotte look pretty tame in comparison.

All of those guys know they're lucky to be around; they survived racing's most dangerous era and lived to tell stories about escapades that even today's most colorful drivers couldn't dream of attempting.

It makes you wonder what a night out 40 years from now would be like with, say, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves. Would they spark the same kind of reverence among younger generation race fans that the stars of the 1960s and '70s still earn today?

At the end of the evening, Jones, Unser and Rutherford signed copies of a 1963 Indianapolis 500 grid sheet. Of the 33 starters, only eight survive. Jones, a few months older than Unser, is the eldest.

They know they're not going to have too many more opportunities like they had Monday to get together with old friends to reminisce about old times. Good times.

"We've got to make sure to get Foyt here next year," Rutherford said.

"I don't know if he could make it up those steps," Unser replied.

They may be pushing 80, but the needle is sharp as ever.

INDIANAPOLIS -- E.J. Viso came within the blink of an eye of the first 230 mph lap in a decade at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on "Fast Friday."

Viso, driving a Dallara/Chevrolet for the Andretti Autosport team, uncorked a lap of 229.532 mph in his Citgo-sponsored machine.

Andretti Autosport claimed the top three speeds as Marco Andretti and rookie Carlos Munoz both topped 228 mph. Chevrolet-powered cars claimed the top eight positions on the speed chart, with three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti the fastest Honda-powered competitor at 227.080 mph.

With an additional 10 mPA of turbocharger boost creating 40-45 extra horsepower, Friday practice speeds were approximately 4.5 mph faster than the previous best speed of the week -- 225.163 mph set by Munoz on Thursday.

Last year, the cool conditions of the final practice session on Saturday morning prior to qualifying produced laps about 0.3 mph quicker than Fast Friday of 2012.

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E.J. Viso
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesE.J. Viso and the rest of the Andretti Autosport team were fastest on Fast Friday.

This year, Fast Friday conditions were not ideal for speed, with temperatures around 80 degrees and considerable humidity.

"I reckon we'd have been over 230 if we had a full day," Andretti said. "Obviously those were 'tow' laps.

"I think as a team, we're very comfortable with where we're at," he added. "But tomorrow is another day."

Andretti revealed that if he had his way, he'd sleep right through the Saturday 8 a.m. practice session.

"You don't learn a lot and in fact you can actually fool yourself," he said. "I think we were confident enough with our last couple of runs that we could just go out and qualify right now."

This is the second year that INDYCAR increased the turbo boost for Fast Friday and qualifying in an effort to produce speeds with a bit more sizzle. Last year, the drivers unanimously stated their desire to race with the additional horsepower, and most teams would prefer to have a consistent amount of power to work with as they develop their chassis setups.

"It's difficult for us to actually work on qualifying setups throughout the week, because typically the speeds build up gradually throughout the week and then on Friday you have this large buildup in terms of speed," explained Penske Racing president Tim Cindric. "You have to understand how the additional speed will affect the balance of the car. It's a lot to ask of these guys to have that difference in speed of 5-7 mph right before qualifying.

"I think it's good in terms of the overall impact to the sport, it's just difficult to do that in the short period of time like we have," he added. "But I'm certainly an advocate of trying to set new track records here, so I think we need to continue to work towards the right balance of safety and speed."

Teams lost nearly three hours of track time on Friday when rain swept into the Speedway at about 3:15 p.m. IMS officials called an end to the day's activity at 3:42 p.m. and moved the traditional draw for qualifying positions up to 5:00 p.m.

"Today is the day when the pressure really begins to mount for the drivers, and when you get a weather situation like we had today where it looked like we'd only be able to run up to about 3 o'clock, that just amplifies the situation," Cindric said. "It depends on the engine manufacturers, but I think you'll see 230 in tomorrow morning's practice. 230 might be a stretch, and I don't want to put that expectation out there. But I think we'll see those laps with some draft."

Last year's four-lap average pole speed was set by Ryan Briscoe at 226.484 mph. Helio Castroneves had the fastest individual lap speed of the month last year at 227.744 mph.

"It's very difficult to predict anything right now," said Ed Carpenter -- the IndyCar Series' most recent 500-mile race winner at Auto Club Speedway last season -- who was quickest on opening day, but 16th on Fast Friday at 226.768 mph. "I think the pole will be in the high 227 or low 228 for four laps.

"I have a good idea of what I think we can run on Saturday, but I'm not sure what everyone else can do."

Kurt BuschTodd Warshaw/Getty ImagesKurt Busch said doing the Memorial Day weekend double would make for a special one.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Last week, Kurt Busch took time off from his NASCAR duties for Furniture Row Racing to test an Australian V8 Supercar at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Now he's about to get back behind the wheel of an Indy car.

That's right, back.

Busch is set to test one of Andretti Autosport's Dallara-Chevrolets at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 9. But it's a little-known fact the elder Busch brother actually tested an Indy car at Sebring International Raceway in February 2003. Busch wasn't looking to make a career change into open-wheel competition; at the time, he was firmly ensconced at Roush Racing and on the brink of winning the 2004 NASCAR Cup championship.

But in those days, Ford was the exclusive engine supplier to the CART-sanctioned Indy car series, and the Blue Oval arranged for Busch to take a spin in one of Team Rahal's Ford-Cosworth powered Lolas at the popular Florida test track.

Driving the car normally piloted by Michel Jourdain Jr., Busch certainly didn't embarrass himself. In what was basically his first-ever run in a rear-engine, open-wheel racing car, Busch lapped the 1.669-mile Sebring road course in 54.72 seconds -- just less than four seconds slower than test pacesetter Oriol Servia and less than 1.4 seconds slower than PK Racing rookie Patrick Lemarie.

Busch spun a couple of times, but overall, he made a deep impression on about 100 interested onlookers watching his 18-lap demonstration from a hillside between Turns 4 and 5.

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Kurt Busch
John Harrelson/Getty ImagesKurt Busch has a full-time job in NASCAR, but maybe one other race in the IndyCar Series isn't too much to ask.

"He looks good," remarked Jimmy Vasser, now an IndyCar Series team owner, but back then a driver who spectated during Busch's 30-minute demonstration run along with fellow CART drivers Servia and Paul Tracy. "The guy's obviously got talent because he won a bunch of Winston Cup races last year, and that's not easy."

Busch was grateful to have gotten the opportunity to drive the Team Rahal Champ Car. "The whole experience was first class," he said then. "Team Rahal went above and beyond what I'm used to in terms of telling me what to expect from the car, and Michel was very polite and very generous to let me drive his car today."

Busch spun early in his first flying lap, but he quickly settled into the mid-57 second bracket. After a pit stop to discuss the car with engineer Ray Leto and the Team Rahal crew, Busch returned to the track and steadily chipped away at the lap time until he put in a pair of sub-55 second tours. A second spin at Turn 2 ended his fun after 18 laps.

"After riding around with Michel this morning in a rental car, I knew the section between Turn 1 and Turn 3 was going to be difficult," Busch said then. "My first spin was down to cold tires, and on the last spin, I was just trying to carry too much speed because I was losing a lot of time there, due to the fact that I didn't trust the downforce.

"I probably lost 1.5 seconds of time on the lap just under braking," he added. "The braking was unlike anything I have ever comprehended in my life."

At the time, Busch expanded on his open-wheel experience in a column I ghost-wrote for the English magazine Autosport.

"Believe it or not, I call this my first experience in an open-wheel car," he told me. "I drove a Formula Ford at a Bondurant school four years ago, but that is irrelevant to driving a Champ Car. Many years ago, I went to Phoenix International Raceway to watch Modified and Super Modified cars race, and my dad told me it would be the closest thing I would ever see to an Indy car.

"So I am very appreciative to my friends at Ford for creating this chance, but I'm going to keep my day job," he added. "The door is open now and I enjoyed the experience, but I think I'll stick to what I'm accustomed to."

Busch could hardly have imagined that, more than 10 years later, he would get another shot at driving an Indy car -- this time, courtesy of Chevrolet and on a proper oval track.

Team owner Michael Andretti said he and Busch came into contact last year when they were working on "another racing project" -- presumed to be Andretti Autosport's exploratory effort to enter NASCAR racing -- and he looks forward to seeing what a modern stock car star can do in an Indy car.

"I respect his talent and am happy to give him the opportunity to experience the raw speed of an Indy car," Andretti stated. "It's a unique feel and perspective -- it will be totally different than what he is used to driving each week on the Cup circuit."

Busch was already asked about the possibility of attempting the Indy 500/Coca-Cola 600 double, something only three drivers (John Andretti, Robby Gordon and Tony Stewart) have successfully completed.

"I have always enjoyed racing at Indianapolis, and when IMS and Michael presented me with the opportunity to test an Indy car prior to opening day of practice of the Indianapolis 500, I jumped at it," Busch said.

"I'm looking forward to this test and experiencing IMS at the speeds the Indy cars run," he added. "Let's see how the test goes, and then I can look at the opportunities that could be beyond this coming Thursday. Running the Indianapolis 500 would certainly be a highlight, and doing another 600 miles in a Cup car on the same day would make for a special weekend."

INDIANAPOLIS -- I was born in Pennsylvania, but I moved two states to the west when I was 10 years old and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway became my home track.

I still enjoy returning to the Keystone State to reminisce about my youth and pay respects to my deceased family members. However, I'm particularly excited to head back to PA this summer because I get to go cover the IZOD IndyCar Series at a racetrack I've never visited: Pocono Raceway.

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Mario Andretti
Michael Brennan/Getty ImagesMario Andretti, right, and son Michael discuss strategy at Pocono Raceway in 1988. Indy car racing returns to Long Pond, Pa., July 7 after 24 years.

Indy cars last raced at the 2.5-mile tri-oval in 1989, when defending CART/PPG IndyCar World Series champion Danny Sullivan scored the final oval track victory of his career for Penske Racing. It's hard to believe that nearly a quarter of a century passed before the return of open-wheel cars to Pocono, which happened in the form of a Firestone tire test Wednesday.

"We've been waiting for this moment, and we belong here," commented Indy car legend (and local resident) Mario Andretti, who was on hand to watch his grandson, Marco, in action.

"This place was built for Indy cars. The facility is fabulous, and it was my favorite superspeedway to drive on. It's different from any other superspeedway we run because of the very different radius of every corner and also different banking. That's what I really enjoyed about this place."

Three other drivers (Will Power of Team Penske, Dario Franchitti of Ganassi Racing and Simon Pagenaud of Sam Schmidt Motorsports) ran laps Wednesday, and all four pilots comfortably eclipsed Emerson Fittipaldi's pole-setting track record from 1989 of 211.75 mph. No speeds were announced, but Firestone confirmed that the 215 mph barrier was easily surpassed.

Scheduled for July 7, the Pocono 400 is the second of three rounds in a revived "Triple Crown" of superspeedway races in which Fuzzy's Vodka will pay a $1 million bonus to any driver who sweeps all three events. The other rounds are the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. From 1971 to 1980, the Triple Crown consisted of 500-milers at Ontario Motor Speedway, Indianapolis and Pocono; Ontario closed in 1980 and was replaced by Michigan Speedway. Al Unser is the only driver in history to have swept the Triple Crown (1978).

As Mario Andretti alluded, the challenge of Pocono is the three distinctive turns, two of which are linked by the longest straight on any oval track Indy cars race on -- 3,740 feet, or more than seven-tenths of a mile.

Because none of the current drivers has raced there -- with the exception of Franchitti, who competed at Pocono in 2008 in a NASCAR stock car during his sabbatical from Indy car racing -- I asked three-time Pocono winner Rick Mears to explain the secret to being successful there.

"It was always one of my favorite tracks, just because it's so challenging," Mears related. "That's down to the layout, and it's tough to set up the car to work everywhere. You've basically got Michigan in Turn 1, with banking kind of similar to that, then Indianapolis in Turn 2 and Milwaukee in Turn 3. There was always a compromise in tuning the car because you could never get all three corners together. If you were good in 3, you usually weren't good in 1 and 2. But if you were good in 1 and 2, you weren't too good in 3.

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Dario Franchitti
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesFour-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti on his return to Pocono this summer: "It's going to be a very good race."

"Of course, 3 is a critical corner because it leads onto a long straightaway. So there was always a happy balance you tried to find to run well there, whether it was in qualifying or the race. Back then, we had bumps to contend with, but that was part of the challenge. Gearing could be critical for this race, with the narrower power band of smaller engines. Hopefully we won't have an aero package that lets them run wide open because pedaling it was what made it fun."

Remarkably, the modern Indy car drivers reported that they were able to lap the 2.5-mile track flat-out despite using the Indianapolis wing package that produces the lowest amount of downforce available for the Dallara DW12 chassis. It's likely that INDYCAR technical director Will Phillips will come up with a reduced downforce package by the time the series returns to Pennsylvania in July.

"It's a really nice track, very smooth with the resurfacing," Power reported. "It's very fast; I'm already wide-open all the way around. We're maybe a little bit heavy on downforce, but it's nice. It's going to be fun if your car is good. If not, you're not going to want to be out there."

Naturally, Franchitti was asked to compare driving the track in a stock car and an Indy car. It's apples and oranges.

"I had some preconceived ideas, having driven the Cup car," Franchitti said. "The tunnel turn [2] is probably the most similar car to car, but we're still, I think, 20 or 30 mph quicker in the Indy car. Going through 3 wide open right now defies logic, really, when you consider we have Indianapolis spec wings on the car.

"There's always compromise, especially at a track with three such different corners," he added. "You're always going to be better at one corner than another. The trick is to figure out which one you can give away the most in order to still be competitive. You've got to figure out which one is the one you can give away something to be perfect on the one or two other corners.

"It's going to be a very good race."

Just a few years ago, the notion of Indy cars returning to Pocono was unthinkable -- for safety reasons. But in recent times, the track was resurfaced and the old boilerplate wall was replaced by SAFER barrier-protected concrete.

"Needless to say, if you crashed, that could be like a razor blade chopping the car in half," Power observed. "I'm glad things have changed.

"I really hope when we come and race here we get a big crowd. I think these cars around here, with the corner speeds they carry, are pretty impressive. I hope people come and watch."

Dallara CarsCourtesy Dallara AutomobiliEye candy for racers: a collection of Dallara cars at company headquarters in Varano, Italy.

VARANO, Italy -- I wasn't surprised when the folks at Dallara Automobili asked me to pay them a visit. After all, I live just three blocks from the Italian company's American assembly facility and interactive exhibit in the shadows of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"No, Mr. Oreovicz, we would like you to come to Varano, to meet Mr. Dallara and see for yourself what we are all about."

An opportunity like that doesn't come along very often, so a few days later, I found myself boarding an American Airlines Boeing 767 with television analysts Scott Goodyear (ABC) and Jon Beekhuis (NBC Sports) plus a small contingent of INDYCAR officials. Over the course of 48 hours, we received a crash course in the unique culture of the firm Gian Paolo Dallara started more than 40 years ago in the village he was born in.

Mr. Dallara, 76, was an engineering prodigy who found himself stifled by the politics of working with manufacturers such as Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini and De Tomaso. So in 1971, he struck out on his own and designed and built his first sports racing car in the garage of his home in Varano de' Melegari, a village of approximately 2,000 residents about 20 miles from the historic city of Parma.

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John Oreovicz/ESPNGian Paolo Dallara, 76, crafted his first sports racing car in the garage of his home in Varano in 1971.

Dallara is now the world's leading producer of customer racing cars, and the company has built a lucrative consultancy business working to develop road and racing cars. As a leader in aerodynamics and the use of carbon fiber construction, Dallara has played a key role in the creation of almost every Audi DTM and Le Mans car, not to mention outrageous street machines like the Bugatti Veyron and KTM X-Bow. But Dallara is still solidly rooted in Varano, with a small campus of buildings on the outskirts of town. If a Varano resident doesn't work for Dallara, he or she has a friend or relative who does.

Our group's connection to Dallara was through Indy car racing. When Tony George formed the Indy Racing League (now the Izod IndyCar Series), he needed chassis suppliers not affiliated with the existing CART-sanctioned Indy car championship. Enter Dallara, which battled with G-Force for IRL supremacy for nearly 10 years before the Italians established a monopoly in the chassis market. Dallara was then awarded the contract to produce the spec chassis that entered IndyCar Series competition in 2012. Since 1997, Dallara drivers have won 11 IRL or IndyCar Series championships, and the marque has tasted victory in the Indianapolis 500 no fewer than 12 times.

Dallara says its three core competencies are design (specializing in the use of carbon fiber), aerodynamics and vehicle dynamics. The company's revenues are generated 60 percent from racing and 40 percent from consultancy, three-quarters of which comes from racing-related projects. Dallara also helped design and develop the hand bike that Mr. Dallara's longtime friend Alex Zanardi used to win several medals at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

The company employs 200 people with an unusually youthful average age of 32. "We are a young company, except for myself and Gian Paolo," jokes Dallara CEO Andrea Pontremoli. "We prefer to grow in knowledge, not size."

A key part of Dallara's measured growth was the construction of the American base on Main Street in Speedway, Ind. The $12 million facility is not a factory; the Dallara DW12 Indy car (known internally as the IR12) was designed in Italy and mostly constructed there. The Speedway plant manufactures suspension and bodywork components and handles the final assembly of cars before they are shipped to customer teams. There is also a permanent exhibition area with interactive displays aimed at introducing kids to Indy car racing. The facility houses a design office for American customer consultancies and the first Lino's Coffee franchise in America.

America is Dallara's only planned area of expansion and accounts for almost a quarter of Dallara's annual turnover.

"We want to produce in dollars what we sell in dollars, the same as in Europe," Pontremini said. "Big spreads in the exchange rate can be a problem for our company. In the last two years alone, it changed 20 percent. We want to replicate our European business model, where we work with about 80 suppliers within a short distance of our headquarters. We have more than 25 suppliers now in the U.S. and our goal is 40.

"We're not interested in mass production. We prefer the design side, but we have the capability to produce small quantities of prototypes for real-world testing. We try to keep ourselves on the edge of developing use of carbon fiber."

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Oreo Ferrari
John Oreovicz/ESPNA gearhead's dream come true: John Oreovicz at the gates of the Ferrari factory in Maranello, Italy.

At Varano, Dallara has developed high-speed stereography techniques to create the parts needed to build half-scale models for testing in the state-of-the-art wind tunnel the company dedicated in 2008. A more recent innovation is what may be the world's most sophisticated driving simulator; our group watched KV Racing's Simona De Silvestro turn laps at Sebring International Raceway, Sonoma Raceway and the Long Beach street course during our visit.

Dallara plans to install an identical $1 million simulator in its American facility in the next year.

"It's really cool, and it's pretty useful once you adapt to the motions the simulator makes," De Silvestro said. "The simulator can help you understand things about the way the car feels, and you can maybe use it to learn new or unfamiliar tracks.

"But it's an even more important tool for the engineers because they can make changes to the chassis or engine setup in five minutes when it might take hours at the track. We did 400 laps of Sebring in two days, which would be impossible in real life, and the data confirmed our findings from our last real-world test at Sebring a few weeks ago."

Happily, there was a small amount of free time on our whirlwind trip, so we enjoyed a morning of sightseeing in Parma, including the Teatro (Theater) Farnese completed in 1618 that was severely damaged in bombing by the Allies in 1944 and subsequently restored in the post-war period. Other highlights were the Romanesque cathedral, the adjacent Baptistery and the San Giovanni Evangelista, featuring a beautifully painted dome with the first known use of illusionistic perspective. The Emilia Romagna region is also famous for food, including superb prosciutto, Parma ham and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

Our group of gearheads then journeyed to Maranello, where we bowed in homage at the gates of the Ferrari factory and toured the new Ferrari Museum in Fiorano. While disappointed that my quest to see a Ferrari 312T went unrewarded (the 1975 Formula 1 world championship winner driven by Niki Lauda is my favorite race car of all time), I was greatly moved by an exhibit dedicated to the memory of the late Gilles Villeneuve. There were a pair of Gilles' F1 cars on display (the 1979 312T4 and the 1981 126C), but what I thought was even cooler was the 308GTS road car with which Villeneuve set an unofficial record of 2 hours, 25 minutes from Monte Carlo to Maranello -- an average speed of 111 mph!

Goodyear related that last year he emceed an event in Canada at which Villeneuve's widow, Joanne, was special guest of honor. He marveled at how she said she simply slept in the passenger seat while her husband drove flat-out all over the roads of Europe in the manner in which he was famous for on the track. The ghost of Gilles -- a favorite son of Enzo Ferrari -- looms large over Ferrari even more than 30 years after his death in a 1982 racing accident.

As a kid who grew up as a passionate fan of F1, and Ferrari drivers in particular, it was a real treat to visit the museum. But it was also a pleasure to make many new friends at Dallara and learn about a company that has made such a significant impact on the world of Indy car racing. The Italians are superb hosts, and I sincerely hope that Mr. Dallara accepts the invitation I extended to visit my home in May when he is in town for the Indianapolis 500 to experience an American backyard barbecue.