- Associated Press - Monday, May 14, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS — IndyCar teams have used the first three practice sessions at Indianapolis as a virtual classroom.

They’re collecting data about how their new cars react in different conditions on Indianapolis’ 2.5-mile oval. They’re trying to decipher fuel calculations. They’re studying how the cars run in traffic and trying to keep the mileage down on engines and tires.

The combination has forced drivers into an unnatural game plan — taking things slowly.

“I feel like the car is responding well, and I think it’s going to race well,” Team Penske driver Ryan Briscoe said. “It’s a new car, though, so we’re still fairly conservative.”

At first glance, slower speeds seem like the antithesis of what the Indianapolis 500 is all about.

During Saturday’s pole qualifications, race officials will celebrate the 50th anniversary of Parnelli Jones breaking the 150 mph barrier. Tom Sneva is still revered as the man who broke the 200 mph barrier in 1977. Speeds kept increasing up until Arie Luyendyk set the four-lap qualifying average of 236.986 in 1996.

Series officials ditched the turbochargers in 1997, which brought speeds back down and eliminated one of Indy’s feature attractions, breaking records.

Now, the turbochargers are back, but the records aren’t being challenged.

The series has reduced the horsepower at Indy from 650 last year to something less than that this year.

While league officials wouldn’t say how much has been cut and team officials declined to offer a guess, it’s clearly being reflected on the speed charts. By Day 3 of practice last year, the top speeds already were hitting 225 mph, and Alex Tagliani won the pole with an average of 227.472.

This year’s fastest practice lap was turned Monday by rookie Josef Newgarden at 222.486. Ryan Hunter-Reay was second at 221.639 and Marco Andretti was third at 221.519.

Those numbers are likely to climb, at least a bit.

“They’re going to come back up by qualifying,” Tagliani said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it will be close to my pole lap last year, depending on the weather.”

Series officials already have announced they’re adding enough horsepower to give cars a boost of 4-5 mph Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Lotus engines have been slow all season and haven’t shown any indication they’ll perform any better at the first oval race of the season.

Rookie Jean Alesi was the slowest of 29 drivers on the track Monday at 211.516, but it was good enough to pass his rookie test. Simona de Silvestro, who has the only other Lotus engine, was Sunday’s slowest car at 202.179.

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