With Indianapolis native Conor Daly leading the way, Star Mazda Championship drivers from six countries took to the track for two days of intensive testing at O'Reilly Raceway Park. After eight 45-minute on-track sessions, a total of six hours, Daly's lap of 20.187sec (122.336mph) around the .686-mile oval asphalt oval in his No. 22 Juncos Racing / INDECK / The College Network / Merchant Services Ltd. / Tom Lange Co. Mazda led the way at the historic track.
The outright open-wheel lap record of 20.016sec (123.381mph) was set by Jason McCord in an 800-horsepower USAC Sprint Car in 2001. Jason Leffler set the lap record of 20.298sec (121.667mph) in his 700hp Silver Crown car in 2001 and the lap record for the 350hp USAC midgets was set in 1997 by Chris Schultz at 20.373mph (121.219mph). The Star Mazda race car weighs 1,335lbs with fuel and driver and the Mazda "Renesis" rotary engine produces 250hp.
"The track temperature makes a huge difference here, and we qualify in the afternoon and race at night," says Daly, who graduates from high school on May 14. "So we might or might not outqualify the Midgets, but either way the fans are in for a 100 laps of wheel-to-wheel Star Mazda racing. The fast line around the track is right up next to the wall where the banking is the steepest, so the keys to the race will be qualifying up front, managing your tires and setting your car up so you can move to the inside to pass when you start hitting traffic. The Iowa oval was probably the most fun race last year, so I'm really looking forward to the Night Before the 500 and I know the Juncos Racing team will give me a competitive car."
The Night Before the 500 race will be Round 4 of the 11-weekend, 13-race Star Mazda Championship schedule. This is one of two ovals the series will compete on during the season, along with the 1.0-mile Iowa Speedway track on June 19 of the IndyCar weekend. As part of both the IRL "Road to Indy" program and the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder, Star Mazda drivers receive a comprehensive education, competing on road courses, street circuits and both long and short ovals.
Connor De Phillippi, driver of the No. 11 JDC Motorsports / MAZDASPEED Motorsports / Skip Barber Mazda, has run the ORP track in a midget, but knows the Star Mazda race will be a different deal.
"I did a midget test at few years ago, and I've run a couple of Legends races at the Las Vegas bullring, but this will be my first oval-track race in a high-downforce open-wheel car with wings and slicks," said the Californian. "O'Reilly Raceway Park is a high-risk track, because you have to run so close to the wall to be fast, but once you've got the car set up and the rhythm of the place figured out, it's good racing. There are a lot of variables for the driver to deal with, qualifying in the day and racing at night, fuel loads, tire wear and track temperature, which has a huge effect on handling and lap times. The key to the race will be engineering a consistent car that maintains its performance over the course of the race – and staying out of trouble."