Hanley, crew work overtime after slow start in Indy practice

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Ben Hanley made the long walk from his pit box to Gasoline Alley on Thursday morning, watching another frustrating round of Indianapolis 500 practice.

He won’t have to do that again.

After two frustrating days and four attempts, the 35-year-old English driver passed the first phase of his refresher test Thursday evening by turning 15 laps between 210-215 mph. He’s now been cleared to return to practice Friday for his first official laps though he still must log another 15 laps above 215 to clear the second phase.

“It’s not ideal,” team owner Elton Julian said of the early woes. “I feel more for the driver to be honest. But we have a experienced guy. He’s not only experienced at the speedway, he’s experienced with the team. That’s why we have him. That’s why we bring him.”

It sure wasn’t easy.

Like the other part-time IndyCar drivers, he had a two-hour window Wednesday to turn 15 laps at 210-215 mph and another 15 between 215-220. When he didn’t meet the bar, race organizers gave Hanley another shot Wednesday evening after the checkered flag ended the official practice.

A third shot, set for Thursday morning, was sabotaged by a communications problem. But after sitting out a second full day of practice, Hanley managed to put it all together — just in time to get in one full day of practice before the first of two qualifying days this weekend.

It could have been worse.

A year ago, Hanley and the small, underfunded team of DragonSpeed USA were worried about making Indy’s 33-car starting field. Hanley started from the No. 27 spot on the three-car, 11-row grid.

This year, Julian scrapped his initial plan to run in six IndyCar races when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and until Friday it looked like the 500 might be out of reach, too.

“Quite frankly it was pretty dire, it wasn’t looking good for us,” Julian said in a telephone interview. “We had made all the investments and that (the pandemic) put a big hurt on us. We survived for three months, four months, five months, so aspirations for the Indy 500 were pretty low when you’re trying to save the company.”

The hard part might already be over for Hanley.

If he qualifies the No. 81 Chevrolet on Saturday, the 33rd and final driver added to the entry list won’t endure any angst about being bumped out of the Aug. 23 race.

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PAGENAUD PAYOFF?: Every Indianapolis 500 driver dreams of having their image on the Borg-Warner Trophy. But if defending champion Simon Pagenaud wins again, he’d also collect an additional $360,000.

Since 1995, BorgWarner Inc. has added $20,000 each year to a jackpot that goes to the next winner of back-to-back 500s. The only person to collect so far was Helio Castronevces, Pagenaud’s teammate with Roger Penske’s operation.

Castroneves won his first two races at Indy in 2001 and 2002, becoming the fifth driver to achieve the feat since the race’s inception in 1911. Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Vukovich, Al Unser are the only other drivers to win the race in consecutive years. Nobody has won three in a row.

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RETURN TO INDY: Mike Tirico and Danica Patrick will help anchor race day coverage, NBC Sports announced Thursday.

Both made their 500 debuts when the telecast moved to NBC last year. Tirico served as the studio host while Patrick was an analyst. They will fill the same roles this year in front of empty grandstands and devoid of fans in the infield.

Tirico has become a familiar voice to American fans of virtually any sport. Patrick retired from driving after competing in IndyCars and stock cars. She was the first woman to ever lead the 500.

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DIAMOND ANNIVERSARY: One tradition that will continue during this most unusual 500 is Justice Brother’s appearing as a team sponsor.

This year, the company that manufactures and distributes automobile products such as lubricants and cleansers, has joined Meyer Shank Racing on Jack Harvey’s No. 60 Honda. It’s the 75th consecutive year the company’s name has appeared on one of the cars.

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/apf-AutoRacing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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