Simon Pagenaud’s first practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was one for the birds.
A bird apparently was sucked into the Frenchman’s car and slammed into a screen around the radiator, damaging the part and killing the bird. It took about 30 minutes for crew members to fix the car so they could get Pagenaud back on track for Thursday’s rookie orientation program at Indianapolis.
Another bird apparently escaped the same fate.
”I heard about it,” Pagenaud said after turning 93 laps, the fastest being 214.055 mph. ”I saw the birds, but I didn’t know one of them hit it. I didn’t even know it was in the car. I just thought they flew away.”
The 27-year-old Pagenaud was the first driver on the historic 2.5-mile oval, spending the day learning how to deal with the track’s tricky corners and gusty winds.
IndyCars are sensitive to all things — weather, bumps, trash from the crowds, even natural obstacles like water and, well, animals. While track officials routinely stop cars for track inspections and to clear debris, animals sometimes move too quickly to do anything about it.
According to track historian Donald Davidson, the best-known incident occurred when champion Bobby Unser hit a bird during a 1971 qualifying attempt. Now after just one day on the track, Pagenaud has passed his rookie test and joined Unser, a three-time 500 winner, on that ignominious list.
”When I came in, they told me a bird was in the car,” Pagenaud said. ”I thought it just went away somewhere. Usually you feel it when you hit something, but I didn’t even feel it.”
Pagenaud has had a spectacular start to the season. He’s finished in the top six three times, including a season-best second at Long Beach, and he’s fifth in points after four races.
Ten drivers had the option of driving Thursday. Jay Penske’s two drivers, rookie Katherine Legge and veteran Sebastien Bourdais, did not make it onto the track as they search for new engines. Six drivers completed all three phases of their rookie test. Former Freedom 100 winner Wade Cunningham completed the first two phases of his test and started the third phase but did not have time to finish.
Practice for all drivers begins Saturday. The 500 is scheduled to be run May 27.