-- How much faster is the freshly paved track at Richmond International Raceway? Friday night's qualifying runs for the fourth annual SunTrust Indy Challenge, the sixth race in the Indy Racing League season, provided an emphatic answer.
Half of the 22 cars in the field broke the course qualifying lap record set in 2002 by Gil de Ferran.
"I can't believe how fast this track is," said Bryan Herta of the Andretti Green Racing Team, who qualified seventh by rounding the three-quarter-mile track in 15.8654 seconds (170.182 miles per hour) and bested de Ferran's mark of 16.0043 seconds. "Richmond has done a really great job improving the track. . . . Last year it was so bumpy it was giving us fits at times, and this year it is very smooth."
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske won the pole with a qualifying lap of 15.7708 seconds (171.202 mph). Buddy Rice (15.8096 seconds/170.782 mph) of Rahal-Letterman Racing qualified in second position, and will start next to Castroneves in the first of 11 rows of two cars.
"The Marlboro Team Penske car seems to be responding very well," said Castroneves. "When your car is handling like that, it makes putting it on the front row very easy."
Rice, who claimed his first career victory at this year's Indianapolis 500, will start in the front row for the fourth time in six races this season. Rookie Mark Taylor (15.8188 seconds/170.683 mph) will start in third position, and to his right will be Castroneves' Team Penske teammate, Sam Hornish Jr. (15.8244 seconds/170.623 mph).
Drivers have lauded the track all week. Bumps that were problems in the past -- especially in Turn 2 -- were smoothed out, giving the cars better traction and the opportunity to be more aggressive. Drivers said the improved surface counterbalances, somewhat, restrictions placed on cars this season for safety reasons.
The faster speeds add even more intrigue to the race, which is one of the most exciting and unique on the IRL schedule.
The distinctiveness of the race is due in part to its start time. The green flag Saturday is scheduled for 7:55 p.m., making the SunTrust Indy Challenge one of only three IRL races run at night.
What sets it apart the most, however, is the length of the track -- or lack of length. The D-shaped oval is the shortest on the IRL schedule. The track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the Indy 500, is 2.5 miles -- 1.75 miles longer than Richmond's. The frontstraight at Richmond is just 1,290 feet, the back is 860 feet and the turns have a banking of 14 degrees. The result, drivers said, is the closest thing to a road course they drive on all season.
"It's not really like any other track," Taylor said. "It's so short, but it's still extremely quick because of the high banking."
The cars, which qualified at speeds approximately 40 mph faster than the NASCAR vehicles qualified for their race at the track, pull between four and five Gs going around the banked turns. That type of G-Force, which is more than drivers feel during the Indy 500, makes the 250-lap race among the most physically demanding of the races on the IRL schedule.
"It's very tough on the body and very tough on the mind when you're going that fast on such a small track," said IRL points leader Tony Kanaan, who qualified 10th on Saturday. "For sure, it's going to be the toughest race of the year for us."
Kanaan and defending race champion Scott Dixon, who qualified sixth, compared a run at Richmond to amusement park rides.
"It's maybe like being on a roller coaster, and you feel that really sharp corner and have that load on your body," Kanaan said. "It's that, basically twice every 15 seconds. It feels very fast. It's definitely the fastest thing I've ever done."
Darren Manning, who ran 350 laps during a recent practice session, took it further.
"It's like you're on a piece of string being twirled around somebody's head," he said. "The corners come up on you so fast and you're pulling over five Gs in the corners with the banks. You feel like you may fly over the grandstand coming out of Turn Four."