Kentucky: Paul’s Saturday thoughts

IndyCar commentary — By on October 1, 2011 7:46 pm

The IZOD IndyCar Series returned to high-speed racing today as 29 drivers took to the 1.5-mile oval at Kentucky Speedway.  Under overcast and frigid conditions, the morning practice session was run without any issues other than a couple of technical glitches for a few of the cars.  Scott Dixon topped the chart during the first session with the first non-Indianapolis 220+ mph lap the Series has seen in several years.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the morning session was that of Wade Cunningham who, in only his second race weekend in the IZOD IndyCar Series, turned a nice lap of over 218.9 mph, good enough to for P3.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to back that up in the second session, but he still put forth a fine showing for himself today.

The qualifying session this afternoon was full of surprises and will see the field line up in a way that few would have predicted.  Earning his eighth pole of the season, Will Power put another point between himself and Dario Franchitti, extending the margin to 12 points heading into tomorrow’s race.  Franchitti will have a hole to dig out of as he rolls off tomorrow in the 11th position.

Starting even further back are Will Power’s Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe.  Qualifying 16th and 18th respectively, neither of the duo was within 0.2 seconds of Power’s pole-winning time, and Briscoe wondered publicly whether Power didn’t have a little something extra in his engine and tires.  Even if the lion’s share of Team Penske’s efforts are going towards Power’s championship chase, one does have to wonder exactly how one member of the team suddenly finds 2.5 mph over his teammates in nearly identical cars.

Behind Will Power on the pole tomorrow, a slew of teams make up the top three rows as six different teams take up the first six positions.  Starting with Ganassi Racing’s Graham Rahal in second, positions three through six to go Newman/Haas’s James Hinchcliffe, Sarah Fisher Racing’s Ed Carpenter, Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand, and Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti.  Other nice qualifying runs were had by Simona de Silvestro, who qualified 13th, and Wade Cunningham, who qualified 15th.

The qualifying session was, unfortunately, not without incident.  Rookie Pippa Mann, attempting to make her first start since the Indianapolis 500 after crashing and not being cleared to race at New Hampshire, lost control of her car when exiting the pit lane to start her qualification run and made light contact with the inside wall in turn 1.  More on my opinion about the new pit exit wall follows below.

In a strange twist, Dan Wheldon’s car failed pre-qualifying technical inspection so badly that the crew could not fix the problem before his qualifying run.  As a result, Wheldon will start next-to-last in the 28th position.  (I admit that I’m not sure why he will start in front of Pippa.  She at least made an effort to qualify, but the difference between 28th and 29th isn’t much to write home about.)  It’s not altogether uncommon for cars to fail technical inspection for minor infractions, but for it to be to the point where the team can’t even attempt to qualify is rare.  I have to assume that he practiced all day with the car being significantly out of spec, and when the green flag flies tomorrow, Wheldon will go off in a car that is quite different than what he drove today in practice.

This is my first trip to Kentucky Speedway, so I hope you’ll afford me the opportunity to give some of my observations of the facility.  First of all, as was hinted at by many people over the past couple weeks, the drive to the track from Indianapolis is very easy and quite enjoyable, particularly the winding run down the hill from the town of Moorefield to the Ohio River.  (Just go ahead and ignore that 45 mph speed limit — 70 is perfectly reasonable!)

Once I reached the facility, the first thing I noticed is just how much far below the adjacent ground the actual track is.  As compared to Chicagoland Speedway, which is built at or above the natural grade, land was actually excavated here to build the Speedway in a bowl.  That explains why this track has such an issue with weepers when it rains: the track is likely below the water table, so water naturally flows upward.  The good side of the construction is that the stands are quite a bit higher than the track, so the spectator views are exceptional.  Additionally, there is very little infrastructure on the infield and none of it is very high, so there are almost no obstructions to keep fans in the grandstands from seeing the entire track.

Significant changes to the track have been implemented since the IICS visited the facility last year, mostly related to moving the pit lane substantially closer to the main grandstands.  The pits were moved about 200 feet closer to the fans and are now curved along the entire length of pit road.  This is the first track the Series has visited this year that has such a configuration (although the finale at Las Vegas will see a similar situation).  More significantly, the pit road exit is very different than in previous years.  Previously, the pit lane had a wide exit that funneled into a one- or two-lane exit road that was separated from the racing surface by a strip of grass.  The grass is now gone, and the very narrow exit lane is immediately adjacent to the banked racing surface.  To the inside of the exit lane is a concrete wall with no SAFER barrier.  This, to me, is an egregious error on the part of Kentucky Speedway.  No wall in the corner of an oval, inside or outside, should be left bare in this day and age.  In his post-qualifying comments, polesitter Will Power called the new pit exit “bloody dangerous” and spoke about the tragedy of Alex Zanardi in 2001 as an example of what can happen when a car loses control and slides back onto the track in front of oncoming, high-speed traffic.  Let’s hope that all of the INDYCAR drivers can get out of here this weekend without testing the new inside wall and that Kentucky Speedway can fix this before next season.

With that, I’ll wrap up coverage for today and get rested up for race day tomorrow.  Be sure to watch the @MoreFrontWing Twitter feed tomorrow for more live updates and commentary throughout the day, and check back here for a summary of race day events at Kentucky Speedway.

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