Indianapolis: Paul’s Carb Day thoughts & preview

IndyCar commentary — By on May 26, 2012 5:29 pm
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Carb Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is truly unlike any other day in the Month of May.  Part practice and part festival, everyone should be able to find an aspect of the day to enjoy.  And judging by the estimated 70,000 people in attendance, I’d say a lot of people did in fact enjoy the day.

The hot and muggy weather did little to quell the festive crowd as the stars of the IZOD IndyCar Series took to the track for the last one-hour practice session before the running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.  Other than a short yellow near the end of the hour for debris, the practice was run smoothly and without incident.  Once again, the Lotus cars were painfully slow, but no drivers seemed to have too much of a problem getting around them.  Unfortunately for Ana Beatriz, a very early oil leak ended her practice day almost before it even began as she was unable to complete any laps before her car was returned to Gasoline Alley.  Likewise, Jean Alesi missed the bulk of the practice session because of a gearbox issue.

Of particular interest during the final session was the reemergence of the Honda engine as a contender.  After getting truly embarrassed in qualifying by their Chevrolet competitors, the Honda-clad drivers fought back with a vengeance with the return of the 130 kPa turbocharger boost limit.  In the week prior to qualifications, the speeds between Honda and Chevrolet were fairly evenly matched with Chevy pulling ahead when pressures were increased to 140 kPa.  Friday’s practice showed that in race trim the Honda drivers will be serious contenders once again for the Borg-Warner trophy.  After nearly being written off after qualifying, don’t be a bit surprised if any of the Chip Ganassi drivers find victory, or even Josef Newgarden who has shown speed and maturity well beyond his 21 years.

Another thing I noticed was the high number of drivers stalling their engines trying to leave the pits.  With Indianapolis being the first oval of the year, there may be quite a few drivers who are rusty trying to leave the pits with the much longer gears required for a track like Indianapolis.  Longer gears mean lower revs when getting the car in gear, and those lower RPMs often lead to engine stalls while leaving the pits.  It will be interesting to see if the race is significantly altered because of a contender stalling a car while leaving the pits.

Following the final IICS practice was the Firestone Freedom 100.  It was a wild, hair-raising race that, like usual, saw a big crash fairly early on the in the running.  After a short red-flag period that allowed crews to repair the damaged SAFER Barrier, the remaining 30 laps were mostly a high-speed festival of blocking as leading cars weaved back and forth and ran passing cars either into the grass or into the pit wall on the frontstretch.  It’s astonishing that more serious accidents didn’t occur because of the wild driving, but almost everyone who survived the first accident made it to the checkered flag, save for Jorge Goncalvez who brought out the race-ending caution when he crashed in turn 2 on lap 38.  I was surprised that Race Control failed to penalize any drivers during the race for their aggressive driving.  Allowing crazy tactics like those to occur during the race is no way to teach drivers looking to advance to the IZOD IndyCar Series to perform on track.  Then again, if the point of the race is for the younger guys to learn the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, doing so with only 14 cars on track and lacking all the turbulence of the big cars probably doesn’t help a whole lot, either.

Following the Freedom 100, James Black of 16thandGeorgetown.com and I made our way to the turn 2 area and got to spend some time with the recently unveiled Simraceway INDYCAR simulator. WOW! Not being heavily involved with online race simulators (in fact, I’ve never done any of the online simulators), I was amazed by the reality of the game.  To be fair, the last bit of computer-simulated driving I had really done was via the 1994 Papyrus IndyCar PC game, so I expected this to be significantly more realistic.  However, I never would have guessed just how close to the real thing the simulator is.  Every seemingly unnoticeable bump in the track, every minute adjustment of the steering wheel, and every light blip of the throttle is accurately portrayed and relayed to the driver.  Look for a more thorough review of Simraceway to come to More Front Wing in the near future.

As much as I really wanted to hang around for the Lynyrd Skynrd concert in the infield (it’s really a shame that sarcasm doesn’t come through very well in typed word), previous dinner plans and a tight schedule made attending that impossible.  I did notice in passing by that the crowd was once again massive.  Every year, race fans always decry the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s choice of bands for the free concert, but every year the infield is packed with over 50,000 fans having a good time.

The day ended with Curt Cavin’s Fifth Annual Carb Night Burger Bash at 96th Street Steakburgers.  This event continues to grow every year and has truly become a must-attend­ event for race fans in town for the 500.  This year’s drivers included Pippa Mann (who is still working diligently to get into a car as soon as possible), 2011 Indianapolis 500 pole sitter Alex Tagliani, and 2012 Indianapolis 500 rookie Katherine Legge.  Additionally, Race Director Beaux Barfield made an appearance and answered many questions from the fans.  Among note-worthy information revealed by Beaux was that he expects to see 11 rows of 3 for the start of this year’s race and that unlike Brian Barnhart, Beaux will not take responsibility if the drivers happen to crash in the first turn.  Additionally, Barfield expressed regret that he had so quickly decided to return to single-file restarts for this year’s Indianapolis 500 and said that double-file restarts will likely return to the 500 for 2013.  This year’s Burger Bash raised over $16,000 for local community organizations, and a good time was had by all.  I always look forward to meeting new friends and catching up with old ones at the event.

Legends Day at the Speedway is always a bit of the “calm before the storm.”  With a trio of autograph sessions, the public drivers’ meeting, vintage cars on track, and a memorabilia show, the day’s activities are generally low-key and provide fans with variety of events to enjoy throughout the morning and early afternoon.

Of particular interest to me today was the vintage car display that was on-track shortly before the public drivers’ meeting.  Cars ranging from 1909 to 1992 were on track and gave fans a great rolling history lesson of the Indianapolis 500.  Starting the activities was this year’s pace car followed very closely by Emerson Fittipaldi’s 1986 Marlboro-sponsors March/Cosworth.  Not exactly in parade mode, the duo came roaring down the front straightaway doing at least 120 mph, much to the delight of the assembled fans.  There were three Rick Mears cars on track, including his 1979 winning car, the runner-up car from 1982, and the 1992 car in which Mears turned his final laps at Indianapolis.  It was also great to see several of the roadsters from the 1950s and ‘60s running on track and hear the Offenhauser engines humming away.  With that much history on the track at one time, it was a shame the display couldn’t go quite a bit longer.

Most of the public drivers’ meeting was generic and unmemorable with the exception of the presentation of the “Baby Borg” to Susie Wheldon.  Upon introduction, the entire audience, including fans, drivers, and media, gave Susie a standing ovation that lasted two solid minutes.  I don’t think I was the only one that fought back a wealth of emotions and tears as Susie accepted the trophy on behalf of her late husband.  Susie is truly a remarkable woman, and though I know her heart breaks still to this day, the poise and strength she has displayed over the past seven months — and the past three days in particular — have been inspiring.

Beaux Barfield gave a much shorter version of the drivers’ instructions speech than his predecessor had traditionally done over the past several years.  Barfield’s comments were mainly focused on the start of the race.  In a slight change of protocol, the drivers will have four parade and pace laps instead of three (which had been used since 1977) before the green flag is given to the field.  Barfield reiterated his comments from last night, saying that it was his responsibility to get the cars to the start/finish line to begin the race.  What happens to the cars after they cross the Yard of Bricks and head into turn 1 is the responsibility of the drivers.  Additionally, unlike the first four races of the IZOD IndyCar Series season, pit lane will be immediately closed upon display of the caution flag.  Once the field is under the control of the pace car, the pits will be opened as in previous years.  Barfield also repeated that he regretted making the decision to quickly to abandon two-wide restarted and expects them to return for next year.

With that, allow me to look forward to the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.

I expect the drivers to be cautious from the start of the race until at least the first pit stop.  There are more unknowns going into this race than in any race in recent history.  The biggest unknowns are obviously the new chassis and the new engines.  Drivers have run many laps in practice, but nothing can ever simulate the performance of the car under race conditions.  However the cars will respond when 33 cars try to barrel into turn 1 at the same time is truly unknown.  Additionally, the reportedly much strong draft could create a new type of cat-and-mouse game that we have never seen at Indianapolis.  Drivers will be playing mind games with each other all day long and using the first 400 miles to develop a strategy for the last 100 miles.  Once drivers get their cars figured out and understand how impactful the draft will be with a crowded track, I expect passing to be abundant throughout the pack.  If the car draft is in fact reminiscent of the CART Handford Device days, a new record for lead changes could be in store.

Additionally, mechanical reliability will likely factor into this race.  I predict that at least one top-five contender will have a mechanical failure during the final 40 laps of the race.  Though reliability has been better so far than most people predicted for 2012, the new engines have not yet been asked to go 500 miles in a single race.  Recall in 1987 and 1992 when Mario and Michael Andretti were knocked out of the race in the final 20 laps after dominating performances due to mechanical breakdowns.  This year could see a similar story unfold.

The other major story will be the weather.  With high temperatures predicted in the mid-90s, the track will be greasy and slick.  Accidents may be abundant given the slick conditions and decreased aerodynamic performance of the cars in hotter temperatures.  If the race becomes littered with cautions, the apparent fuel mileage advantage of Chevrolet may be negated as pit stops will be dictated by yellow flags, not empty fuel cells.  Still, I expect Chevrolet to run up front for much of the race.

So, I guess I have to again go on the record and make my call for the race.  As I said on the More Front Wing podcast this week, I still feel Ryan Briscoe has a great chance to win this race.  Ryan seems to have had a quiet month (as quiet as it can be when winning the pole, anyway), understands what it takes to run strong when needed, and is due to shake the bad luck that has plagued him the past several years.  If Ryan doesn’t pull it off, though, I will join with the sentimental favorite and pick Tony Kanaan.  I think TK pulling into victory lane would be the most popular victory in years, and I know nobody wants to win this as much as Tony.  He would certainly be a great ambassador for the event, and if there is anyone that can carry on the legacy of Dan Wheldon, TK is the man to do just that.  So, head says Briscoe, heart says TK.  We’ll know soon.

Drop the flag!

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