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The Way It Is/ Despite the Indy 500's problems, the challenge remains the same

by Gordon Kirby
Nobody could argue that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's new qualifying system didn't bring some excitement and intrigue to Pole Day at the Speedway last Saturday. Amid perfect, mid-May weather a battle of wits played-out over the afternoon as the top drivers and teams gambled on scratching their earlier qualifying runs in favor of making, re-engineered eleventh-hour second or third attempts at the end of the long afternoon.

By the middle the day a reasonable little crowd--more than in recent years--had gathered in the grandstands as Sam Hornish, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves challenged Dario Franchitti's four-lap pole speed from earlier in the day. In the end, Castroneves took the pole after Kanaan and Hornish came close but failed, making the point that however much the race may have lost its luster the fiendish challenge of mastering the Speedway remains the same.

"The challenge here all comes because you're so close to the edge in the car," Franchitti commented. "After finishing Pole Day that's even more prevalent in my mind, but every time you step in the car here you are on the edge. The weather conditions change and the balance changes. You're never going to have a perfect car here because you're always fighting at least one little thing. At the same time, you might think you're not in with a shout and the conditions change and all of a sudden your car is the one to have."

The IMS's unique, four-cornered layout and the many hours of track time available for practice are the key components in defining the Speedway's special challenge.

"I think it's about the nature of the corners and the shape of the track," Franchitti observed. "It has big, long straights and four, ninety degree corners with not really much banking. There really isn't another track like it."

Franchitti recalled his first experience at the track back in the Team Kool Green days with Paul Tracy. "I always felt before I came here that the stories about how difficult the place is were old wives' tales," he remarked. "The first time I ran here was when Paul and I came here for a test in April, 2002. It was pretty cold and we went out and ran pretty quick straight off and I remember thinking, 'What's the problem here?' But then we came back a few weeks later and it was twenty degrees warmer and windy and I was in a world of trouble. So you've got to respect this place. If I've learned anything, I've learned that.

"This place does respond in my opinion to changes in weather more than anywhere else," Franchitti added. "Do we need all that practice? No, we don't. But it is tradition. You have to be very disciplined throughout the two weeks of practice because you can go from having a very good car to a very bad car pretty quickly. So you've got to think about what changes you make. In an ideal world, you have a car that works in all conditions or you have different setups for different conditions. That's the aim so that come raceday you know what you're bolting on the car."

Franchitti says critics who claim today's IRL cars are underpowered and have too much downforce are incorrect in their assessments. "People say these cars are easy to drive," he commented. "Trust me, they're not. If we stuck totally to the Speedway I'd love to have more power in the cars. Certainly more power would be nice, but they've got to keep the speeds in check a wee bit as well and I think they're doing a pretty good job of it.

"Are the cars over-downforced at the Speedway? Absolutely not, because you take out as much downforce as you can. When a guy like Hornish can't put four laps together because he's almost crashed, that shows you how close to the edge we're running. You just keep taking downforce off until you're at the limit of what you can do. I think mid-corner speeds are some of the highest we've ever seen here at the Speedway."

Franchitti believes he might have been able to beat Castroneves to the pole had he gambled on making another late-day run. "It was a frustrating day for me because we went out and did our run and it was a heck of a run," Dario grinned. "The car was fast over the four laps. It was definitely as close to the limit as I've driven over the four laps. I would have loved to have another go at the end because I think the track was a good bit quicker, but at that point would you be sensible to pull a car that was on the pole or in the middle of the front row? We decided not to pull the car. We did the best we could with it, I think."

Penske's team leader Tim Cindric agrees with Franchitti about the special challenges of the Speedway. "The fact that you have so much track time before the race is what makes it unlike any other race," Cindric said. "Sometimes it's criticized because there's an expense and time that goes into it, but that's what makes this race unique. A lot of people say it should just be a weekend event. People have always asked why this race has to be a month long, but that's always been the mystique and the challenge. You can be your own worst enemy all week long because you get yourself in different situations. One day the car the car is fast but the next day it's not, yet you haven't changed anything.

"Some of the variables aren't here like they were in the past such as the number of engine specs you would run. You would have practice engines and a qualifying engine and you would slowly build up to qualifying. Some of those variables are gone but the changing conditions are always there. When the wind is gusting it's a lot less predictable and your driver has to be on his game.

"It's the flattest track for the speeds we go and I think that's the biggest variable," Cindric added. "You don't have the banking that helps you at all the other big tracks. Therefore, the wind is much more influential than what it is on the banked tracks. It was even more so before they grooved the track. I understand why the racetrack is grooved at this point in time. The grooved track really allows a lot more forgivenesss than what it used to and it gives more grip, too. And there are some challenges in terms of tire wear."

The Speedway's changes to its qualifying system in recent years allowing each car as many as three qualifying attempts has further differentiated the race from most others.

"Here you have an extended period of time during qualifying to try different things," Cindric observed. "In any other form of racing, typically in qualifying you have a chance to go and that's your chance. It really all starts with the draw which dictates how your day is going to go early on and the rest of your day. A lot of it has to do with what you think your realistic goals are. Can you run for the pole? Can you run for the front row? Or are you looking to be in the top eleven? That's what we have to go through in our minds.

"It's all about the weather and understanding what's going to happen with the weather," he added. "If you haven't been here before you're probably scratching your head wondering what you did wrong last night."

Pole Day morning this year dawned clear and cool with very little humidity. It looked like perfect conditions for superfast laps but in the morning warmup it turned out the track had suddenly developed too much grip.

"Most of the faster guys went out, did a lap and found their gear was a little tall because it was slower," Cindric remarked. "We didn't spend a lot of time running in those conditions because we knew it was going to change later."

Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon in Chip Ganassi's cars were favorites to win the pole and both drivers set the pace during the week of practice. But the changed track conditions on Pole Day put a dent in the team's hopes.

"We had been pretty good the first four practice days," said Ganassi's IRL team boss Mike Hull. "Conditions were right for our setup and our guys were switched into it. We were building a setup but on Saturday morning the track conditions changed. The track had much more grip. Late on Friday and into Saturday the track totally changed. We were off. We were terrible, and it took us all day to figure-out why.

"When I spoke to Mr. Penske after the warm-up on Saturday morning he said to me he had never seen it quite like this. He said if you looked at the cool, dry weather you would have thought it was perfect conditions for speed and nobody had any speed! Everyone was included. And that's what makes Indianapolis so exciting for us inside the business. We look to get an edge on everybody else by understanding how to conquer the conditions."

Tim Cindric explained how the Penske team was able to steal the pole in the closing minutes of first day qualifying. "As it played out on Saturday we had a late draw," Cindric said. "It didn't make a lot of sense to go out there and just put a number on the board. We felt we needed to work on the cars a little bit more. We didn't go into the morning knowing we had a chance for the pole. We thought we might have a chance for the front row, but then it looked like the pole might be in reach so we wanted to keep our attempts for that. Later in the day it really comes down to how much you trust your driver and how big of a risk you want to take.

"We didn't feel like we were struggling," Cindric went on. "We felt like we could run in the the top five, no problem, but we weren't as dominant as we were last year. We were dominant through the first week of practice last year, typically with laps that weren't tow laps, that were faster than some of the cars that were running in the tow. Last year, Sam was so much faster than everybody else that nobody took a shot at him at the end of the day."

Penske's pair of drivers worked as a team to get the best from the track and weather conditions. "We came out and ran Helio at a little after three o'clock and put it in the garage," Cindric commented. "Then we ran Sam for a run and we based Helio's next run on what happened there and kind of leapfrogged each other all the way along. We qualified Helio first, put a number on the board, and Sam learned from that. He had a problem on a single lap and wanted to go out and try it again rather than waiting for the line to form.

"Then we tried some of those same scenarios with Helio but we didn't a get a lap in before the track went yellow. Then it was a matter of making sure we were in line at the right time. You didn't want to go too early and you wanted to make sure you were in line close enough to the end so you had a shot at the pole. Then you could make a decision once you got there based on where we were."

Cindric says this year's qualifying rules means less gambling is involved in withdrawing a qualified car and making a second or third attempt.

"This format isn't really any different than last year other than there are just eleven spots for the first day rather than twenty-two spots," Cindric observed. "When we pulled Helio's car from the field in 2005 and re-qualified at the end of the day to try to make the front row, there was more risk in that because you had a chance to be twenty-third. This year the biggest risk you're taking is to be twelfth, so for me you definitely give it a shot. It's a game of risk and reward all day but you have to have the team and the people you trust to do the right thing."

And as we all know, if the 500 and American open-wheel racing is to enjoy a real bump in interest we need to see all the Champ Car drivers and teams competing at Indianapolis.

"How many times have we talked about how we need to have one series?" Franchitti ruminated. "I feel not so much short-changed by that, but we all want to race against the best guys out there and there's no question it would be so much simpler and better if there was one series."

Franchitti raced an Andretti-Green Acura ALMS car at Long Beach this year, qualifying on the pole and leading much of the race. During the weekend Dario bumped into many old friends and it reminded him how good it would be if America's sadly separated open-wheel fraternity was reunited.

"At Long Beach last month I was going to have dinner with my brother and my dad," Franchitti remarked. "And I walked into the restaurant and Servia walks up and says, 'Hey man, what are you doing for dinner?' I said, 'You want to join us?' And Oriol said, 'I've got a surprise coming.' And Max Papis walked in and joined us. The next thing you know Cristiano (da Matta) came in with his mom and dad and his girlfriend. I hadn't seen him for ages, so they joined us. Then Jimmy (Vasser) walked in and we had this table full of old pals. We're old pals regardless of where we race and it would be so much fun if we were all racing together."


Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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