IndyCar Series To Hold Critical Test At Texas

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 3 2012

Will Power will be one of the drivers taking part in a key IndyCar Series test at the high-speed Texas Motor Speedway oval next week. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Championship leader Will Power and oval-track rookie Rubens Barrichello headline IZOD IndyCar Series drivers scheduled to participate in a critical Open Test at Texas Motor Speedway on Monday, May 7.

Originally scheduled for mid-March, the split morning/afternoon sessions in Fort Worth featuring Power, Barrichello and four-time/reigning series champion Dario Franchitti testing the new Dallara DW12 chassis will be open to the general public free of charge.

Fans can enter Gate 4 beginning at 8 a.m. (CDT). Coolers will not be allowed but concession and merchandise stands will be available. The opening session will run from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Session No. 2 will run from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m.

The test on TMS’ high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval is a prelude to the Firestone 550k night race set for Saturday, June 9. Franchitti, of Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Team Penske’s Power emerged as winners of last summer’s historic Firestone Twin 275s – first doubleheader in series history. Next month’s event will be run in its original format of 228 laps/342 miles starting at 7 p.m.

Tony Kanaan of KV Racing Technology, Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske and Alex Tagliani of Team Barracuda Bryan Herta Autosport tested at TMS on Feb. 21 in an effort to assist INDYCAR officials in determining the aero package on high-speed ovals for the new Dallara chassis. Will Phillips, vice president of technology, INDYCAR, said that test helped establish a baseline while trying a variety of aero packages.

Despite that positive spin, the test re-ignited long-standing concerns over the inherent dangers of pack racing. Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar champion, said he was confident team engineers and sanctioning body officials would figure out an aerodynamic downforce fix during this Open Test.

“We’re going to Texas to confirm that the aero spec that we laid down is correct,” Phillips said in a statement. “We made a commitment that we would run cars at Texas in a small number and go back to run the cars in as big a group as possible prior to racing there. It will also give us an insight into Indianapolis.”

For the February test, Dallara provided aero pieces for the production cars of Kanaan and Briscoe that were tested in the full-scale wind tunnel a month earlier. The production cars were slightly different from the prototype that was evaluated on the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, Iowa Speedway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway ovals in autumn – specifically different mirrors, different rear wheel fairings, subtle differences in chassis construction and better integration of the Zylon side intrusion panels.

With data and driver feedback collected from the February test _ along with Open Tests at Sebring International Raceway , IMS and the four road/street course races run in 2012 – Dallara has made refinements that have produced qualifying event records at all four venues.

“We were able to work on the balance of the car while we were there (TMS) and got it to where it felt really solid,” Briscoe, 2010 winner of the Firestone 550k, said of the February test. “We’ve had very limited oval track time in general, so it will be a good pre-Indy test as well. It’s a good chance to run together and see what we’ve got.”

TMS, which has played host to the IndyCar Series since its inaugural 1997 season, is the only 1.5-mile track on the 16-event 2012 schedule. The track’s 24-degree banked turns have produced some of the series’ most breathtaking side-by-side racing, close finishes – and spectacular crashes.

Drivers understandably remain skittish in the aftermath of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon’s fatal crash at sister 1.5-mile track Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16, 2011. Wheldon, the 2005 series champion, died as the result of head injuries suffered when his car was catapulted into a fence post during a 15-car wreck in the season-ender. The Dallara DW12 chassis – named in honor of primary test driver Wheldon – was designed to improve safety.

Drivers scheduled to participate: Team Penske’s Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet), Ryan Briscoe (No. 2 IZOD Chevrolet) and Helio Castroneves (No. 3 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet); Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Franchitti (No. 10 Target Honda) and Scott Dixon (No. 9 Target Honda); KV Racing Technology’s Barrichello (No. 8 BMC/Embrase/Hyundai Brazil Chevrolet); Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing’s Graham Rahal (No. 38 Service Central Honda); Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing’s Charlie Kimball (No. 83 Novo Nordisk Honda); A.J. Foyt Racing’s Mike Conway and Wade Cunningham (No. 14 ABC Supply Co./A.J. Foyt Racing Honda) and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Ed Carpenter (No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet).

Barrichello, the former Formula One star, figures to be the center of attention at TMS during his first official oval-track test en route to his inaugural “Month of May” at the Indianapolis 500. The 96th edition of the race on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway is set for May 27. Barrichello, winner of 11 F1 races and a two-time championship runnerup with Scuderia Ferrari, is four races into his IndyCar career with KV Racing Technology. A native of Brazil, Barrichello is 11th in the championship standings following top-10 finishes in the last three road-course/street races.

Power, meanwhile, has re-emerged as the series’ road-course/street ace with three consecutive victories. Team Penske and team-owner Roger Penske have scored seven IndyCar Series wins at TMS, most by any team. Penske’s Castroneves is tied for most wins at “The Great American Speedway!” with three, his last coming in 2009. Power secured his first career victory on an oval last June when he won the second race of the Firestone Twin 275s.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing, meanwhile, uncharacteristically has struggled this season and still is searching for its first win of 2012. Franchitti is 10th in the championship standings and has earned just one top-five finish.

Teammate Dixon posted a pair of runnerup finishes in the first two races of the season, but recent results of 23rd and 17th have dropped him to sixth in the standings. Dixon, however, is one of the most consistent drivers at TMS. He has finished in the top-10 in nine of 12 appearances, including a victory in the 2008 Bombardier Learjet 550k. Dixon is the only driver to finish in the top-five in TMS’ five previous races. His average finish of 5.41 is second-best among IndyCar Series drivers with at least five races.

Cunningham, the 2005 Firestone Indy Lights champion who competed in the Twin 275s at TMS last June, will split time in the No. 14 ABC Supply car with fulltime driver Conway while his No. 41 ECat/ABC Supply car is prepped for his first Indy 500.

“We haven’t been on a mile-and-a-half yet so we want to experience that and get on an oval before Indy starts up,” said Larry Foyt, team director of his father’s organization. “We’ll give Wade some time in the new car to get comfortable and familiar with it before he starts ROP (Rookie Orientation Program on May 10).”

The Open Test will be preceded on Sunday by Barrichello taking his IndyCar Series oval test. Barrichello also will participate in the ROP at Indianapolis.

Sanctioning body INDYCAR has modified the Supplemental Guidelines for Engine Manufacturers for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Under the amended rule 3.8, which went into effect beginning April 30, teams can only pair with one manufacturer – Chevrolet, Honda or Lotus – in any single season unless approval is granted by INDYCAR.

“The intent of the rule is to try to help build a partnership between a team and its engine manufacturer,” said Trevor Knowles, INDYCAR’s director of engine development. “Having a long-term commitment helps ease concerns about confidentiality of any information the manufacturer may share with a team. It also limits a manufacturer’s ability to drop a team from its lineup if they are going through a bad patch. Without it, one would see a drift of all the teams with the best results to the manufacturers with the best results creating a big imbalance across the field.

“However, we have to be pragmatic and realize that there have been and will be times when a team and its manufacturer have to go their separate ways to their mutual benefit. This change allows that to happen while still maintaining control of the process.”

Last week, fledgling engine supplier Lotus announced it was dropping Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport from its lineup. Lotus has struggled to keep pace with the 2.2-liter, turbocharged V-6 engine programs launched by Chevrolet and Honda in terms of its parts pipeline and horsepower during the season’s first four events.

The release has left DRR’s Oriol Servia and Alex Tagliani of BHA temporarily without engine suppliers. However, the teams are expected to sign deals with Chevrolet and Honda, respectively, for the Indy 500.

Opening Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is May 12, with the May 27 race marking to the date the 40th anniversary of Team Penske owner Roger Penske’s first Indianapolis 500 triumph with Mark Donohue in the No. 66 Sunoco McLaren/Offenhauser. Penske-owned cars have earned 15 race victories and 16 poles – both records – in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Championship leader Will Power has a best finish of ninth in four trips to IMS, but enters the first oval event of the season on a roll. His victories on the Barber Motorsports Park road-course (from ninth on the starting grid), the Long Beach street circuit (from 12th on the grid) and the Sao Paulo street-course (from pole) – coupled with bonus points for two pole starts and leading the most laps in Brazil _ have staked Power to a 45-point lead over teammate Helio Castroneves.

“I’ll just keep the head down, try to enjoy it, enjoy my race,” said Power, who has entered the Month of May the past four years with most recent finishes of first (Brazil), 12th (Kansas Speedway), second (Long Beach) and 27th (Kansas). “You need a bit of luck, good strategy, no mistakes, and that’s how you win races.”

Power recorded career victory No. 18 on the 2.536-mile, 11-turn Sao Paulo street-course and has won five of the past 10 races spanning two seasons to set himself up for another run at the series title. “When I look at the last two seasons, the first one of the last two is definitely a weakness on ovals,” Power said. “But I would say last year that wasn’t the case. It was just bad results were really bad.”

With its motor supply issue unresolved, Michael Shank Racing has released IndyCar Series driver Jay Howard from his contractual commitment to the team for the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

A former Indy Lights champion, Howard started 20th and finished 30th in the 2011 Indianapolis 500 and was set to join MSR for the 2012 race. Howard now is free to pursue other options.

“We are working every possible opportunity to make this happen and continue to hold our entry for the Indianapolis 500,” team-owner Mike Shank said in a statement. “But at this point, we’ve not made the progress that we need to in terms of having our package finalized and having an agreement with a motor manufacturer. I know first-hand how hard it is to have the opportunity to race in the Indianapolis 500, and the last thing in the world I want to do is to hold Jay back from getting the chance to do that.”

Shank was among the first team-owners to take delivery of the revolutionary 2012 Dallara DW12 in mid-January. Shank announced formation of his IndyCar effort with NASCAR driver A.J. Allmendinger and Columbus, Ohio, businessman Brian Bailey at the 2011 IndyCar season-finale in Las Vegas.

“I was really looking forward to working with Mike and helping him finally get into IndyCar,” Howard said. “For me personally, I have to keep moving forward and I remain committed to IndyCar and competing in this year’s Indy 500. I remain optimistic that IndyCar and the engine manufacturers will continue in my corner so we can collectively fill that 33rd spot this year.”

MSR Indy is based in the 20,000-square-foot Michael Shank Racing shop outside of Columbus. The program runs in parallel with Michael Shank Racing’s GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series effort, which opened the 2012 season with a victory in the prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“This is what I do, and there isn’t an ounce of ‘give-up’ in me,” Shank said of his INDYCAR ambitions. “But we also have to be realistic about the calendar and what it takes to properly prepare for a race like the Indianapolis 500. I’ve burned up every favor I could think of, called anyone who would be willing to listen and been trying to work with Randy (Bernard, INDYCAR’s CEO) to just be able to get a motor. But the hole in the back of my DW12 is no closer to being filled than it was when we filed the entry.”

Numbers worth noting following Sunday’s Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle:

2 _ Drivers who have finished in the top-10 in each of the first four IndyCar Series events: Will Power of Team Penske and James Hinchcliffe of Andretti Autosport.

3 _ Races in a row won by Will Power, longest win streak in Indy-car racing since Scott Dixon won three-straight races in 2007…Consecutive races won by Power in Sao Paulo…Drivers who have completed every lap of every race in 2012: Power, Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, also of Andretti Autosport.

12 _ Consecutive races led by Will Power dating to 2011.

22 _ Positions gained by Takuma Sato of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing en route to his first IndyCar Series podium, and most of any of the 26 drivers.

39 _ Positions gained by Oriol Servia of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in the first four races of 2012.

109 _ Top-five finishes for Dario Franchitti in his Indy-car racing career. Franchitti passed Gordon Johncock for ninth on the all-time list.

111 _ Laps led by Will Power in 2012. Power has led 32 percent of the laps this season.

185 _ Consecutive Indy-car starts for Tony Kanaan of KV Racing Technology dating to the 2001 Championship Auto Racing Teams event in Portland, Ore.

52,000-plus _Fans who attended the Itaipava Sao Paulo Indy 300 presented by Nestle on race day, according to information released by the event promoter.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, May 3 2012
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