Is IndyCar On The Road To An Indy Road Race?

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 5 2013

IndyCar tested the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield road course this week. A road race at Indy? (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Graham Rahal says an IZOD IndyCar Series road-race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway would only add to the “good vibe” generated during the traditional Month of May capped by the Indy 500.

“We’re all here for the Month of May anyways, so let’s put on another good show and give the fans something else to see,” said Rahal, who along with Ryan Briscoe participated in a test organized by IMS and INDYCAR officials on Wednesday to gather information about the current road-course layouts as IMS considers changes and upgrades.

“It’s a totally different form of racing,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 15 blu eCigs Dallara/Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “The only oval race that should be here in my eyes is the Indy 500, but there’s no reason not to do a road race. I think it would be awesome.

“We’re not going to fill this place _ we all know that _ but it really doesn’t matter. It’s a totally different thing (from the Indy 500). But if we can put on a good show and get a good crowd and have a good vibe going into the Month of May, it would be awesome. Times have changed. What was INDYCAR 100 years ago isn’t what INDYCAR is today. We have to change with the times.”

To that end, Speedway officials plan to invest nearly $100-million in the facility as part of a long-term master plan that could include modifications to the road-course to allow it to accommodate INDYCAR testing or racing in the future.

MotoGP and GRAND-AM Road Racing use sections of the infield course for their races at IMS, with MotoGP competing at the track since 2008 on a counter-clockwise (MotoGP) version of the circuit and GRAND-AM since 2012 on a clockwise (Grand Prix) layout. Formula One raced on the IMS road-course from 2000-07.

“We wanted to evaluate the racetrack as it is,” said Derrick Walker, president of competition and operations, INDYCAR. “There are a number of ideas to improve overtaking and making the racing more interesting perhaps than it was during the Formula One days. I’m not sure the Speedway needs to make monster changes. There could be some alterations that would improve the racing short-term, and then if the fans come, you keep doing more and keep doing more. I think you could develop a really unique racetrack out of the infield.

“It’s important to look at all possibilities that we have in the existing layout to gain as much information as we can about how the car will perform and what changes we can offer to make it more competitive. In addition to considering a potential race on the IMS road-course at some point in the future, one of the advantages of maximizing the current road-course layout could be a future testing opportunity for INDYCAR teams, especially since so many are based in Indianapolis.”

Rahal logged a combined 64 laps on two configurations of the road-course, including 44 laps on the layout used for the GRAND-AM event.

“We really don’t use much of the oval, so I think it would be really cool,” said Rahal, who competed on the Grand Prix layout in Formula BMW in 2004 and Firestone Indy Lights in 2006. “The layout is going to change. I actually, quite frankly, like the current one; I was having a ball. It’s slippery but that makes it kind of enjoyable. We’ll have to see what changes are made in the future but what I found is that the braking zones are extremely grippy, therefore you can brake really late and have some opportunities for guys to go side-by-side on a lot of parts of the track. I think that would put on a good show.

“Ultimately with the long straightaway, using part of the oval there you’re going to see huge variation in setup, huge variation in the race. Guys can run a lot of downforce to try to be really quick in the infield and try to pull away enough that on the straightaway he doesn’t get passed. And you’re going to see guys that trim it all out and be 15 mph faster on the straight but struggle in the infield, and I think that could make the racing extremely exciting.”

In the afternoon, Rahal completed 20 laps on the reverse configuration with the MotoGP loop.

“The second configuration really wasn’t anything like we would run anyway; it was only to get an idea how some of the corners would work,” said Rahal, who earned the pole and finished second in the 2006 Indy Lights race on the Grand Prix course. “It would be changed quite considerably before we would run it but I think the first way we ran was better for me, I enjoyed it more. At the end of the day we are here to do what was asked and try different things. I think we got through quite a lot.”

Both Rahal and Briscoe logged laps clockwise and counterclockwise, utilizing Turn 1 of the oval and the existing Turn 1 of the Grand Prix course.

“Everybody knocks it, but I’ve had some fun,” Rahal said. “The track layout as it is, would it be great for passing? There are really only two spots. But that’s why we’re trying a lot of different configurations to analyze and potentially help.

“I suggested a few things already, and IMS and INDYCAR want input. When I showed up, I thought we shouldn’t use Turn 1 at Indy. We shouldn’t run on the oval at all. But I think that’s what is going to make the racing so good. If you’re leading on the last lap you’re bound to get passed by anyone within eight car-lengths. The tow someone would get down the front straight would be massive.

“How do you put a quick lap in? Do you set-up the car to go for the front straight or the infield? That could be an intriguing mix race day. Having a straightaway this long, with the top speed of about 190 (mph), it’s quite a mix. I think that would make the racing extremely exciting here.”

The only other time an Indy car was tested on the IMS road-course was in the fall of 2011, when two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon wheeled the current Dallara chassis that debuted in 2012. Wheldon ran the 13-turn layout in clockwise direction only during the session, which was used to develop the car, not for track information purposes.

Briscoe, the 2012 Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter, gave high marks to the layout that through the years drew increasingly vocal criticism from F1’s drivers as being flat-and-boring.

“The track as currently set-up has a lot of high-speed corners, and going clockwise gives you a different feel,” said Bricoe, who lapped in a Dallara/Chevrolet provided by Panther Racing. “There are a couple of areas that could be addressed to increase passing zones, which would make the racing great. It’s got a lot of high-speed corners. Turn 13 (oval Turn 1) is really fast. A lot of high load in the steering wheel and very different to what we do here on the 2.5-mile oval. It’s a really different feeling going the other way.”

Asked specifically what he would change, Briscoe said, “As you come down the middle stretch (Hulman Boulevard), it’s a very fast corner and it would make passing difficult. If you came down that straight into a tighter corner, it would help the racing a little bit. The layout is really nice. It’s fast and it’s pretty physical, as well.”

A potential IZOD IndyCar Series race on the road course as early as 2014 has been discussed by INDYCAR and IMS officials, an option endorsed by Bobby Rahal _ Graham’s father, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and the 1986 Indianapolis 500 champion.

“I feel privileged to be a part of (the test day) and excited about the idea,” Bobby Rahal said. “Just as Daytona has a number of events leading up to the ‘500,’ why not Indianapolis with a road-course race in early May? I was very much a traditionalist until the stock cars came here. They’ve had Grand Prix races, GRAND-AM races, bike races and even the mini-marathon, and I understand why it’s become a multi-event facility. I’m all for it.”

J. Douglas Boles, IMS president, said he has heard from ticket-holders who have lobbied for a third race using the road-course and featuring the IndyCar Series.

“We have a great facility right in the middle of Indianapolis, where many teams are based, so even if you were to use it for testing throughout the season it would be nice to have,” Boles said. “We think we have a big fan base in Indianapolis that loves to see the Indy cars run. Yes, it’s a break from tradition, not running on the oval, but that’s why we’re here to test. We’ve already heard great things from the drivers, and that’s part of the next step in deciding how we use the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, September 5 2013
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