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IndyCar Drivers At Texas: Keep The Packs At Bay

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 17 2014

Will Power says the place for 'wankers' is at the rear of the packs at places like Texas. (INDYCAR/LAT USA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

FORT WORTH, Texas – INDYCAR’s annual aero package conundrum for Texas Motor Speedway likely won’t be solved at the end of a two-day Firestone tire test on Thursday. But any open-wheel fan longing for a return to pack racing with “grandma” and assorted “wankers” needs to get up-to-speed.

“That’s not going to happen,” reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan declared after hot-lapping during Wednesday morning’s opening session. The Firestone 600 Verizon IndyCar Series race on Saturday, June 7, is 51 days away. But on Wednesday, the high-banked, 1.5-mile quadoval was the focus of 18 drivers who participated in the season’s first oval-track open test.

“With the way the formula is – was – I don’t know if they’re going to change it,” series point-leader Will Power said in reference to the sanctioning body. “As long as it’s not pack racing, it’s fine. As soon as you start pack racing you can have your grandma running on your outside rear, it takes all the talent away and creates this dangerous situation of cars all packed-up and you get what we had in Vegas. If they put it all back in the driver’s hands and the good drivers are at the front where they should be and the wankers are at the back, it’s fine.”

“Tell us how you really feel,” joked Juan Pablo Montoya, who has joined Power and Helio Castroneves at Team Penske after a seven-year tenure in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. “I absolutely agree.”

The aero package introduced at TMS last year was the result of driver concerns over pack racing in the aftermath of the multi-car wreck that killed two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon in the 2011 season-ender at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a sister 1.5-mile facility to TMS.

Castroneves reeled-off a dominating performance here last summer, leading a race-high 132 of 228 laps in the 324-miler after taking the point on Lap 97. On Lap 130, Helio’s lead over Team Penske teammate Power was 1.1246-seconds. By Lap 170, the lead had ballooned to 13.5968-seconds. When a final green flag pit stop went off without a hitch on Lap 178, Castroneves was home-free, cruising to victory over Ryan Hunter-Reay by 4.6919-seconds. Last summer’s event, which produced only four lead changes among four drivers, was run at an average speed of 177.257 mph.

Working with INDYCAR officials who reportedly reduced downforce levels from the 2012 package, Firestone engineers developed a new Firehawk tire specification last year intentionally designed to “go off”

Will Power hits the pits at Texas this week. (Photo courtesy of Texas Motor Speedway)

if not properly managed through a stint. While some drivers struggled to make the tires last for a full fuel run, others ran more than 60 laps/90-plus miles without issue. Castroneves put in three full stints of 53 laps or more, but admitted post-race the package felt “very, very different” from his cockpit.

Similarly, runnerup Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport described his night as a “battle royale” during which he fought to save his tires and keep off the walls. Ditto third-place finisher Kanaan, who at one point pleaded over his radio for his crew to “give me more tires.”

With that as background, INDYCAR officials appointed Marco Andretti and owner/driver Ed Carpenter as designated test pilots for both days here in a bid to improve the aero package and quality of racing. However, temperatures on Wednesday in the mid-60s combined with wind gusts up to 30 mph down the speedway’s front stretch created conditions that figure to bear little-to-no resemblance to the early summer weather teams will encounter in June.

“I was out there pounding around and thinking to myself if it’s not this windy when we come back here then it’s probably going to be totally different,” said Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 National Guard Dallara/Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “It’s certainly not going to be this cold so the grip we’re going to have come race weekend vs. now is going to be a lot different. But you’re just testing things in general. What works today might work then. For us, these days are very valuable. We don’t get a ton of testing, so it’s important to be out here pounding around.

“We’re trying to find a pretty good balance right now, but it’s a tricky thing. The common fan doesn’t really understand how much just temperature can affect these cars. And the temperatures we have today, in the 60s – whereas when we race it’s going to be like 100 – that’s a huge change in downforce. That may be several hundred pounds of downforce for us today. So it’s a little tricky to test aero.”

Rahal added Firestone was supplying a “slightly different” compound for the right front tire during this test. “I don’t anticipate any other changes between now and the race,” said Rahal, who logged his first oval sessions with new engineer Bill Pappas. “It’s obviously a great racetrack; it’s just difficult. It’s difficult, particularly with the aero and tire combination these days; we slide around a lot here. It makes it interesting for the fans and exciting. But I can tell you my arms…it feels like I have more arm-pump here in 40 laps this morning than I did the entire Long Beach Grand Prix (last Sunday).

“On a day like today, when you get the wind gusts like this, that makes it 10 times harder – which is a good thing. You don’t necessarily want to go to tracks that are ‘easy.’ This used to be one of those but nowadays you come here and there‘s a lot to be learned.”

Andretti noted he had some “pretty big moments” in Turn 1 in his No. 25 Snapple Dallara/Honda fielded by Andretti Autosport.

“On a day like today, if you get the thing working you’ll be looking really good when you come back,” said Andretti, who was joined by rookie teammate Carlos Munoz. “I think that we’re driving these cars on the ragged edge at this place in particular. The way the tires fall-off, it’s not Firestone it’s the aero grip that we have. The rate of fall-off is pretty great here. This place, we earned our money last year. I had a race-winning car last year and it looked terrible. I was backing into the corners, lifting way early.”

Andretti, who finished fifth here last June 8 after leading twice for a combined 57 laps, joined Kanaan in acknowledging the fans might want to see pack racing. “I know we don’t want that as drivers for obvious reasons,” Andretti said. “We need that balance to where just before pack racing where we aren’t doing 190s (miles per hour) at the end of a stint. We don’t want that either. Somewhere in-between is a happy medium and that’s what we’re going for. We’re not going for pack racing; we’re not going for a drastic change. Just a little change.”

Scott Dixon, the three-time/reigning series champion from Target Chip Ganassi Racing, said he thought the 2012 race won by Justin Wilson presented “a perfect situation” for TMS. Wilson won after starting from the 17th position in the 25-car field en route to his first oval-track victory. Rahal appeared headed to his first oval-track win until brushing the wall in the exit of Turn 4 with two laps remaining, opening the door for Wilson.

“It was probably the most fun I’ve had around this place,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Dallara/Chevrolet. “I crashed-out of the race (and finished 18th) but I was having fun until that point. It’s not meant to be easy. I think that’s been a big issue with some of the drivers at Fontana (2-mile Auto Club Speedway) we saw last year as well and here in the past where if it gets a bit difficult they start crying for more downforce. That’s just the easy way out. They’ve got to be difficult to drive and personally I think it makes it more fun.

“All the teammates at Ganassi, we think along the same line and ultimately you get some separation but you get better racing, too. I think in 2012 the finish and how dramatic it was with people coming and going to pull off the win was pretty exciting. Right now there’s a bit of a fine sort of line to get the right combination of downforce. But it’s definitely in the package and we can find it for when we come back.”

Kanaan, who has replaced four-time series champion Dario Franchitti at Chip Ganassi’s juggernaut, noted “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race” is one of series’ marquee events. “We should be worrying about what the fans think,” said Kanaan, the 2004 series champion and winner of the fall race here in ‘04. “And I agree with Scott that last year was a little bit overboard as far as trying to spread the field out. We had five cars on the lead lap by the end of the race. I think it was a little confusing for the fans – yeah, they saw a lot of passing but you couldn’t understand who was on the lead and who was not. Hopefully we’ll come up with a better package.”

Power, a TMS winner in 2011, noted the wicker added to the rear wing in 2012 was key to producing nine lead changes among seven drivers. The race was run at an average speed of 167.217 mph.

“The year they put a wicker on was close to another hundred pounds (of downforce) and I think that would have worked last year and opened up a second lane,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet. “I just hope they make the right decision. Don’t put it back in a big pack of people and you get some wanker beside you who doesn’t even want to race – that’s when it just creates the situation that we had in Vegas.”

Tickets for the Firestone 600 Verizon IndyCar Series race, as well as the June 6 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series WinStar World Casino & Resort 400, are available by contacting the Texas Motor Speedway ticket office at (817) 215-8500 or by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com. TMS also is offering the “Family 4-Pack” special of four Firestone 600 race tickets, four hot dogs and four Coca-Cola products for $99.

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 17 2014
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