Throughout the month, I have been focused on speed and times and gossip. I have written about the infamous DW12 more times than I can remember. I have seen more coverage about late Dan Wheldon than I have since those painful October days many months ago. The Speedway is even going to handout white sunglasses for fans to wear in memory of Dan. But I haven’t spent much time thinking about the Man until now. Although this is the most exciting day of the year for American open wheel fans, the 2012 edition will be filled with emotional reminders of mortality in the sport we all love so much. Dan will be missed and this will be the final chapter in a long story about racing and loss, and no better place for the final pieces of healing to take place. It’s Indianapolis. The track trumps all with this year being no exception. Everything will be forgotten for three short hours on Sunday afternoon as man and machine attempt to race into glory, legend and infamy.
Five Things to Watch
Passing – The wide hips of the DW12 seem to punch a school bus sized hole in the air; a phenomenon comparible to the Hanford Device of CART. The draft is strong on the long 5/8th mile straights at Indianapolis this year and should lead to an increased level of excitement. Since the removal of the apron, the need to complete passes on the straight before the one lane grove in the corner has become the defining factor in racing at Indianapolis. The DW12 looks to be the best chassis to have hit the bricks in race configuration since the re-profiling of the track for the 1993 racing season. Speeds may be a bit slow this weekend when compared to years past, but the new chassis fits with the Speedway very well. If Happy Hour on Tuesday last week was any indication, we are in for one heck of a race.
Racing – The passing will be good, but the racing should be even better. The constant jockeying for proper position on track is one of the most intriguing aspects of racing the 500. In the past, a single overtake could take more than a few laps to properly setup, but with the aforementioned strong draft, “sucking up” to the leading car is far easier than it has been. The draft is so strong, there are worries that drivers will attempt to pull off passes too late and put themselves in a bad position for corner entry because the slip stream is just that strong. However, if practice is any indication the constant jockeying and infighting could really slow down your race pace. During practice, once a driver made two or three moves a lap their lap speed dropped below 210 quite quickly. This could allow for a breakaway at the front as the midfield jockeys for position.
Momentum – With that said, keeping your line clean and speed high through the corner will be paramount to not losing too much time to the leaders. With only 550 or so horses on tap, the 2.2 liter turbo engines just don’t have the grunt to pull the chassis out of the corner and down the straight if any part of the driver’s line is compromised. This is especially apparent when you consider the amount of understear the chassis seems to poses out of the box. Making it through the corners quickly and cleanly will be important to staying near the front. The Penske cars actually looked to be practicing a two car tandem draft of sorts at one point during practice. They would run nose to tail to allow the trailing car to catch a big tow and pull a clean pass well before the corner. This tactic was giving both cars big laps speeds and didn’t look to be too difficult to pull off. The tactics using the draft to its fullest and keeping the speed up through the corners could play a huge part of the race once everyone settles into race mode.
Tires – The new rubber compound firestone has brought to the Speedway this year looks to actually be not 100 percent bullet proof. If qualifying was any indication as to how the tires will react during the race, we could see a fair amount of conservation. During qualifying, if you pressed too hard on your warm up laps your entire qualifying run was most likely ruined before it started. No one was able to gain time through their run and the tires looked to only have about two hot laps in them before quickly falling off the pace. Over a full fuel stint the drivers may not be able to sprint the entire time and we may see who does a better job conserving while still keeping speed. I do wonder if the notoriously difficult chassis is just leaning on the tires more than in years past; if maybe the DW12 just needs more rubber to run like the drivers want to be able to do. A driver able to cope with a more natural setup on the chassis may be able to drive harder and longer into a tire run.
It’s 500 Miles – No matter what, the Indy 500 is still an endurance race at its core. For years, drivers and teams have raced it like a sprint race, but you still have to be there at the end to have any chance in winning. Taking big risks early on doesn’t usually pay dividends in the end. Even though the 500 miles now takes a little less than three hours to complete, its three hours at an average speed at over 200 miles an hour. It is an absolute mental endurance race for the drivers and crew alike. Any bobble from any party under green flag conditions could spell doom for your afternoon immediately. The cream rises to the top at Indianapolis and the pretenders who have run near the front during the beginning of the season are quickly ousted during the Memorial Day Classic. It takes laser focus to successfully pull a win out at the World’s Greatest Race Course. The 2011 finish is the perfect personification of all of these ideas; Dan Wheldon was in position to steal the checkers and it took him over 499 miles to do so.
The #6, Special Indy Scorcher Edition, Thing to Watch
The Heat – It’s going to be hot on Sunday; nearing 100 degrees hot. And it’s May in Indiana so that means humidity. As of writing, the heat and wet air hasn’t quite made its way into town but the threat is definitely there. Heat related issues with drivers and crew members become real problems in this type of heat. The engines and tires have never been run in conditions like this; Sunday will be a literal pressure cooker for everyone involved right down to the fans. I believe the term is baptism by fire, and almost poetically, the DW12 and new engine package will undoubtedly experience it this weekend.
Winner – Marco Andretti – Because, WHY NOT? I’ve done my fair share of Andretti hating in the past, but he’s fast at Indy, he’s especially fast this year and Andretti Autosport seems primed for a win. Might as well be the Young Prince.
Best Rookie Finisher – Joseph Newgarden –Simon Pagenaud and Rubens Barichello have both been on world stages this grand but the pick is a no brainer if he can keep the rookie mistakes to a minimum.
Epic performance – Ed Carpenter – This is a perfect example of cream rising to the top during 500 miles. ECR is no group of slouches and Eddie knows his way around here. A P28 starting spot is not what the team wanted, but it will give them one heck of a challenge.
Biggest Loser – Lotus – I mean come on… how could I now? The much maligned British manufacturer has absolutely no hope on Sunday. It will be nothing short of miraculous if both Lotus drivers aren’t black flagged by lap 25.
That’s it. All the preparation, prerace and predictions the lead up to actual raceday is a season in itself. I’m ready to just run the thing. Controversy, politicking, backroom wheeling and dealing, broken hearts, hot heads, threats and fines… it sounds like a surprisingly normal almost-month-of-May. The only thing left is to run the race and get on with the rest of the season. I hope teams rested up during this week because the schedule is non-stop for the next month without an off week until after Iowa.
Programing Note: Anotherindycarblog will be quiet until Wednesday to be with friends and family in this time of celebration. I will be periodically stopping by the Social Media Garage throughout the weekend so make sure you do as well! Enjoy the holiday, have fun during the race and please be prepared for the heat if you are coming out to watch it live.