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Indy’s 100th:Winning is the Sum of Many Parts | Part II

Posted on June 4, 2011 Comments (0)

The People

Despite the money spent to make it happen and the money to be won, the Indianapolis 500 is a race of “haves” and “have-nots” and there are far more “have-nots” than “haves”.

Dan Wheldon Indy 500

Dan Wheldon sharing the milk

The large teams, Penske, Ganassi, Andretti, and Letterman Rahal bring in millions to run their operations. The middling teams KV Racing, Dreybold Rhinehart and other lesser knowns struggle all the time to bring in fresh money to keep going. Then there are the smaller one- and two-car efforts that rely on drivers who pay for their ride with either personal fortunes or corporate sponsors. They struggle to make the show and pray for the winnings to cover expenses. Although 33 cars line up to race at Indy, they are not all equal. Better funded teams have better equipment, better drivers and far less stress. But they do all have one thing in common. They are there because they are competitive and they love racing. While everyone comes to Indy to make money, money is only part of the story.

Dan Wheldon’s win was a great story and gives hope to everyone in the paddock. The Penskes and the Ganassis know that they were not beaten by a better driver or better equipment. It was race strategy and execution that allowed Weldon to win. And one more thing, a small thing called luck. His good luck and several other drivers’ bad luck.

Wheldon is a sympathetic character. He is talented, telegenic, and has a great story. He was cut from a permanent drive at the beginning of the year by lack of funding. Indy was his one chance this year to be noticed and perhaps pick up a ride for the remainder of the season or sign a contract with a big team for next season. He has won before and he knows just how important it is that the stars align for it to happen again. In an interview last week, he explained that he had several offers to drive but it was important that he have a car capable of winning. Car failure or a low place finish could mean the end of his career.

Dan Wheldon Indy 500

When his friend Bryan Herta, a respected former top driver, now team owner, called to offer him a drive, Wheldon knew this wasn’t a top team and he bluntly explained his situation and asked one question, “Can you give me a car that can win?” His friend knew that the question wasn’t about a car; it was about a team that could execute under pressure, a team that could field equipment that was capable of winning the 500 mile race. That meant a team that would always get the same quality parts and pit lane support as the big guys. Tires and engines are the key components and getting the right parts is crucial. Those parts only go to the teams that the manufacturers deem capable of winning. And everyone in the pits knows this and knows who those teams are.

In the Winner’s Circle, when Dan Wheldon thanked Firestone and Honda he meant it and he had good reason. And all the people in the pits knew exactly what he meant. They took care of him. He got top stuff. As for his sponsors, those whose money made it possible, he mentioned them and he made their year. People who have never heard of Rast jeans before Sunday might just support a company that put its name on the side of a car that went against the big guys. Lots of people and companies at Indy won with Dan Wheldon.

But the biggest winner was the Indianapolis Speedway.


Indy’s 100th:Winning is the Sum of Many Parts | Part I

Posted on June 3, 2011 Comments (0)

The Track

This past Sunday’s Indy centenary celebration was the perfect example of why the Indianapolis 500 race has survived for 100 years. It was unpredictable, exciting and the essence of what Indycar racing is all about!

Satellite view of Indianapolis Speedway

Satellite view of the Indianapolis Speedway

The original 2½ mile oval was paved with bricks, hence the nickname; “The Brickyard”. Dick Gail, the very literate former Racing Director of the Champion Spark Plug Co., called it “Grant Wood at speed.” Picture American Gothic and imagine a helmeted Parnelli Jones in the picture and you get his drift. Indy is simply a very old track on which very fast modern cars are made to adapt in order to compete. Unlike the Indianapolis Speedway, today’s ideal racetrack would be much shorter and have steeply banked corners.

100 years ago a 500 mile race on a track of this size posed unique challenges. The distance itself made simply finishing an accomplishment. Also the primary car design consideration was speed. No serious thought was given to fire prevention or safety equipment. Quite the opposite, it was felt that being thrown from an out of control car was preferable to staying in it. So survival was a factor.

Aside from instant fame, what really attracted entrants to the Speedway was the instant fortune that came with it. The event was the premier American motor race of the year and the purse was so big that entrants would modify otherwise uncompetitive dirt track race cars in an attempt to make the show and thereby win a piece of the purse. Qualifying and finishing guaranteed a handsome payday and would fund many a future race weekend, or purchase or fund the building of a newer and faster car. An entire field of purpose built Indy cars as we now know them, didn’t develop until the late forties.

Surprisingly, it is the original design of the track that 100 years later continues to pose the major challenge to competitors. Cars that travelled at 100mph on hard, narrow tires, had virtually the same problem turning quick times as today’s 250mph cars do on sticky wide ones. Indy’s long straights allow cars to travel into the corners with far more speed than the relatively flat turns will allow them to sustain. Drivers must find the proper balance of speed, power and grip that will allow them to skid, or more accurately, rotate the car so that it comes out of the corner with maximum momentum and prepared to accept the application of full power once again. Because the skidding process scrubs off speed, the wider the arc of the turn, the less the skidding and the higher the entrance and exit speed. Unfortunately, the wider arc, the greater the distance to be travelled and that represents greater time expended. The fastest time around Indy requires almost brushing the outside wall at the entrance to the turn with the outside wheel, clipping the inside edge of the track at the center of the turn with the inside front wheel and almost brushing the outside wall again at its exit. That compromise between the shortest distance and the highest speed describes the fastest way through the turn and it allows the driver to achieve a higher exit speed on the subsequent straight. Doing it consistently is the driver’s challenge.

Indianapolis 500 100th Anniversary logo

So today’s Indy cars have the same issue at the original racers. Where and when to lift off the throttle and where and when to get back into it? At one period during the evolution of the Indianapolis race car—the last days of the front engine Offenhouser powered cars—there was a short period where the tires and the car design had evolved to a point that allowed brave and talented drivers to go through Turn Four without lifting. Because cars qualified singly, everyone in the pits could hear the sound of the engine and knew when a driver lifted his foot from the gas pedal. Drivers like Foyt, Jones and Andretti were in demand because they could do it consistently whether or not they had the best car. They may be celebrated today by race fans for their wins, but they were respected in the pits for their talent and their ability to get the maximum out of a car.

Aerodynamics, tires and the suspension set-ups determine how well the chassis works. Wind speed, temperature and track conditions determine the adjustments engineers must make to the set up to maximize effectiveness of their equipment. That is the engineer’s challenge. The driver can also make his own limited adjustments to the car as the race progresses and conditions and/or competitors demand.

As the race progresses a building up of small pieces of used rubber scrubbed from the edges of the racing tires forms to the outside of the line or perfect arc. This pinches the usable line inwards and the outside wall no longer becomes the furthest usable boundary. The line where the marbles or loose rubber dirt begins, determines the outer line which becomes what drivers call the dirty area and which is visible as a different texture and gray in color. This gray area inhibits grip and the car, particularly in turns where there is sideways pressure, becomes uncontrollable and slides up into the wall as though on ice or marbles. This tightening of the racing arc or line means slower entrance and exit speeds and diminishes the actual racing surface on which cars can pass.

When Indy rookie JR Hilldebrand went into the last turn leading the Indy 500, he had one backmarker—a slower non-competitive car—between him and the chequered flag. He had two choices; back off, thus scrubbing speed, and follow the slower car through the turn on the clean line. Knowing that Dan Wheldon was not far behind and not having a car in his way, may have been able to maintain greater momentum through the turn and catch him before the finish line, Hildebrand chose instead to put two inside wheels on the clean line and two in the “gray” area and hope that his car would stick. It didn’t and he slid up into the wall and crashed. His slide took him across the line in second place.

The clean racing line is very narrow and at elevated speeds cars must have all four wheels on clean surface through the turns to perform safely.

JR Hildebrand learned that today. Dan Wheldon knew it.


Indy 500:Sunday in Indianapolis

Posted on June 10, 2010 Comments (0)

There is more to the Indy story than Dario and Danica.

indyopening

94th Indianapolis 500 Trophy Presentation

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 31:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda, poses with his wife Ashley Judd and their dogs on the yard of bricks during the 94th Indianapolis 500 Trophy Presentation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 31, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

The Indy 500 was run on Sunday and the packed grandstands and pre-race pomp puts lie to the oft expressed feeling that the event is now only a shadow of its former self.

This is still apple pie and the homeland. Never mind that only 9 of the 33 competitors for the huge payday are American.  As to the field, an argument could be made that in the history of the race, the number of real contenders in the 33 car starting field has not really changed.  What may have changed are the number of inexperienced  drivers who qualified for this year’s race, and the nature of the race itself.

Indy has always been a huge payday for oval racers.  In days past, journeymen and winning racers would attempt to qualify whatever they had in order to make the field and a decent payday. Today, competitive equipment is available to all, but the number properly funded teams and drivers qualified to win is still limited.

There are two kinds of drivers in any race. Both are talented but one is a racer by nature, a competitive person who can make his way to the front by driving aggressively, taking chances and seemingly willing his way past other drivers. They only race to win. The others may be equally talented, but for any number of reasons, they are less willing to take chances and are more inclined to wait for things to happen rather than making them happen. People in the pits know who the racers are before they get to the track.

Five rookies made the field. Four women also made the race, including, of course, the talented, but at times difficult, Danica Patrick. She finished seventh and proclaimed herself pleased with her car and her performance. Danica had a tough PR month and it’s hard to believe she was pleased with anything.

carsinindypit

Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 30:  Will Power of Australia, driver of the #12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara Honda, makes a pit stop during the IZOD IndyCar Series 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 30, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Only 14 cars completed the 200 laps, but another 6 talented and competitive drivers completed as many as 198 laps, including Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway, who’s dramatic crash brought the racing to an end for the day. Looking down the list of finishers, there is no shortage of participating talent, yet one third of the starting field crashed.

In part, this is due to the fact that while quick enough to qualify, a number of the drivers are too inexperienced to be racing with the big boys all day long. The Indy 500 is a tough place to be getting experience.

Another reason is plainly the nature of modern racing. Modern racing tires shed rubber as they wear. This rubber collects in small chunks on the outside of the preferred racing line and narrows the actual racing surface of the track. Going off-line with hot tires picks up these cast off pieces of rubber, unbalances the wheel and makes the car difficult to drive and uncompetitive, necessitating a pit stop and loss of position to change tires. Going off-line can also mean a loss of grip and a crash.

Before this phenomena, faster drivers drove around slower cars or slower cars were expected to move off-line to let them by. Because moving off-line is so dangerous now, leaders will not move around to pass and expect the slower cars to move onto the dirty surface and get out of the way. Imagine Graham Rahal’s surprise and chagrin when race officials black-flagged him for not moving off- line to let the race leader by. He qualified 7th and finished 12th, but his drive-thru penalty arguably cost him a chance at the win. It could also be argued that this decision would never have been an issue before soft compound tires. Uncompetitive drivers place a heavy burden on race officials because they are charged with getting them out of the way by drivers who are racing for a win.

indyfinish

Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS - MAY 30:  Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda, celebrates in victory circle after winning the IZOD IndyCar Series 94th running of the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 30, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

500 miles at Indy generally separates the drivers from the racers and the racers did well today. Marco Andretti started 16th and finished 3rd. Dan Weldon started 18th and finished 2nd. Tony Kanaan charged from 33rd and at one point was 2nd. Those are the racers fans pay to see and despite the fact that one of the great all-times chargers, Paul Tracy, didn’t make the show, the fans got their money’s worth.

In the end, a well funded team with an experienced crew and racer started 3rd and won the race. Isn’t that what racing is all about today?

pb