INDIANAPOLIS – Reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power has never felt more comfortable in the calamitous confines of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
After several seasons of struggling with left-hand turns, the road-course specialist seemed to solve the ovals during his 2014 title season. His No. 1 Chevrolet has been the fastest around the flat and famous 2.5-mile layout for most of this month (including in Friday’s final practice).
Yet he knows it’s an illusory sense of security.
Surrounded by pervasive reminders of Indy’s inherent danger, Power said he and the other 32 drivers will climb into their cockpits for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 and attempt to gloss over a lingering question that has hung over this year’s race like a black fog of exhaust scented with ethanol and dread.
Why are their redesigned cars taking flight at an alarming rate after spinning backward at 200 mph-plus?
“I just think you got to shut it out and lie to yourself,” Power said. “You just bullshit yourself. That’s what you do. Make excuses for why it’s justifiable.”
The specter of being seriously hurt – James Hinchcliffe was critically injured in a crash Monday after a steel rod pierced his leg – adds a portentous throwback element to an event that is enjoying a remarkable period of relatively safe racing.
It’s been 19 years since Scott Brayton marked the last driver death during May at Indy – a far cry from a half-century ago when a fiery wreck on the second lap killed drivers Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald in 1964.
But there’s another connection to that era this season.
The 99th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will mark the debut of newfangled aesthetics and aerodynamics that hearken back to when Indy was a test bed for auto manufacturers and exotic cars with innovative components, and engines were annually rolled across the yard of bricks.
Through hundreds of new parts attached to the chassis, the new aero kits of Chevrolet and Honda have added flair to a circuit that has bordered on homogenous after enduring a run of nearly a decade as a virtual “spec” series in which every car had the same chassis and engine combination.
“I think the fans can look at a Chevy or Honda and instantly tell the difference,” said team owner Chip Ganassi, whose driver Scott Dixon will start on the pole position Sunday as a co-favorite with Power (who qualified second). “That’s a good thing. I think the fact that you have … there are still things being developed on these cars that make their way to road cars. The fact the cars can sit in the pits and run on a couple of cylinders and how they’re managing the fuel mixtures, those are all things that are tested here over and over again for different conditions that make their way into (street) cars.”
The aero kits have been a refreshing change for venerable team owner Roger Penske, whose teams have won a record 15 Indy 500s while fielding cars here for five decades.
“Turbines, 4-wheel drive cars, 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder, V8 … we once had all these things running at the same time,” Penske said. “I think that’s what we’re trying to do with the aero kits. I think there’s a lot of ingenuity available. I’ve never seen our engineering guys work harder at understanding how we can go faster.”
The ultimate goal is a return to the jaw-dropping speeds that have defined Indy – next year, series officials want to promote an assault on the 236.986 mph qualifying record of Arie Luyendyk that has stood since ’96.
But the buzz surrounding the aero kits has been dampened considerably in the past 10 days by four crashes – all of which involved cars lifting off to varying degrees — that had IndyCar scurrying for safety enhancements while its teams and manufacturers scrambled for solutions.
It caused a delay of several hours to Sunday’s qualifying after Ed Carpenter’s crash that morning, prompting IndyCar to alter technical specifications to slow the cars down and also raising questions about whether the oval debut of aero kits – which had been raced only on road and street courses this season – had resulted in the spate of airborne incidents.
There isn’t an answer entering Sunday’s race.
“We have to understand what it is that’s making it fly,” Power said. “Is it the fact there’s just been more crashes, and (the cars) would have flown anyway? That’s up to IndyCar and engineering to understand why. Is it just a coincidence they’ve crashed more?”
Said Ganassi: “Obviously, we have concern about it. The thing to remember is historically, there have been four or five crashes a year here, maybe more. I think the important thing to remember, were those guys airborne? Yes. Is it dangerous? Yes. The safety in the cars is there.”
There is a general paddock consensus that the knee-jerk reactions to the wrecks is unusual at Indy and perhaps the confluence of a hypersensitivity to the new aero kits and a 21st century environment of greater scrutiny.
“There were years in the past when Indy had a horrific amount of accidents,” said 1998 Indy 500 winner and ABC analyst Eddie Cheever Jr. “Unexplained things that went wrong. The sport never has been as safe as it is now. I think there’s just a tendency right now that everybody has a Twitter or Facebook account or some way of communicating what their anger is, and whenever something negative happens, that becomes a thing.”
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The aero kits were birthed in the hope of creating a “thing” that would hook those who had become disenchanted with the lack of identifiable cars and ingenious directions in IndyCar.
Former series CEO Randy Bernard formed a panel to select a new chassis that would attract and enthuse fans, manufacturers and sponsors.
The choice was a Dallara with plenty of options for mounting bodywork on the front and rear wings, engine cover and sidepods. The idea was intended to spur open competition among manufacturers without requiring them to build new cars.
“I don’t feel we’re announcing a car but a new way to tackle motor sports,” 2003 Indianapolis 500 winner Gil de Ferran, a member of the committee, said when the design was unveiled via hologram in a splashy gala at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, another member of the panel, said the goal was adding uniqueness while maintaining the cost control that had resulted in a mostly generic generation of Indy cars.
“We thought about how could you incorporate some of the characteristics, which are muted, compared to the old days,” Gossage said. “Even if you couldn’t put it into the shape of the car, you might put it into the graphics of the car, so that each had their own distinctive look, and you’d look and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s a Chevy. That’s a Honda.’ That was the genesis of the whole concept of being distinctly different.”
The centerpiece of that philosophy always has been Indianapolis Motor Speedway, whose 16th Street entrance greets visitors with a museum that painstakingly details the evolution of its race cars from front-engine roadsters to rear-engine, turbocharged rocketships.
“We all have to accept the day is gone that you can build a car in your garage, literally push it down the street to the speedway and maybe steal the Indy 500 from everybody else,” Gossage said. “That was certainly once the narrative.
“I think that’s what is missing from American motor sports today all around is the thought that you could outsmart the other teams by coming up with something more clever, and that’s tough. Whether it’s a side car or a turbine engine, those are the exciting things on the cars sitting in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame and Museum.”
Aero kits symbolically represent a small link to those bygone days.
“It’s a great way to the future for IndyCar,” said 2000 Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, who will start 15th. “It’s something they needed so people can differentiate between the cars”
Oriol Servia, whose No. 32 Honda will sport a yellow paint scheme Sunday that mirrors that driven by inaugural Indy 500 winner Ray Harroun in 1911, said it’s sparked storylines that have been absent from the series.
“I think there’s been a lot of good things about it and technical talk of how the two different aero packages work, look and drive,” Servia said. “All that educates, and it attracts the fan. I always think the more information you give to the fan, the better chance there’s going to be something in that information that is going to capture them. It’s created a good buzz going in for the series.”
But there are others, namely Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti, who have expressed reservations about whether the aero kits deliver exposure commensurate with the costs – particularly when the Indy 500 has delivered enthralling finishes since the debut of the DW12 chassis that provides the aero kits framework.
In three races with the chassis, the Indy 500 has produced the record for lead changes (68 in Tony Kannan’s 2013 win) and the second-highest total (34 last year and in ’12).
“I’m all for innovation and development and technology,” defending Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay said. “But this series showcases its best product, when it’s wheel to wheel all the way through the pack. That’s what we’ve had since 2012-14.
“You want to see the latest and greatest, and you want to see a new package, a new development that equals speed and performance. How you bottle that up and put it on a track, we’re trying to do that, but it’s a bit of an experiment for sure.
“We’re going into a gray area on the track where you don’t know what you’re going to have. In years past, it’s been an automatic: Tilt the rear wing, and you know what you’re going to get. Now it’s not so straightforward. It’s been interesting. Whether it’s the answer and the right direction has yet to be seen.”
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The lack of experience and information about the aero kits also might have contributed to the rash of airborne crashes. After Helio Castroneves’ Chevy completed a full somersault last month, Team Penske learned he was running on old tires with a setup that produced less downforce than he had for qualifying last year – putting the three-time Indy 500 winner in a precarious situation.
The oval aero kits hardly had been tested on track before this month’s Indy debut.
“We just needed more testing,” Kanaan said. “I think that was the only downside of it.
“We knew it was a risk. That was always a top topic. It’s the biggest race of the year, so it’s easy to say now that it’s done, but I think everyone is working together to make it better.”
But several veterans dismissed that as being a factor, noting the lack of effectiveness in testing a car turning backwards and the extenuating circumstances in each of the four incidents this month. Hinchcliffe’s crash was a result of a part failure, and Josef Newgarden wrecked because of a flat tire.
“It’s getting blown out of proportion,” Carpenter said. “As drivers, we understand the consequences. We’re still here.”
Said Montoya: “It’s a reality is what it is. If you’re concerned about it, you shouldn’t be driving the freaking car. No?”
There also is the notion, too, that the death-defying aspects of racing also form a large part of its appeal.
“To see people so skilled that they can do things that us mere mortals can’t,” Gossage said. “Speed is and will always be a dangerous business.”
Servia compared his job with tightrope walker Nik Wallenda.
“If the guy would be doing it three feet from the ground, he’d have zero audience,” Servia said. “We’re a little bit the daredevils of the sport. We’re going really fast in an open cockpit. We all accept that. It’s part of it, really. Like it or not, it’s part of what makes us like it. It’s when you know there’s a little bit on the line because it really takes something special to do it.
“At the same time, you’d like to have it as safe as possible. It’d be stupid not to for the cars, the drivers and the fans.”
Said Kanaan: “I really don’t know the answer for the fix, but I know we’re working extremely closely with the two manufacturers to try to understand it. I feel confident for this weekend.
“Racing is not safe. We all know the risks we take every day. I’m willing to take them.”