It's used as a line – somewhat jokingly, but somewhat accurately – in the Will Ferrell NASCAR satire film Talladega Nights. No, it's not “Shake ‘n bake,” but rather, the precursor to the Ricky Bobby/Cal Naughton Jr. catchphrase – “slingshot, engaged.”
Although the movie is about as far removed from open-wheel's largest U.S. race, the Indianapolis 500, the “slingshot, engaged” line might be the best way to describe how some of the action will unfold in this year's 96th running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The bottom line is that the tow this year is substantially increased from last year's venerable Dallara IR03 to the new-for-2012 Dallara DW12. With a car that punches a much greater hole in the air, figuring out how close to be behind another car is going to be one of the key strategies during the race.
“You can really see it. If you make the corners flat (out), and being within three car-lengths, you'll get sucked in,” explains Alex Tagliani, who's understandably bullish about his chances having both a Honda and running with defending champion team Bryan Herta Autosport. “If your car isn't as good, and you're maybe four lengths back, you'll still be able to suck in three, but you'll just getting right on their back.”
This is where the timing element comes into play. “Getting closer, you get more disturbed, and if you lift, you become a sitting duck,” he says. “The timing of the draft is very important, but you also have to stay within the appropriate distance to pick up the tow and get by the guy.”
There's been some mention that the hole punched by the rear wing on the DW12 is the closest to the Handford device, the Mark Handford creation that ran in CART superspeedway races at Michigan and California Speedways from 1998 through 2001 (RIGHT) and made it almost to the point where as the leader, one was a sitting duck.
Seven drivers (Tagliani, Oriol Servia, Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Michel Jourdain Jr.) have Handford experience in this year's 500, and as Jourdain explains, it's more the power than the aerodynamics that is the biggest difference.
“We had so much more power back then,” says Jourdain, who as a veteran of the CART era notes the cars were easily over 800-900hp on ovals, at least 200-250 more than now. “Right now, it seems you have to work hard to stay close to the guy in front. The draft with that was so much bigger, in part, because you had a lot more power.”
So how will the drivers judge when to go and when to hold back? Charlie Kimball, the Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver making his second ‘500 start, says much of the first half of the race will see drivers plotting how to make their car work in the tow depending on the level of downforce and where they're running.
“It's a lot more consistent with an Indy Lights race, timing-wise, I think,” he suggests. “With only one year in the old car, I didn't really build any timing habits. Guys will work on it and play with things in the first 100 laps. You might get freight trained and cycle backwards, but take a breath and know you can really recover from it.”
Kimball and James Hinchcliffe would know as their Indy Lights races – particularly in 2010 (LEFT) when they finished second and third to Wade Cunningham (a 500 rookie this year) – tended to produce some incredible racing based on drafting. Hinchcliffe was more definitive about how he thinks people will play the tow game, and what he'd do if someone attempts a deep maneuver into a corner.
“If a guy hits the afterburner after coming from about five or six car lengths back, they might have the confidence to make a move,” he says. “There's two options, the guy in front can either make a self-preservation move by turning in on line, or save it, back out of it, and end up in the gray and the wall. It's going to be tempting to try. But I'll say this – if I can't see your helmet out of the side of my car, I'm turning in on you. I'd rather crash out from contact with you than back out and end up in the wall on my own.”
Hinchcliffe's Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay adds, “With a car about three-quarters good, you might love being able to come back up thanks to the great big tow. But if you have a really fast car, you might not like it, because you'll be towing a train along. I think cars that aren't 100 percent speed or balance-wise could be a factor in this race.”
One driver uniquely qualified to comment on another different type of tow in comparison to the one created by the DW12 is Simon Pagenaud. The Indianapolis rookie has a bounty of experience in sports cars, and is accustomed to running in traffic with multiple classes of cars. While his Peugeot 908 was able to slice and dice through slower GT cars a year ago, it wasn't exactly able to run in lockstep with the rival Audi R18 TDI.
“You'd think it is, but actually, running in a tow at Le Mans is not easy,” Pagenaud says. “The issue last year was not being able to run close to the Audi in high speed corners. Here, when you get close, you lose the front end a little bit – but the speeds between the two aren't exactly the same.”
What of breaking the tow? Scott Dixon said last year that was an easy task if one was to pull out a four or five-second gap on the straights, but this year, it will be harder to dominate or pull away.
Completing the pass, once in a tow, is then difficult given the same horsepower levels and spec cars. There's still plenty of differences, of course, between the Chevrolet and Honda engines, but not enough to where passing will be easy once you get a run.
“Pulling aside, you'll still have to have a great run to complete the overtaking,” says Panther/DRR's Servia. “Otherwise it's the same drag. We don't really know how it will play out, but we'll all be bunched together and it should be very interesting!”
With the uncertainty over how the tow will play out in the race, the old adage “catching them is one thing, passing them another” certainly seems apropos.