If you want to learn how to race an Indy car on an oval, you could do a lot worse than listen to Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and Jimmy Vasser – which is why we chose them for an oval-racing 101 in the June issue of RACER. How does Rick advise Will Power, who's still way short of oval miles compared to his principal rivals and teammates? What does Jimmy tell Takuma Sato who's just completed his first oval race (very impressively!)? And what words of wisdom can “Lone Star J.R.” pass on to any of the novices in both Indy Lights and the IZOD IndyCar Series?
It was an enlightening and absorbing experience for the interviewer, to say the least, but while we had the experts' attention, it seemed smart to look ahead to the 2010 Indy 500 because in terms of learning, adapting, lapping and engineering, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a separate entity altogether. The 1.5-mile ovals on IndyCar's 2010 schedule are very much car-dependent, while the Brickyard, with its huge speeds and minimal banking, is a place where a driver can and will make a difference. Current championship leader Power describes Indy as “the last of the men's ovals now that Milwaukee's gone,” and both he and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Justin Wilson have likened the Indy turns to hyper-speed road course corners.
Says Wilson: “The turns are pretty flat and you don't get that bowl effect that can mask a car's handling problems at Iowa and Kentucky. At Indy, you're taking the corners in a slight four-wheel drift and it's a lot of fun. That sensation you get when you've gone in hard and on the perfect line, and the turn releases you out onto the straights, is just great. When the timing data backs up what you felt, that's a very cool feeling.”
It takes a while to get into that zone, though, especially for a driver who's about to embark on just his third 500.
“The first few times through Turn 1 each year are daunting,” Wilson admits. “Your turn-in point is critical because if you're too early or too late, you know the accident's going to hurt. You're trying not to focus on the wall or the grandstand, but it's hard not to because the track looks like it's disappearing to your left!”
Rutherford, who has three Indy 500 wins to his name, sympathizes. “Yeah, Turn 1 hides from you because of all the grandstands. I've always said that's why we spend so much time at Indy practicing before qualifying. It's so drivers can blunt their nerve-endings!”
As one of the IZOD IndyCar Series' driver coaches, as well as the pace car driver, Rutherford observes the rookies are not going to be able to carry much of the knowledge they acquired at Kansas to the Brickyard.
“Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a whole different ballgame,” he states. “They're going to go faster than they've ever gone, and they have to develop a real sense of timing in relation to that speed. It's pretty daunting to go there and have a turn approaching you at 230mph. With this current formula, if the car is right and you're on fresh tires, you may crack the throttle just a little but you're almost taking the turns flat-out. Some guys pick up on it quick, others take a little time. It's a strange sensation to have lateral-g on you – and for that long – while you're going that fast.”
Mears, the four-time Indy 500 winner who is driver coach for Indy Lights as well as an advisor for Team Penske's drivers, observes: “Will [Power] came to Penske last year from a team that was new to these cars, so 2009 was like starting over for him. His first oval in a Penske was the Indy 500. There, we got into the subtleties, teaching him to find the feeling you get from the rear of the car before something happens. On road courses, you do what you do after it happens, catching the car – reflex driving. Ovals – speedways in particular – are all about ‘feel' driving and anticipation, so you need to read the signals that the car's about to do something, not wait until it does because, by then, it's too late.”
The tutoring worked, no question about it. As Power recalls, “At Indy last year, I took my time coming up to speed, building my confidence, and I qualified on the third row. And then during the race, too, I built up to speed gradually, and we were running second to Helio, about two seconds behind him and it was only the last pit stop that dropped us to fifth.”
Vasser, who has thrown himself into the tutoring of KV Racing's IndyCar Series rookie Takuma Sato, concurs with Mears' view that a driver needs to develop a feel and an ability to analyze. “If you send the driver out and you ask him what it's doing and he says, ‘Nothing', then you know he's not at the limit of the car yet. You want to be able to feel the right rear, and if it starts to move a little bit, you want to be thinking about it. If it starts to understeer, that's a more secure feeling. So I need to get to the point where the guys are going into a turn and their brains are turning over, analyzing what the right front is doing, what the right rear is doing, where's the grip limit. And if it's always perfect no matter how fast you're going, then it's a perfectly balanced racecar – which doesn't exist!
“There's always some movement somewhere,” Vasser continues, “and there's a mental graph that should be developing, so you can plot how that movement pertains to new tires versus old, or full tanks versus near empty. Do you want to make the car better on the last 10 laps of each run, on older tires, or do you want to maximize the advantage of fresh tires but you're on a heavy fuel load?”