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?”It's easy to see why Mears was one of Vasser's heroes. They both preach analysis of the car while driving at 220mph. “There's a big difference between what I'm telling them for Indy, and what I'm telling them for the high-banked ovals,” states Rick. “The flatness of Indy means there's a lot more work with the engineer in trying to find the optimum setup. It's not so much of a pattern-driven track. When the short line is the quick way around the track, you don't have as much leeway to tune the car and change the balance or where you put it, as you do at Indy. Around there, you lift, maybe angle the car so you back the corner up, and roll in easier so you can get on the throttle sooner in order to lengthen your straightaway, that kind of thing.”
If lapping Indy is different from any other circuit, then racing it is something else again. Says Rutherford: “Handling in traffic is something you just have to learn through practice and in the races. One of the most critical times in the Indy 500 is the start, when everyone is bunched together and you've really got to be focused and heads-up and be alert to anything that might cause you problems.”
But once you're out of the 33-car pack, getting the handling tuned for dealing with traffic becomes the priority. Rutherford observes: “Most drivers brought up as road racers like to have the car understeer on an oval, because it helps them feel like they've got more control of it, but the quick way around Indianapolis is to have it neutral. Sometimes, drivers can't do that: They've got to have that feeling that it's pushing going into the corner, but the problem that they encounter then is that's all they've got. You can't combat it. These current cars don't have the power to neutralize understeer with the throttle, so you have to take a certain trajectory through the corner and if a backmarker interrupts that, you have to back right off to accommodate him. On the other hand, if you've got your car neutral, you can take it up a foot or down a foot and it will still behave faithfully.”
By the time you're passing backmarkers in the Indy 500, the actual driving of the racecar should be coming naturally, freeing you up to coolly analyze everything that's going on around you. Mears, for example, believes there is a tendency for drivers to become over-reliant on their spotters.
“Your spotter is just a back-up,” he states firmly. “As a driver, you should already know what's going on. If you're aware, then you can make moves that you wouldn't be able to if you waited on someone to tell you. I never had a spotter – and you should see the look on these kids' faces when I tell them that. Well, I think they should be able to do without a spotter if they're doing everything else the way they should be.”
Vasser concurs. “Mario [Moraes] was bloody quick last year at Indy, but what happened? An accident at the first corner. We at KV say Marco [Andretti] took him out – Marco had no business on the outside of that turn, on Mario's right rear. He's still a kid himself, and I'm sure his grandpa and his dad told him that on the first lap of a 500-mile race, you don't go to the outside of a guy that you've recently claimed to be a danger!
“But the other side of it is that Mario didn't have his eye on that mirror to know that Marco was there. So he wasn't visualizing and anticipating the way someone like Paul Tracy will. Paul may be KV's best bet for the 500 just from his huge experience alone. Experience on an oval is immensely important. You don't see a lot of rookies run up front straight away at Indy.”
But if there's one saying that should ring in the ears of all 33 drivers – rookies and veterans alike – who take the green at Indy on Sunday May 30, it should be the advice that Rutherford passes on to all young racers. “If you only think you can, don't!”