First of all, in light of last week's news that the Auto Club Speedway's season-closer for the IZOD IndyCar Series is now a 500-mile race, I want to say that it's great that there's a 500 away from Indianapolis for the first time in a long time. For Southern California to hold a Saturday night race under the lights is a fitting finale to the 2012 season. It brings an interesting dynamic that we normally only see at Indy.
Suddenly, there's a premium placed on several aspects of race craft and preparation. It's not a single dimensional event. We'll make at least seven pit stops and have a 500-mile-style fuel tank which is gravity-fed, so the last three or four stops, with less tank pressure, means the fuel feed really slows. (Tire guys will be at ease when the car leaves!)
Next our four drivers from the beginning of practice will concentrate exclusively on race setup. Chip always says: “Practice Fast.” It's about practicing with the intention to be good for several long runs. In a normal race, you might get one long green. This means that in practice sessions, you have to put your car into race trim quickly, find traffic, and simulate race condition at speed. Those are the key things to consider from our perspective. Most important – in my opinion, it's about time we had multiple 500-milers.
Fuel mileage seems to be a continued topic of conversation. The objective isn't necessarily to go further than your neighbor; it's also about putting less fuel in the tank under a full-course yellow in order to speed up the pit stop. Less fuel means jumping your neighbor. Naturally, it's about how fast a driver can run while saving a bit of fuel – to “get the fuel number,” as we say. How strong the racecar can be for the last third of a run while making fuel is what you focus on in practice.
For the ovals, spotters are a key element. They have to really watch what their driver is doing compared to other drivers, and that becomes even more critical in a 500-mile race than in a 200-300-mile race, because with the aero spec chosen for Fontana, the cars will start to slide. So you want to create a good, frictionless arc through the corners. This keeps the tires strong for as long as possible. The quality of info from the spotter to the driver makes a large difference as the race unfolds. Good ones don't just say, “clear, quarter-back, on your corner.”
And, being a night race, rather than a daylight one like Indy, track conditions will really change over the course of this 500-mile event. Our drivers are going to be chasing the racetrack more than they do at Indy. We rely on them to keep us informed about the changes necessary during the pit stops. Telemetry helps, but the driver tells us if he can drive it after the changes are made. We're limited to wings and tire pressure, but given the stiff contraction of the tire, one pound of tire pressure can dramatically change the dynamic spring rate, which really affects the cross-weight balance.
It's easy to get up for a race with so much challenge. It should be really fast for the last segment of the race.
Finishing the race is the obvious priority so you work backwards to determine when engines need to be changed. The engine rules as they've stood this year, with cars getting 10-place grid penalties if they need an engine change, is something that needs review, and I think it needs to be altered before the end of the year. Putting quick drivers back down the grid makes for great television, but does little for the Championship, unless you could be awarded points for number of cars passed. The fact is, all the regulation has done is penalize the drivers and the teams, neither of whom has anything to do with the engine reliability. It's just plug-and-play for us. It's not as if we're exchanging engines to improve performance; we're doing it after a failure or when Honda, GM, or Lotus tell a team that that the unit is going to break before it reaches 1,850 miles. Why should we pay the price for that?
Looked at another way: if we want to change a ring-and-pinion before a race due to high mileage, we do that because we want to finish the race. You might stretch component miles during practice, but there's too much at stake to risk leaving high mileage parts on the car. What next: spec miles for suspension?
Starting races with engines at the high end of their mileage should be granted some leniency especially in the first year of a new engine formula. In fairness to the engine companies, it's a new formula, with lots of challenge. The Honda-Ilmor normally aspirated engine that was replaced for this year had quite a few seasons to become totally reliable. If we want to change an engine to ensure we get to the end of the race, we're penalized. Explain to me how that works! It's completely out of a team's control.
Looking back to the start of June, Detroit was a great weekend for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, especially on the No. 9 Target car. Scott and Dario left the Indianapolis 500 very energized to continue their momentum, but you never feel confident you're going to win. You can feel you're at your best, the car's capable, and the team practices to be flawless – but you know that you can still lose track position if the yellows fall badly for your pit sequence. I'll take full responsibility for ruining it for Scott at Detroit in 2008, while leading; the yellows flew, we thought everyone would pit, as we were at half-tanks, but we were the only front-runner who did. That lost him track position which on a street race leaves you with a very uphill battle. So the decision-making and when the yellows happen make a huge difference. That's constantly on your mind when you're watching the race unfold. Everything has to be on your side – and that includes luck. Being the last to pit sometimes carries significant consequence.
That crossed my mind in Iowa, too, as the yellow on lap 176 brought the No. 9 Target car to the pit lane and Roger Penske brought in Ryan Briscoe – and no other car on the lead lap came in! Thinking – good company to be with RP, but why did the rest stay out? The calculator said that with the length of this yellow, that there was only one more stop to come, so it was logical to take it under a caution. Pitting under green at Iowa would lose you almost two full laps! When others pitted, Scott and Briscoe would cycle to the front of the pack and hopefully the No. 9 would still be leading when all pitted for the final time. OK, I know we fell back in first part of the final stint, though only by five seconds, but to me that strategy made sense; you always want your driver to be at the head of the line when all are “full to finish.”
We didn't plan on Briscoe finding trouble – if that wouldn't have happened, the rest of the leaders would have had to pit under green with a potential splash at the end for them. We'd have been happy to match everyone else green stop for green stop with those odds. It would have made the result very boring, and the TV guys left trying to explain what just happened.
Dario should have been very much in the Iowa mix too. He had a very fast racecar but his engine failed on the final pace lap. His Target car was flawless in the heat race, and his setup meant he could have led from the start. Perhaps it goes back to what was said earlier about teams being required to run engines at the end of their life. However, it continues to amaze me how Dario finds the nuance of each different type of IndyCar track to gain a speed advantage – impressive to see up close. Enthusiasm for today's task combined with experience is great to have on your side.
The heat races were a mixed blessing; everyone had plenty to lose for zero gain. We were two-for-four, as both Dario and Graham won their respective heats. Graham's Service Central car won his heat but, the way the rules were laid out, he didn't get an opportunity to transfer – really? It did give an opportunity to work on the racecars with 30 laps-worth of fuel. Unfortunately, that was the only benefit, because there was nothing coming back to us in terms of points or financial reward. I think IndyCar needs to alter the format in terms of how you qualify, transfer and earn points and/or prize money. The action in the heat races was put into perspective by the USAC races; the midget race, in particular, was unbelievable! That was an indication that when a full field races at Iowa, it's an amazing show.
Sorry – a bit out of calendar sequence – Graham Rahal's professionalism in the wake of his disappointment at Texas Motor Speedway was impressive. His Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was running right at front all night, and he drove with his ingrained talent but also with solid maturity. Afterward, he candidly talked about his mistake, but I really wish there had been more attention to detail at technical inspection, because the car that Graham was working so hard to clear when he brushed the wall was one that did not comply with the regulations.
It is terribly disappointing to think that Justin Wilson could have been a legal winner if attention to detail was employed a bit closer in pre-tech as for the entire weekend his car was carrying illegal parts. They were aero exhaust cover panels that were allowed at the Indy 500 but were removed by official bulletin as a part of the changes for Texas, and in plain sight. The Dallara aero figures for the panels are 11lbs of drag-reduction which Dallara's aero data said at TMS should be worth 1mph! Do you think that they made a difference? If removed prior to the start, IndyCar would have had a complete positive from Texas.
Bigger Picture…we learned that the drivers can indeed run with a different aero spec that led to a terrific oval race. That should indicate to everyone that IndyCar does listen, and made the changes requested by the drivers to make us better. It was a great step to showing that we can race well on bigger ovals with a “spec” car that can go more than one way. The real winner was IndyCar, TMS, the teams, drivers, and most importantly, the fans.
Milwaukee, infamously, was a tough one for the Target half of Chip Ganassi Racing. Dario hit the fence, and Scott received a bogus call from Race Control that buried him in the field after we had worked so hard to come back from the rear of the qualifying grid. The difference in qualifying between Dario and Scott was down to their respective setups, which are very different because their drive styles around the Milwaukee Mile are so different. Dario is always better in Turns 1 and 2, while Dixon is better in 3 and 4.
As it happens, Dario took an excellent pole position and Scott ended up qualifying 11th and then starting 21st because of a 10-place grid penalty for an “unapproved” engine change. Dixon's previous engine had run its course so was changed to a fresh one. That fresh one broke at the Iowa test with just 60 miles on it. Once again, it seems that there needs to be some practical tolerance within the framework. No matter whether racing or testing, you pay the penalty.
Let's clearly say that anything could have happened to Scott between Race Control's call and the final lap – he could have been wrong place/wrong time, you never know what might have happened, so you can't definitively say where we'd have finished… but he was fast enough to be at the pointed end of the finishing order. During the race at Milwaukee, you wait each year to watch for the guy who can drop to the bottom of the track coming out of Turn 4 to continually complete a pass by Turn 1. Remember when Mike Mosley did it from the back in 1981? It's been that way since roadsters raced there. Whoever's able to do that will be very fast on race day; and as we're watching, that's what Scott was doing and no one else was able to do it. He had an exceptional car and did what most said can't happen at Milwaukee in a spec series – passed a lot of cars.
The first time that we knew that Race Control was looking at Dixon was when we were issued the drive-through penalty and that was it. None of us realized what we'd done wrong until the TV interview with replay, as it showed that the penalty was for jumping an aborted restart. As president of competition Beaux Barfield explained to us afterward, the starter controls the restart, and he thought that the first place car left early, so it was waved off. They relied on a time clock to find the video which wasn't accurately set prior to the race start. At that point, if you watch the replay, more than one car was out of line, as they were trying not to hit each other.
How are you punished for that? Beaux Barfield explained the technical glitch was that the time clock was off by one full yellow lap, which meant they were reviewing the wrong restart! His absolute honesty was appreciated. He told the media that we'd been gracious in accepting his explanation. We don't race in a court of public opinion, as we're totally reliant upon sound judgment and attention to detail by those who keep us between the lines.
All of us are guilty of making mistakes – I've made many in my career in racing – but it's how you respond to make yourself better that's the crucial thing. Meanwhile, we have to suck it up and accept that the points lost that day are now a memory, they're not magically going to reappear, so it's a case of keeping our heads down and working to earn our way to the very top of the championship table. This deal isn't easy, as there are a lot of quality drivers/teams who will have their share of fortune and the alternative till the final Fontana lap.
So onto the Canadian races and all of us enjoy going to Toronto. The passionate crowd for Honda Indy Toronto is special. It is a real international event. It makes for a very special weekend which has been true since the first one was held back in 1986 won by Mr. Rahal, Sr. With some street events, the configuration changes, but at Toronto, we're still in the same locale with the same track. The Green-Savoree group do a great job of getting the community involved, just as they do at the St. Petersburg event, and it pays off. The Canadian population will be aware that there's a huge race in the heart of their largest city. It's an easy commute from the USA, so if not this year, be sure to see the city plus the race next year.
Expect this weekend's race to be excellent. The crucial factor will be the timing of the pit stops, the first one in particular. For all of us, the primary objective in practice is to find grip in braking zones and on corner exits in relation to fresh tires and used tires. With hard-core street racing, that's the work load. Push-to-pass reappears, so the two straights will get plenty of action from all grid positions.
Finally, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas continue to lead the Grand-Am Rolex Series with their TELMEX BMW. After good races and race craft, the TELMEX Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team and drivers have proven their quality. They keep their heads down and focus on consistency; they never get agitated and throw away strong results on days when they don't have the fastest car. Instead, they make the best of everything, consolidate their position at the head of the table, and then pounce when they get the chance.
Scott and Memo's chance came in Round 7, when they drove with great skill to their first win of the year and in a classic setting – Road America! John Henneck and Ken Brooks gave Tim Keene some great pit options to get them to the front, and winning there continues to be very special. Road America is one of the best overall road tracks in the world and can showcase any series.
Consistency is the key to the Rolex Series with different engine companies, chassis, and world-class drivers – almost a “throwback” to the pure side of motor racing with its variation held to a strict standard by Grand-Am. Our guys should be in it to the finale in Lime Rock and hopefully with a strong position to race for the title once more.
Thanks for reading.
• Follow Target Chip Ganassi Racing at @TCGRteams, follow Service Central Chip Ganassi Racing and Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing at @CGRteams