IMS and IndyCar owner joins insider Nathan Brown on a special edition of Pit Pass Live. Indianapolis Star
We’re told they’re a “different breed”, but that doesn’t mean they drive without nerves. For a weekend – or day, really – like Saturday’s IndyCar season-opener at Texas Motor Speedway, that “different breed” motto will be shown with equal parts grit and patience.
It’s staring straight into a blinding sunset flying into Turn 3, the glare of the debut aeroscreen blanketing everything in stark white for a split-second that takes you hundreds of feet down the track, yet trusting your fists to steer you clear of the competitor just inches from your front wing.
It’s accepting the 35-lap tire stint limit, even if your premier strength is fuel saving, and finding another way to try to outlast the rest this week, while spending time on strategy calls via Zoom instead of at the race shop.
It’s going into your first-ever IndyCar race, just days after simply getting back into the country, and casting all those stresses aside. It’s hopping into the car with a familiar team, but one you didn’t plan to start the season with, while fighting for your right to run a full-season in 2021 the old-fashioned way.
It’s searching deep inside to find the joy, but not the carelessness, that iRacing competitions bred, and not forgetting to smile occasionally while while engulfed in the stomach-twisting butterflies brought on by it all.
“I’m nervous. I think everybody is nervous,” Graham Rahal said. “If you’re not nervous, I’d be concerned about the head that you have on your shoulders, because you’re going to probably one of the most intense tracks of the year, and you’re going there without testing. You’re going there without much practice. You’re going there without knowing what these tires may bring for us this weekend. You’re going there without knowing what exactly is the aeroscreen going to do to us on a track like that.”
The unknowns – that’s what Texas typically breeds. The data drawn from in-depth tests on the 1.5-mile oval just outside Fort Worth don’t often play out much when deciding the victor under the lights, said former race-winner Scott Dixon.
So what do you rely on when you haven’t sat in a moving racecar in more than three months, or four, or more than eight? When testing this offseason was sporadic at-best, and near-non-existent at worst for two of the Big Three teams, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport?
When three of the four drivers to have sped around this oval with the newly imagined aeroscreen attached are making their IndyCar debut on Saturday, while the other sits in Australia, waiting for his series debut?
You turn into the skid, as they say, and hope you can ride it out for 300 miles. If you’re lucky, you do it faster than everyone else.
“You just wanna be the guy who makes the least mistakes,” said Carlin Racing driver Conor Daly. “When everyone comes together after having not run anything for a long time, you just got to be the guy to make the least mistakes.”
Said second-year CGR driver Felix Rosenqvist: “You just have to set your mind up that it’s going to be a long day. You’re going to be almost a different person at the end of the day compared to the beginning. But it’s pretty cool. You put us in a tough situation, and I think that’s what people want to see as well. People watching on TV, they want to see us do something difficult, see a good race. That’s what they’re going to get, I’m pretty sure.”
'Experience will win'
The difficult starts with the arrival. If you’re Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe, in-charge of steering the Genesys 300 title-sponsor No. 29 car, while the rest of the field is still back 真人百家家乐官网网站home putting the finishing touches on their travel, strategy and race prep, you’re flying to Texas Thursday afternoon for a sponsor event.
Even during a pandemic, many parts of life as a racer live on.
Maybe you’re the rest of Andretti Autosport, or Team Penske, or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, arriving by Friday to ease into the 真人百家家乐官网网站homes of extended family or motor真人百家家乐官网网站homes. If you’re part of A.J. Foyt Racing, you’re bracing for a short flight through the heart of Texas Friday, followed by a full Saturday and a car ride back. Or you're Dale Coyne Racing, flying commercial, or part of the Indianapolis-based contingent flying charter and taking off from Indianapolis toward the one-day show before sunrise, prepping for what truly will be a 24-hour day.
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You could be Tony Kanaan, thankful to be able to extend your consecutive starts record one green flag more to 318, yet, as of Monday of race week, still waiting to sit in your 7-Eleven-branded No. 14 Chevy with the aeroscreen bolted on.
A series veteran knows how ballistic that sounds. You can hear it in his trying-to-be-positive tone. Experience is priceless in chaos, but experience can also anchor you more firmly to reality, and when that reality feels so unreal – so unlike your first 22 years in American open-wheel racing – it can be distracting. It can divert your attention from what’s possible and leave you chained to what you know.
“When you have experience, you know know what to expect, you know how to react, and you can be a little more smart,” Kanaan said. “But when you haven’t tried, the unknown is actually pretty cool sometimes. You don’t worry about it. You wake up and say ‘Okay, I have a race on the oval. I’m going to try to win.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen.
“But I would say, the experience is going to help a lot to make me sleep the night before the race. If I had to pick, I’d say experience will win, just because we’ve been out of the car for so long.”
A race for the history books
But what defines “experience” in a moment like this? Is it one race at Texas, like Colton Herta has, where he darted around on the outside line in a stunning performance a year ago that, you could argue, dwarfed his two victories as a rookie, despite the fact he finished 18th out of 22 cars?
Or is it Dixon, who for decades has built a reputation as a fuel-saving wizard, but who must find a new strength in a race where series and Firestone officials agreed to limit tire stints to 35 laps to guard against irregular and unsafe tire degradation?
“We’re going in with a little bit of an unknown (on the tires),” he said. “I wish there was more of a range they’d come up with, as opposed to chopping it right in the middle. I think the short answer is, I think we’re going to be perfectly fine. There’s always the opportunity that trips a couple of people up.
“I don’t like (the limit), but it goes back to the alternative of not racing, and that’s just not a possibility.”
Maybe you’re far from a rookie, but wearing the rookie hat for one day, like Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey, who’s run 19 races over three prior seasons – yet never under the lights in Texas. You get 30 extra minutes of practice, along with four other newcomers. You’re under the umbrella of Andretti with a technical alliance, making you all-but a teammate of more than a quarter of the rest of the field. And you’re embarking on your first full IndyCar season ever.
“You just try and be a sponge, just try to absorb as much information and knowledge as I can, quickly, to try and leave the weekend and feel like I had a good one,” Harvey said. “If we could design it this way, this would have been the last scenario we would have created, but there’s an overwhelming feeling to be grateful to do every race. If we weren’t at Texas and everyone was, we would be sad in a corner, sulking.
“I’m grateful to be here and having this headache of ‘How are we going to approach this weekend? What does a good weekend look like?’ This is going to be one of those weekends, that when everything is said and done, in 15-20 years, we’re going to still talk about.”
Drivers: the lone sense of familiarity
The vision and weight mysteries of the aeroscreen. The relatively unknown tire compound that some believe could lead to a return of pack racing. Five first-time drivers among an entire field that reached a breaking point a month ago on the iRacing platform. The inability for teams to alter hardly anything on their cars post-qualifying.
Frankly, it’s all a weird backdrop for IndyCar’s first race of the year. Never in recent memory has the series begun a year with so many big-picture unknowns yanking attention away from the cut-and-dried on-track product. But once we see the green flag Saturday, that’s all that will matter. Those oddities become just another factor in the race, one some have said is the most highly anticipated in the series’ history.
News ahead of Texas:
- IndyCar officials confident in Texas opener after collaborative work with NASCAR
- Carlin unable to field second car for IndyCar opener at Texas Motor Speedway
Several drivers have said this week they’re not-so-secretly hoping their competitors use just an ounce more caution, as all 24 dive into Turn 1. Instead of the roads of St. Petersburg, where two-dozen machines would be jockeying for a single line in the first turn like pebbles flying down a funnel, we’ll have two lines of 12 fanning around the banked corner, maybe giving an extra inch.
Others simply can’t drive that way. You can give a driver even less control and certainty in the cockpit at 220 MPH, but it won’t always make them budge. In the face of it all, the drivers themselves may be the only things unchanged when we reach 8 p.m. on Saturday night for NBC’s primetime network broadcast.
“I don’t go into races thinking of accidents and what could happen and stuff like that,” Marco Andretti said. “I think I probably have to retire if that was my mindset. I don’t know, I don’t really think about what my competitors are thinking either.
“The only thing you can remind some of the new guys is that it hurts now when you crash. We’re not in the sim anymore.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at @By_NathanBrown.