Tight turns, tricky surface pose problems
Lift off the gas, press the brakes, slam right back down on that gas. That's in and out of turn 1. Tony Stewart can do it in his sleep. In fact, he often does -- dreaming about a lap around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his favorite racing venue in the world.
Back on the gas, pedal to the metal, down the first "short chute" between 1 and 2. Here comes turn 2, lift of the gas and turn. Wide open down the back straight. Lift and brake going into turn 3. Quickly, now, back on the gas down the second short chute. Lift into 4 and lay the hammer down coming out.
It's all in the repetition.
Lift. Brake. Slam.
"It is a momentum racetrack and a rhythm racetrack," says the Indiana native who grew up racing open-wheel cars before turning to stock cars and claiming the 2002 Cup title. "You have to get into a rhythm early, and once you get into that rhythm, it seems to make things a lot easier for you."
But easier should never be confused with easy. It's never easy to take a NASCAR race car around a lap at Indy. The rhythm is demanding, but necessary because the track was built for open-wheel racing. In fact, it wasn't until 85 years after the track was built that NASCAR's bulky rigs were invited to take a spin.
At first glance, the biggest challenge is obvious. Indy is a 2.5-mile rectangle with two long straights connected by two short ones. That makes for 90-degree turns. And the banking is a measly 9 degrees -- compared with the 31 degrees of banking at that other famous 2.5-miler, in Daytona, Fla.
How do you get a 3,000-pound, aerodynamically challenged hunk of metal through a 90-degree turn with virtually no banking when you're going over 200 mph?
You do it carefully. And you try to find a rhythm.
"In an Indy car, you just don't lift if it's [set up] right," said Stewart, who has raced in five Indy 500s. "But in a stock car, even if it's right, you've got to lift and you've got to brake for at least two of the corners. With the other two corners, you just lift, basically. It's a challenging track in a Cup car."
The tight, flat turn is the biggest issue for stock cars, but not the only one. Stock cars have thinner tires than open-wheel cars, more sensitive to the temperature change you can always expect between green and checkered flags at Indy. Drivers say each of the four turns at Indy handles differently, and that by the end of the race each individual turn starts to handle differently, too. It's a puzzle drivers and crews constantly struggle to solve.
"The track is still extremely temperature-sensitive," driver Brian Vickers said. "The speeds and level of grip change all day long, and even though all four corners are identical, they all change in their own ways that affect the car's handling."
Dale Jarrett, winner of the 1996 and 1999 NASCAR races at Indy, said the tires Goodyear provides for the race are sometimes combative with the surface, forcing drivers to choose between fast laps and tire conservation.
"As we've gotten to a different type of tire here that's a little bit of a softer compound, but more the softness of the sidewall and flexibility of it, I think that's when we see [that] as the cars get 15-20 laps on them, [they] start to slide around a lot in the corners. But that's what makes this place what it is. You have to get that balance. You have to decide if you're going to go fast for 10 or 15 laps or if you're going to try to go at a good, hard pace for the 35 laps or so that you can run on fuel."
And although teams spend considerable time preparing that balance before the event, they are harder at work trying to set up the handling through the corners. Because of the flat surface, it's harder for drivers to pass, it's easier for them to lose control when another car creeps up from behind, and it alters the line they can take around the rectangle.
Driver Jeff Green says his team puts more emphasis not only on handling for the race but also on pit practice. With the layout of the track, it's tough to pass -- so a fast stop can mean a lot.
"It's rare to see three-wide racing at Indy with stock cars because the track is pretty narrow," he said. "We can still do some good side-by-side racing, but track position is critical. You want to start up front and stay there. It's tough to move from the back to the front. You'll see a lot of teams depend on some pit strategy to pass cars on pit road. "
Although Jeff Burton agrees with the notion that fast pit stops are at a premium in Indy, he says you have to be careful not to neglect the handling. The narrow lanes, long and sweeping straights and flat corners all add up to a delicate position for drivers dragging around uncooperative rigs.
"Indy is one of those places where you get a big aero push," he said. "It's also one of those places, based on the shape of the track and lack of banking, where you can really mess people up by getting up right behind them to make them really loose. So, you have to have a car that turns well and is stable so that when people do get near you, they don't mess you up. The key is turning well. If you turn well, then the car responds to the front wheels and you'll run really well."
The turning is an art, though. Not only do you have to find the rhythm Stewart spoke of, but you have to find the right line -- one that sounds pretty frightening to take with a stock car.
"Natural instincts are for guys to leave the wall and turn in early, but that's not the fast way around the racetrack," said 1997 Brickyard winner Ricky Rudd. "You have to kind of turn in late and square the corner. It's a split-second turn in. Nothing's happening, nothing's happening, and then all of a sudden you have to put a lot of wheel in it in a short period of time. It's really amazing that stock cars can go as deeply as they can in the corners and still be able to get turned. It's a challenge, but they still go around there pretty good."
With all of the challenges, some drivers had hoped that Indy officials might have made temporary changes for the stock car weekend. But when logic prevails, it's understandable that Indy remains Indy despite the annual fling with NASCAR. After all, Daytona would never shave down its banking to accommodate lightweight cars.
"I think we changed more to adapt to them than they changed to adapt to us," Burton said. "They have a way of doing things and are very consistent in the way they do things."
But with all of the obstacles, drivers still love the racing there. Although fans often have complained in the past about follow-the-leader racing with little passing and boring endings, the drivers say they've been in some real battles at the track and enjoy it.
"Could there be a better racing facility that is better and more conducive to our type of race cars?" Jarrett asked. "Yeah, there could be. But I think that we've had some pretty entertaining races. All of the races haven't come down to that last lap battle, but I've been in a number of battles over the years, so it can lend itself to good racing."
And regardless of how entertaining the racing is or how difficult navigating the track is, one thing is absolutely the same about piloting an open-wheel or stock car at Indy -- it's an honor to be the one to cross the yard of bricks lining the start/finish line.
"Whether it's an open-wheel car or a stock car, it's still Indianapolis," said Casey Mears, whose uncle, Rick Mears, won the Indy 500 four times. "The Brickyard 400 is one of the biggest races we run all year. There isn't a driver on the circuit that wouldn't want a win at Indy."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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