Kanaan: Oval racing about “playing the game” given power levels

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At 38, and a veteran of open-wheel’s top level since 1998, Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan is well-versed on the various “styles” of racing that have occurred in ovals in either CART, IRL or IndyCar iterations.

The second year of IndyCar’s new Dallara DW12 chassis at Indianapolis once again featured a plethora of passing thanks to the “slingshot” effect created by a tow. The cars punch such a big hole in the air that drivers catch up to each other fairly easily. Passing was as prevalent on Sunday as crushed beer cans in Indy’s new “Snake pit,” Turn 3.

But for Kanaan, who raced in the CART-era “Hanford device” period, the racing now isn’t as random or affected by the aero slingshots as it was then. The device, created by aerodynamicist Mark Hanford, was used in CART from 1998 through 2002 on high-speed ovals at Michigan and California Speedways.

“I’ve driven all types of IndyCars, I would say,” Kanaan said Monday at IMS. “I drove the Champ Cars with the thousand horsepower, a lot of downforce.  Then we went to the Hanford device, which was worse than this as far as drafting.  This car has a little bit less.”

The Dallara DW12’s Chevrolet and Honda powerplants have only 550 horsepower for ovals. What that has done is altered the racing, but away from the scary and, at times, stupefying “pack racing” that plagued the IRL era, and also made it about positioning compared to the CART days when cars could come from nearly a second back to pass someone in one straightaway.

Kanaan would know, given his first major open-wheel win was a 500-mile CART race at Michigan in 1999, and he barely held off Juan Montoya after the Colombian hauled him in thanks to a monster tow.

“My most fun years were the years that we had the big horsepower cars and you just had to go flat out; it was pure racing speed,” Kanaan admitted. “You had the faster car, you’re going to take off and win this thing because you had a chance to lap the field.

“That’s not going to happen nowadays. Now you play the game we played yesterday.  You feel it out, what kind of car you have during the race, and you position yourself to win.”

Greater horsepower is a near universal desire of the field of drivers, but for now, Kanaan and others are playing with the resources at their disposal.

“So I would rather have more horsepower and do that.  But nowadays with the cost, it’s quite impossible for that to happen.”

Lewis Hamilton receives Daytona 500 invitation from Bubba Wallace

Lewis Hamilton Bubba Wallace
Rudy Carezzevoli/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton is a fan of the new NASCAR Cup Series team formed by Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan to field a car for Bubba Wallace.

Will the six-time Formula One champion also be a fan in person at a NASCAR race in the near future?

Wallace is hoping so.

After Hamilton tweeted his support Tuesday morning about the news of a Hamlin-Jordan-Wallace team making its debut with the 2021 season, Wallace responded with a sly invitation to the Daytona 500.

Much would need to be worked out, starting with how much garage and grandstand access would be afforded for a 2021 season opener that likely would occur during a still ongoing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it would seem fitting given that Hamilton and Wallace have been two of the world’s most outspoken Black athletes about the quest for diversity and racial justice. Hamilton recently reaffirmed his commitment to activism after his donning a Breonna Taylor shirt sparked an FIA inquiry.

The idea of Hamilton attending the season opener already had legs, too. The Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 driver has expressed a desire to race the Daytona 500 after he has retired from Formula One.

He was a spectator (with racing legend Mario Andretti) at four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s final Cup race as a full-time in the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In 2011, Hamilton swapped cars with three-time champion Tony Stewart at Watkins Glen International.

Having rubbed shoulders with other racing greats so often, it only would be fitting if Hamilton — who is one victory from tying Michael Schumacher’s career record and also could tie the F1 record with a seventh championship this season — spent some time with the greatest basketball player of all time.

Jeff Gordon was flanked by Mario Andretti and Lewis Hamilton before the 2015 Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).