DiZinno: Indy 500’s 2015 “Fast Friday” dawns with more questions than answers after spate of crashes

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series prepares for the final day of practice before qualifying, the week has felt like days gone by – not necessarily in a good way, albeit with good endings from a safety standpoint thus far.

It used to be the case going back 20 or 25 years ago, at least, that you’d have both a speed report and an incident report coming out of the day’s practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

What has followed over the last 15 or so years, where more spec parts and spec cars have ruled the way, has been largely incident-free days.

If a big accident or engine failure happened, it wasn’t to the degree or volume of what we’ve seen this week.

“I think it’s too early to say what is happening or if there is anything happening out of the ordinary,” Derrick Walker, INDYCAR’s president of competition and operations, told USA Today Sports.

That may be true, but it’s been a far from ordinary week for the series in comparison to recent practice weeks at IMS the last few years.

Tuesday witnessed Simona de Silvestro’s fuel leak-induced fire, and two further mechanical issues for other Honda-powered cars, driven by James Jakes and Justin Wilson.

On Wednesday, Helio Castroneves’ car went airborne after slight wall contact and turning around completely backwards. He was unharmed, but the mere pictures of flight were enough to put a scare into folks.

Then yesterday, Josef Newgarden’s car also went airborne, following heavier wall contact, the left sidepod digging in (similar to past accidents with the Dallara DW12 chassis from 2012 to 2014) and rolling up on its side, before again going airborne from the rear and rolling over onto the airbox. Like the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion, Newgarden too emerged unscathed.

Not to be overlooked too was another hard impact, this one for Pippa Mann on Wednesday, but a more conventional if you will accident of spinning off Turn 4, into the inside retaining wall and then into the pit lane attenuator at pit-in. And like the other two, she was uninjured if a bit sore following the impacts.

The simple question that must be answered first is what caused the airborne accidents. While some have said it comes down to the new super speedway aero kits – and really the only commonalities between the Castroneves and Newgarden accidents is that both are Chevrolets, and both were on their second laps with the increased side pod ramp in front of the rear wheels (part introduced here) – the greater likelihood is that the giant floor, or underwing, has been a greater cause of the accidents. The cars lift off once that amount of air gets underneath and with the higher surface area, it’s helped propel the cars into the air. This year’s floor features a hole new for this year. How much of a correlation there is between the floor in tandem with the new aero kits is yet to be officially determined.

Beyond that, in the midst of the accidents has come a case of confusion over what has or hasn’t been said, by whom, and to whom.

Thursday seemed a day in sleuthing and as both RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett and Trackside Online’s Steve Wittich discovered on site, it seemed the answers were harder to pursue.

Prior to Newgarden’s accident, INDYCAR released a statement that the centerline wicker would be made an optional part for both manufacturers. Following that, Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell released a statement that phrased it as, “After discussions with the Series, we have decided to remove the centerline wicker on all of our cars.”

What this doesn’t properly answer is whether INDYCAR asked Chevrolet to remove the wicker first – a story which was reported by Motorsport.com’s Anne Proffit – or whether Chevrolet acted on its own accord.

Pruett added to the Chevrolet story with his report on RACER.com that, “According to multiple sources, Chevy teams were given instructions to remove the wickers around 11:30 a.m – 30 minutes before the start of practice – and the directive was made without an explanation as to why they were being removed.”

The next variable comes into play with Wittich’s reporting for Trackside Online on Honda’s status. There, a Honda spokesperson told TSO that the wicker was mandatory ON for Honda cars, but OFF for Chevrolets.

If this is starting to sound like a mystery novel involving 34 cars going over 230 mph … well it kind of is.

Here’s what we know, for sure, so far:

  • Three drivers have escaped three serious, or serious-looking accidents, largely unharmed. For that, we can thank the Dallara DW12 safety cell, which has protected the driver monocoque.
  • Come Fast Friday, today, the boost level will be increased from 130 kPa to 140 kPa for “Fast Friday” practice and this weekend’s qualifications. The change in pressure adds about a 40-horsepower boost to the engines produced by Chevrolet and Honda. The boost level will return to 130 kPa for the remainder of the month starting on Monday.

Beyond those two elements, there needs to be better clarification and communication from the sanctioning body over what was said, what was instructed and how that information was disseminated to teams and manufacturers.

And ideally, today needs to be a trouble-free “Fast Friday” where speeds, not accidents, emerge as the predominant talking point.

Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”