Bell: “A strange day at IMS on many counts”

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NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Townsend Bell will be writing a series of blogs for this month. Here’s his third entry, filed after the one of the strangest qualifying days in recent memory for the driver of the No. 24 Robert Graham Special Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing. Past blogs of the month are linked here (first blog, second blog).

Bell in Robert Graham hat with No. 24. Photo: INDYCAR

It was 10 years ago when I came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. And 10 years ago, I was a rookie driver in the biggest race in the world, Indianapolis 500.

That was a thrill. My dream was to race in the Indy 500 and I had made it.

Now, entering my ninth Indy 500 start next Sunday, I have to say that Sunday’s events at the world’s most famous racing facility were one of the strangest of all of my days here.

After Saturday’s qualifying runs were rained out, the Verizon IndyCar Series officials had to revamp Sunday’s schedule to allow a couple of practice rounds in the morning followed by all cars set to go out at 10 a.m. Then the fastest nine drivers would vie for the coveted pole position.

Rain was in the forecast again so the skies looked overcast with high humidity. We were just hoping to get qualifying in on Sunday.

However, everything changed for that schedule when Ed Carpenter took a hard hit in turn two in the first practice. Ed had run a 231 m.p.h. lap with the new Chevrolet body kits when his Fuzzy’s machine swamped ends and pounded the outside wall in turn two. The car flipped over and skidded down the backstretch.

Luckily, the two-time Indy 500 pole sitter jumped out, but you could tell Ed was upset. Probably both the fact that he destroyed his primary race car and the new speedway body kits seemed to have a “knife edge” with the car’s handling at high speed.

Well, as the IMS operations department worked on the turn two wall and fencing, everything in the garage pretty much came to a halt. Meetings were formed with IndyCar officials, team owners and drivers. After an hour or so, it became apparent that changes were coming before we qualified Sunday.

A few hours later, the officials made the change to reduce the turbo boost of the engines to the race spec and the teams must qualify the cars in the same body trim as they will race. So things were changing right in the middle of the day. Something we hadn’t seen at Indy in quite some time.

Photo: DRR-Kingdom Racing

Well, I felt good about this decision since our Robert Graham Special had been a very good car in race trim. But we did need to test this package again after two days of working with the qualifying body kits. So the 34-driver field was split into two practice sessions in the afternoon followed by one qualifying attempt per car at 3:15 p.m.

Again, the weather conditions were changing with the sun peeking in and out of the clouds and a stronger wind developing out of the south. Unfortunately, we had drawn a later qualifying position so we were hoping the temperatures might go down and cool the track a bit later in the day.

We saw a bigger drop of in speeds after the last couple of days of 230-plus runs. Scott Dixon went out early and put up a great speed at the time of 226.760 for a four-lap average. We all knew that was a tough speed to beat. And as it turned out, Scott won the pole with that speed.

We made a couple of small changes to our Dreyer & Reinbold – Kingdom Racing-prepared Chevy-powered machine. I thought we had a good car and we could post a solid speed. We had been good in race trim all week in practice and we had produced good speed (around 226) in runs by ourselves and no tows from other cars. However, the wind was stronger out of the south when we went out for the four laps.

I was really shocked what happened as we got up to speed. After the first lap and I saw the lap speed, it was demoralizing. I came across the finish line and I thought there was a digit out on the steering wheel because the car didn’t feel that bad. I am really disappointed when a 223 speed popped up on the steering wheel.

I was wide open and the Robert Graham Special wouldn’t go. I’m not sure I have had a qualifying attempt when the car just wouldn’t go. I feel I have been here at Indy too many times to be that surprised with a performance like that. We were two miles per hour faster earlier without a tow. The gearing felt right but the car just didn’t accelerate as we expected. I was kind of stunned that our average speed was just 223.447.

Team photo after surprisingly tough run. Photo: DRR-Kingdom Racing

Our team’s engineering staff was stumped too. We went back and looked over the data to see what we happened. I didn’t think we would start that far back in the field (26th) after the solid week we had in practice. I wouldn’t feel so badly if the car was off or it was a handful on the track. But I was flat out on the throttle and just drove the car as always. Just a difficult situation. Maybe that also happened to some other drivers late in the day. Maybe the weather conditions changed so much too.

We’ll run a number of laps on Monday to get prepared for the race next Sunday. The temperatures tend to increase as you get closer to the race. The crew worked so hard the past few weeks and the car was well-prepared. It is time to forget about Sunday now and work on next Sunday’s 500.

Last year, I came from 25th on the grid to run second with 15 laps to go in the race. So I know it is possible to do the same again. That is our goal when the green flag drops at 12:15 p.m. EDT on May 24.