Early test leaves Indy 500 drivers confident cars are safer


INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe left Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Wednesday more confident about the cars they will race in May.

A new rear-wing flap should prevent cars from going airborne, as Carpenter experienced 11 months ago. And new suspension parts should prevent drivers from getting gouged, which happened to Hinchcliffe last year before the Indianapolis 500 and left him with a life-threatening injury.

As everyone tries to figure out what impact the new aerodynamic package might make, Carpenter and Hinchcliffe believe the racing will be safer.

“Just the way the car rides is different,” Hinchcliffe said after driving around the track for the first time since his frightening crash last May. “The beam-wing flap almost guarantees that you’ll never have those 180-degree liftoffs like we did with the three Chevy cars. And there’s a bunch of things they did with the suspension to prevent what happened to me from happening to anyone else.”

Hinchcliffe was fortunate that a quick-acting medical team saved his life after a broken part pierced his upper leg. He said there was no trepidation of getting back on a track with speeds easily topping 200 mph, even in testing.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “If you do, you can’t be out there.”

The ramifications from a series of scary wrecks last season – including one that killed British driver Justin Wilson – forced IndyCar officials to take a long, hard look at how to make the dangerous sport of open-wheel racing safer.

Mark Miles, the CEO of IndyCar’s parent company, met multiple times with drivers during the offseason to seek their input. The series also is looking at ways to protect drivers’ heads from flying debris, which is how Wilson died last August.

The series added new parts to its cars and scheduled an April test at Indianapolis – something that didn’t happen last year when the new oval aero kits debuted on the series’ fastest track. That’s why everyone was surprised when the cars started flipping last May.

So far, the results look promising.

“I think IndyCar always does a good job. I thought they handled it as well as they could last year, too,” said Carpenter, a two-time Indy 500 pole-winner. “I think all of the things they’ve done are good.”

What’s unclear is how much drivers have actually learned over the past two days.

On Tuesday, Carpenter, Hinchcliffe and a handful of other Chevrolet drivers were part of a closed test on a chilly, sunny day.

Fifteen drivers were on the track for Wednesday’s open test, but the weather did not cooperate. With temperatures hovering in the low 60s and gusty winds, drivers took an early lunch break as rain approached and the early afternoon session was wiped out by trucks driving around the historic 2.5-mile oval to dry the dampened track. They did make it back out after about a two-hour delay.

Americans Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay posted the two fastest laps of the day. Andretti went 223.427 mph, Hunter-Reay posted a 222.047 and France’s Simon Pagenaud was third at 221.293.

Honda held its manufacturer’s test at Fontana and will not run oval cars here until Indianapolis 500 practice begins May 16. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis road race will be held May 14, and the 100th running of the 500 is set for May 29.

“Any time you’re on the track, you learn something,” Carpenter said. “It can be this windy when we’re out here in May. Obviously, it’s a lot cooler than what we usually get in May. But it’s still important for learning, especially right now when all the teams have a lot of new parts on the car.”

While casual fans might not detect much difference in the look of these cars, one thing is clear – the drivers can feel the difference.

“The beam flaps are really cool and that’s a big deal when you’re going backward,” Carpenter said. “So I feel good about it.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”