INDIANAPOLIS – You don’t finish your first 25 Grands Prix in a row without proper risk assessment, and it’s a strategy that Max Chilton in the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet has taken over to his opening races in the Verizon IndyCar Series, as well.
The month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a different animal and requires a similar amount of understanding how to build up pace and confidence through the days of practice and qualifying, prior to competing in the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
In working with Ganassi this year and particularly this month, Chilton has access to three-time ‘500 and four-time series champion Dario Franchitti along with his ace engineer Brandon Fry, who’s helped other first-year drivers through the process at IMS.
As the 25-year-old Chilton related, knowing how to assess what risks to take and embrace his inner George Costanza is one of his early goals this May.
“Without tempting fate too much, I am sort of a risk manager,” Chilton told NBC Sports. “Hence why I set the record I did in F1. I don’t think it can’t be beaten. It could be matched. No driver’s ever done that.
“Here, it’s crucial you’ve got the time to build up to it. Let’s face it – if I didn’t have Dario and didn’t have a team that’s so good, I’d be in a riskier position.
“He says we’ll never take downforce off without (also) doing tires. You don’t need to rush it along there. We’ve got two or three more days of running before qualifying. It’s important to make sure that you risk manage building up to it because when it comes time to an oval qualifying session, you’re gonna have to just go for it.”
Franchitti, who turns 43 today, is impressed with Chilton’s early approach to IMS.
“For any rookie coming to Indianapolis it’s always a daunting proposition,” Franchitti said. “He’s got the right temperament for it. He likes structure. The car itself, the inside of the car and the handling of the car fascinates him! I can relate to that.
“He’s impressed me so far. We’re trying to tell him the Indy 500 and weeks leading up to it is almost as much a mental game as anything else. So, far he’s handled it very well.”
Chilton also expressed thanks with Fry’s feedback and interaction with Franchitti.
“Brandon is sort of a calm, solid engineer,” Chilton said. “He gives you the car that you can trust it. Him and Dario completely bounce off each other. He gives me the engineering side of it, and Dario just tries to extract as much out of me as possible. He knows it helps. I can’t honestly pick a better person to be working with. I’m quite fortunate.”
Chilton impressed many during his first IndyCar oval start at Phoenix International Raceway – if anything, he could probably afford to feel disappointed with seventh.
Having had the baseline of some Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires running here last year, although he didn’t start the race owing to a fuel leak, he still described the adjustments he had to make stepping up to IndyCar here.
“You can obviously sense the speed is greater. The Lights car has a lot less downforce,” he said. “I know come qualifying when we’ll trim out, we’ll feel it moving around more. I felt the Lights car moved around a lot more.
“You have to drive it completely different because the speeds are greater, the rate and turn-in points are different. I’m really glad I did that last year because I wouldn’t have had that baseline I did previous.”
Wednesday was an interesting day for Chilton as he did a bunch of full-tank runs and completed 125 laps, second-most in the field only to fellow freshman Matthew Brabham.
“Anytime I’m running here, in traffic, you’re learning a lot. I was getting frustrated out there, I’m not gonna lie,” Chilton admitted.
“But it was good, because it made me realize there is a lot more to learn about timing a pass and having the right setup. I felt I was too comfortable in the corners and couldn’t move in a straight line. There’s just lots to learn.”
Fellow rookie Spencer Pigot’s accident on Wednesday was something Chilton took note of but didn’t appear to phase him too much.
“Yeah it makes you realize it can bite. But I want to avoid it all costs,” Chilton said. “He didn’t seem to do anything wrong. He seemed to turn in at the right point. He didn’t go too low below the white line.”
Has Chilton had that “holy cow!” moment as yet?
“I had a couple today!” he said. “Yeah, you follow a car, and the car isn’t turning, and the wall comes up on you very quick.
“You’ve gotta learn to appreciate this place, but not be afraid of it.”