INDIANAPOLIS – In a sport where teams of engineers pour over reams of data from computer models and simulations, spend time calculating equations they hope will give their race cars and drivers the winning edge, there is one variable teams in the NTT IndyCar Series have no control over.
That was the case in Wednesday’s “Open Test” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Instead of seven hours of uninterrupted testing time on the 2.5-mile oval, the veteran drivers received 95 minutes of track time. Rookie drivers and Indy 500 “one-off” drivers were on the track for 90 minutes. That amounts to the same amount of practice time teams would receive on the first day of a regular NTT IndyCar Series race.
But this is the Indianapolis 500, where teams will use as much practice time as they can get to prepare for the biggest race in the world.
A normal Indianapolis 500 “Open Test” allows teams to work off a checklist of race setups and suspension configurations they will test as they develop a fast race car that can begin practice for the Indy 500 on May 14. It’s during the practice days that teams “trim out” their race setup for speed in qualifications, and race-ability for the race itself.
Because of Wednesday’s rain-plagued, shortened test session, many of those teams only got one-third of the boxes checked off their testing checklist.
“It was productive in terms of that was a brand new race car for us and we shook it down and we made sure the electronics worked and it runs and it shifts and the data system is fine and it felt OK,” Craig Hampson, Sebastien Bourdais’s race engineer at Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan, told NBC Sports. “The baseline setup feels like the car last year so all of that is good.
“But in terms of, did I get anything crossed off the test list?’ No, I got nothing at all crossed off the test list. We’re a little behind on the plan, but it’s the same for everybody. It was also very cold, and that is not representative of what the weather will be like in May. It was just a good shake-down. The car is one piece, we’ll put it away and come back in May.”
With subtle changes to the aerodynamic package at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway offering teams more adjustability to the car, Wednesday could have been a very busy day for the 30 drivers who took to the track in testing. After determining a baseline, that’s when teams can begin to experience and actually “test” the changes of the car.
Because that did not happen, once the veteran’s session was halted and the rookies finished out the day by running until more rain brought out the checkered flag just past 7:30 p.m. ET, the cars were loaded up and taken back to the various IndyCar race shops.
The majority of the teams are based in the Indianapolis area. But one of the “Power Teams” – Team Penske – is based in Mooresville, North Carolina. That’s 560 miles away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Another competitive team, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan, is based about 230 miles away in Plainfield, Illinois – a far western suburb of Chicago.
Carlin is based in Delray Beach, Florida, a 24-hour drive from Indianapolis. AJ Foyt Racing has two shops for each of its two drivers. Tony Kanaan’s car is prepared a few blocks away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a facility on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana. Matheus Leist’s car is prepared at main shop in Waller, Texas – outside of Houston.
For those teams, Wednesday’s shortened test became another expense item on the team’s ledger.
“Most of the teams are based in Indianapolis, but for us, this is a huge pain,” Hampson said. “To pack everything up, bring it all down here, unload it into the garage, run for one-third of a day, now we have to put it back in the truck, transport it back to Chicago, work all next weekend.
“For a non-Indy-based team, this is big drama.”
Many of Coyne’s employees were going to drive up Interstate 65 to Chicago and be back at the shop for work Thursday morning at 7 a.m.
Team Penske’s crew members were able to fly back to North Carolina on the team’s charter plane or commercial airlines.
“I don’t think it’s any quicker to sit in security and fly back to Charlotte than it is to drive back to Chicago, if I’m honest,” Hampson said. “There are challenges not being based in Indianapolis.
“For those of us who aren’t, ‘Just here’ it is a lot harder.”
Coyne’s team is one of the mid- to smaller teams in the series, so its budget is affected adversely when testing at Indianapolis gets impacted by weather. The same can be said for A.J. Foyt Racing, although one of its two entries have the shortest trip from the shop to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“We didn’t get one-third of the way down on our checklist,” AJ Foyt Racing Vice President of Racing Operations Scott Harner told NBC Sports. “We had a few mechanical issues on the 14 car (Tony Kanaan) that held us back today. It would have been nice if the weather had cooperated.
“It’s a tough day where we didn’t get much done. Indiana weather can change every 10 minutes, and it does. For teams that are out of state, you are spending tens of thousands of dollars to get up here. Team Penske spent a hell of a lot of money to come up here.
“For the local teams, you aren’t spending as much other than buying lunch so that helps to be located here. That’s just part of it.”
Despite the rain-shortened session, IndyCar Director of Aerodynamic Development Tino Belli said it was still “better than not doing it.” IndyCar and its teams still collected data that can be useful when practice begins in a few weeks for the Indianapolis 500.
“We have things to go through, but when the weather is warmer, practice will be more relevant than it was today,” David Faustino, Will Power’s race engineer at Team Penske, told NBC Sports. “It’s still worth coming here, just to get the drivers’ heads back in the game.
“They still have to try. I think it’s always worth trying. Those are the breaks, though.”