IndyCar teams assess value of rain-plagued Indy 500 test

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

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.

The weather.

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.”

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

1 Comment

THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500