Iowa Speedway poses a physical and mental test for IndyCar drivers

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The conditions for Tony Kanaan’s return to the NTT IndyCar Series at Iowa Speedway tonight (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) will be sweltering.

Which is just swell for the Ironman triathlete veteran (and also the Ironman of IndyCar with a record streak of 318 consecutive starts that ended earlier this month) who trains religiously.

“I love it; I think the hotter and the more difficult it is, the better for me,” Kanaan, who will be back in the No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing, said about a forecast for Newton, Iowa, in the low 90s with high humidity. “That’s what I train for. I train for difficult situations. I train to be able to have that edge on people that don’t. Unfortunately, I know that a lot of the guys are doing the same. I used to think I have a bigger edge on them.

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“To be honest, they had two extremely hot races already, so they’re more accustomed than I am. … I think it’s going to be extremely tough. But I’m ready. That is something that when I decided to become the athlete or the race car driver that I am today, one thing that I said was never going to lack is my physical condition.”

Iowa Speedway might be the biggest test yet of during an IndyCar season in which heat already has been a major factor because of the new aeroscreen. After complaints about stifling cockpit conditions on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, IndyCar tested a new cooling device at Road America that will be implemented this weekend. The “air scoop” attachment will increase airflow in the cockpit, and teams will be allowed an optional second cool duct for drivers’ helmets (as well as an extra crew member for assistance).

The bumpy 0.894-mile oval just east of Des Moines, Iowa, still will be a very physical test. As IndyCar on NBCSN analyst James Hinchcliffe notes in the video above, the loading of 3.5-4 Gs in the corners puts a heavy stress on the lungs and forces many drivers to hold their breath through the turns during 17-second laps that allow for minimal rest on the straightaways.

And after a 250-lap IndyCar Iowa Speedway test tonight, there hardly will be a chance to recover for 250 laps again Saturday.

During his Off Track podcast with Hinchcliffe, Rossi said this weekend will be the “hardest test that anyone’s had in IndyCar” since he joined the series in 2016, and he openly wondered whether drivers might succumb to the elements during the second race.

Felix Rosenqvist after his Road America victory (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

Felix Rosenqvist, who broke through for his first career victory Sunday at Road America, has been bicycling for hundreds of miles this year, but “it’s a different kind of fitness you need” for the neck muscles that are being overworked inside the car, particularly when battling withering heat that can make the body “panicked” without cooling or water.

“It’s different when you have physical fatigue and heat fatigue,” Rosenqvist said. “The heat is almost like you panic in the car. You just want to get out. There’s been some ways we’ve worked on the cooling solutions. I think we’re getting more clever, all the teams, on how to use that to efficiently cool the driver down during these kinds of races like Indy GP. But yeah, (Iowa is) going to be a huge challenge, and I don’t think anyone knows how it’s going to go. Can only prepare for the worst.

“It’s not a pleasant place to be, but it’s what we have to deal with, and I think you have to try to beat the others in that area.”

The veterans figure to have an edge on the five drivers who will be making their IndyCar Iowa Speedway debuts this weekend. That group includes Arrow McLaren SP Motorsports teammates Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew.

Pato O’Ward celebrates winning the pole position Sunday at Road America (Joe Skibinski/IndyCar).

“I think we’re in for a treat this weekend,” said O’Ward, who is coming off a career-best second at Road America. “The recovery after the first race is going to be key. It’s going to be very important to be nice and fresh for Saturday. Even if they’re at night, the humidity and heat is still there. We’re all going into it like we’re getting thrown in there and you have to survive. It’s not like, ‘Oh, you can give up.’ No, no, no, no. You have to survive.

“So I think we’re going in it as prepared as possible. Very hydrated. Make sure your food is very clean and everything and then just hang on to it for the whole race, because it is going to be a long one.”

Askew and O’Ward are former winners at Iowa with both having claimed victories in the Road to Indy ladder series (Askew in 2017 with USF2000; O’Ward in Indy Lights in 2018).

Askew said “being worried about it is the biggest part of preparation. For me, this is going to be the hardest race of the year so far because it’s a doubleheader. Because the track is so short, there’s not much time to rest because it’s going to be hot. Because it’s bumpy. So there’s a lot of variables being thrown at us. Both Pato and I have been training as best we can and hydrating as best we can trying to recover from the last weekend at Road America.

IndyCar Iowa Speedway
Oliver Askew said “being worried” is the biggest part of preparing for Iowa Speedway (Chris Jones/IndyCar).

“It’s going to be very difficult at the end of stints (at Iowa) when the tires are going away, and you’re mentally drained, and super hot. You need to have this voice in the back of your head to remind yourself not to make any crucial mistakes or really pay attention to what’s going on. Because it’s very easy to lose the car in that state of mind. You’re looking forward to the challenge for sure. It’s going to be difficult for everybody. We just have to be more prepared for it.”

There are no such fitness concerns for Kanaan, who will get to focus on basking in some deserved attention for his second start of the season after the 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner missed the last three races. Kanaan will give the command to start engines tonight as IndyCar Iowa Speedway’s grand marshal, a role that will filled by fellow Brazilian Helio Castroneves in Saturday’s race

“That’s so cool; I’ve been getting so much back,” said Kanaan, who is on a five-race “TK’s Last Lap” tour but still hopes to race in 2021. “It’s amazing. It’s something that it’s hard for me because I’m very emotional.

“I’m going to have to actually hold my breath because I’m really easy to get emotional when people are doing stuff and I actually knowing that. It’s an honor. I’m glad I’m doing from inside the car, to be honest. I’m excited. It’s one of those things that I didn’t expect it at all. I think it was a nice gesture. I can’t wait.”

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The 2004 series champion also is a 2010 IndyCar Iowa Speedway winner with 13 starts and five podiums on IndyCar’s shortest track, which he described as a bigger mental than physical test.

“For me the mental fatigue, it’s really tough,” Kanaan said. “It’s a lot tougher. You kind of not have trained for that. Your body, you can lift weights, do cardio, this and that, (but) your mind.

“I’m expecting to be extremely drained after the two races, but I’m ready.”