Indy 500 test spins have drivers and officials hunting a reason for lack of pit lane grip

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INDIANAPOLIS – An odd phenomenon developed with three spins during the opening day of Indy 500 testing that left NTT IndyCar Series drivers and officials puzzled while searching for a reason Wednesday.

Three experienced veterans, with six victories and a combined 546 laps led in the Indianapolis 500, were involved in separate crashes on the warmup lane, an access road that connects pit lane with the entry onto the track in Turn 2.

It all started at 12:30 p.m. ET when 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport spun after exiting pit road on his slow-speed installation lap. The incident drew some bewildered looks as many believed cold temperatures combined with early morning rain led Rossi to hit the throttle too hard for the conditions.

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The next four hours on the 2.5-mile oval were conducted mostly without incident. That all changed after the clock struck 5.

Four-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who has led a whopping 325 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, spun on the pit access road, slid across the grass strip that separates the road for the race track and slammed into the Turn 2 wall with his right front at 5:11 p.m.

“I didn’t do anything strange; I wasn’t even pushing, and the car just spun out,” Castroneves said. “It was a very odd situation unfortunately. It was very strange. The temperatures are a little cooler, but I’ve run in colder conditions than that.

“I wasn’t even pushing. I wasn’t even trying. The car felt good. My reaction was, ‘What happened?’ I wasn’t trying anything different. It’s just strange what happened.”

Though Castroneves won’t return for the second day of testing, he was optimistic Meyer Shank Racing could repair the car that won last year’s Indy 500.

Shortly after the track returned to green, 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power lost it on the access road and zipped up the track toward Turn 1, directly into the path of a long line of cars running in a pack.

Colton Herta tried to avoid Power’s No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet, spun and headed toward the infield wall in the south short chute area of the track between Turns 1 and 2. Marcus Ericsson, who had to avoid Castroneves’s car a few minutes earlier, barely made it between Herta’s Honda and the infield wall in the third and final incident of the day.

That occurred at 5:32 p.m. ET, and the track never returned to green despite 30 minutes left of running time as series and track officials elected to investigate the problem after consultation with Firestone.

IndyCar race director Kyle Novak along with Indianapolis Motor Speedway director of track operations Jason Pennix surveyed the surface in the pit access area. They were soon joined by IndyCar president Jay Frye and technical director Kevin Blanch.

“The first thing I said all day was I thought the warmup lanes felt slick,” Ed Carpenter Racing driver Conor Daly said. “I didn’t know if I was just being a bit of a weirdo, but then I saw Alex spinning, so it made sense.”

According to IndyCar, track crews began the process of dragging tires on the track and pressure washing the warmup lane. It’s the same group that applied a Rapid Penetrating Emulsion (RPE) treatment on the track in 2018 to seal the surface. The pit warmup lane had that treatment applied over the offseason.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles told the Indy Star later Wednesday night that the application of the sealer last fall likely had caused a lack of grip. IndyCar officials still had been hopeful of an on-time start of 10 a.m. ET for Thursday’s session, which will be televised live on Peacock, but inclement weather had the test on hold Thursday morning.

The drivers remained completely stunned they had lost control of their racing machines. Power said “it’s my worst nightmare. It’s something you always think about as drivers because you’ve seen it.

“Man, it just lit up,” Power said. “I didn’t have much lateral (steering wheel) in it. I was full throttle in second gear, but it has a very tall second gear. I had already done a lap to get rear tire temp, or so I thought. It scared the absolute daylights out of me. The situation where you come up on the track, and there is a whole pack coming at those speeds.

“I feel terrible for Colton. He crashed because I spun. I had zero warning. Zero! Before going out again, I told the engineers, ‘Look at the video; we’ve got to understand what happened there.’ I don’t understand what happened.

“When I spun and I’m going up the track. I thought this was it. This is going to be bad. It grabbed the rear and it headed back in and then I saw Colton crash and I’m causing other people to have wrecks. Scary, scary.”

For the brief moments Power was in his spin, it brought back memories of the horrifying wreck in September 2021 in Germany in which Alex Zanardi lost his legs.

“You saw what happened to Alex Zanardi in 2001, and it’s something you are aware of and you’re cautious of during practice and I can’t believe it caught me out,” Power said.

It was a similar situation that happened to Scott Dixon on Lap 52 of the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017 when Jay Howard hit the Turn 1 wall, ricocheted across the track, and Dixon’s Honda slammed into the disabled car. That sent Dixon’s Honda sailing airborne in the worst crash in his career.

“I think any situation like that is not great,” Dixon said. “I think Will was extremely lucky there that the car didn’t roll back any further because it would have been massive.”

Marco Andretti, who is back in an Indy car for the first time since the 2021 Indianapolis 500, believes grinding the track combined with higher temperatures on Thursday should improve the situation.

“If they could grind the track, that would be perfect,” Andretti said. “I don’t know how long something like that takes, what a process that is. I would feel a lot better with that, for sure.

“That’s the scariest part of our business. They probably weren’t pushing until then, right? That’s why they didn’t feel it. I felt it on my first run because I get a lot of feel for that going out of the pits. I said, ‘This is going to claim somebody today. I didn’t know it would claim three or four.’ Hopefully they find a remedy.”

Daly believes it’s a similar situation to last month at Texas Motor Speedway, where an extra practice session was held to work in rubber on the upper lane for more grip.

“I think it’s also cold and it’s Day One,” Daly said. “Just tell everyone, ‘Hey, I think it’s more important for us to get on the track and just continue to keep doing laps.’ Every lap that people are leaving the pits, it’s probably going to get better.”

Power, one of the most experienced drivers in the field, just wanted answers on why he car snapped on him. He advocated a deeper look at the video and a track inspection.

“It was a bad situation,” the Team Penske driver said. “I want to know what I did wrong because I never want that to happen again. I wanted to see if it was something on the track because it felt like water. As soon as I finished spinning, I wondered if there was water there.

“It was such a shock to me. I’ve been out of that pit lane hundreds of times. I had been super careful because Rossi spun. I had been taking it easy on the aprons for that reason. It’s just testing, and you never want to risk going quick on the apron when other cars are at speed. It just surprised me. Normally, you’re ready for that stuff. You’ve had a whole career of this sort of thing, and you get a warning.”

Power understands where all the bumps are located on any given race course. That’s what racers do, and they know where to put their car and use those bumps to their advantage. He noticed something different, though, on Wednesday.

“One thing I have noticed there is more of a bump where you go over the road course,” Power said. “I’m wondering if it just got a spike of boost or something like that.

“It was a surprise to me. I said, ‘We’ve got to understand this. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this. Or for anything to happen to anybody else or anybody to get hurt because of it.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500