Indy 500 Open Test: What IndyCar teams learned about aero in the world’s biggest race


INDIANAPOLIS – The 33 car-driver combinations that came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday crammed two days of the Indy 500 Open Test into one.

That cram session will pay big dividends when those teams return next month for the 107th Indianapolis 500.

It was a scheduled two-day open test on April 20 and 21, but with the threat of rain and cold conditions forecast for Friday, IndyCar took proactive measures and extended Thursday by 90 minutes while starting an hour earlier.

AERO AND SAFETY CHANGESA graphical look at some new elements being tried for the Indy 500 test

INDY 500 PRIMERDetails for the May 28 race on NBC

Realizing the chances were slim to run the second day at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the teams went to work. The boxes on their testing lists were checked off, and teams even had a chance to run in high-speed packs late afternoon Thursday.

By the time the session was completed at 6:30 p.m. ET, many of the teams already had most of what they needed.

“For us, as a team, we got through most of our list on Thursday,” Team Penske IndyCar general manger Kyle Moyer told NBC Sports. “Everybody worked really well to get through that list. We got 80 percent of our boxes checked already, so that was very good for us.

“Friday would have been difficult, especially if you were trying to compare anything from Thursday in the heat to Friday in the cold. If we were limited to two hours of running in the cold temperatures.”

By completing so much of the test on Day 1, many of the teams that cleared out of Gasoline Alley after IndyCar officials canceled the second day of the test at 9:15 a.m. ET Friday were not disappointed.

In fact, many were relieved because of steady rain and temperatures in the 40s that wouldn’t have been conducive to productivity.

“The problem with cold temperatures is everything feels good,” Moyer said. “Everybody’s car feels good, and everything you do is better because there is so much grip, you can’t make a mistake. On Thursday, it was perfect being 80 degrees. That will be more like we plan on being with in May.”

Even though it eventually stopped raining late Friday afternoon, the track still wasn’t dry in time for much practice anyway.

“We had a sweepstakes going on in Gasoline Alley based on the radar when we would get running again,” Ward said. “I had one hour of running. It would have still been too cold.”

There also was the worry of losing a car to a crash in largely useless conditions. “Rule No. 1 at the Speedway: Don’t get in a hurry,” Ward said.

The day off also was a welcome break.

Pato O’Ward climbs into his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren during the Indy 500 Open Test (Grace Hollars/IndyStar/USA TODAY Sports Images).

IndyCar teams are in the middle of an aggressive three-week period that began with the April 16 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in Southern California, followed by a 2,000-mile trek to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where teams had to be in place by Wednesday to test.

Additionally, the street course cars either were placed aside for an Indy car that was set up specifically for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or the street course setup was converted to oval setup. Next week, it’s off to the Barber Motorsports Park road course for the Children’s of Alabama Grand Prix.

“It was a pretty aggressive turnaround for the series to get back from the West Coast after Long Beach last weekend and into that Open Test,” Arrow McLaren racing director Gavin Ward told NBC Sports in a Friday interview. “Our guys have put in some hours, and I would be lying if I said a few of us aren’t breathing a sigh of relief to get a little bit easier of a day to start the prep on Barber and give our guys a bit of a rest this weekend.”

With 33 of the 34 car/driver combinations entered in this year’s 107thIndianapolis 500 participating Thursday, a total of 3,517 total laps were completed. That included one session for the veterans only in the morning, one session for the Rookie Orientation Program and for “refresher” laps and a final session for all drivers that lasted four hours and 15 minutes.

What made this test important for the teams is IndyCar has made some aerodynamic rule adjustments for the May 28 race that create more drag but also generate more frontal and underwing downforce.

That should increase downforce by up to 10 percent, which is designed to allow the cars to race closer together, to “suck up” to the car in front faster and longer. That should produce more passing opportunities in traffic during the Indy 500.

“They are giving teams a number of options,” Ward said. “The aerodynamics of speedway racing is pretty complicated, and there is a lot of interaction, and there is a lot of nuances with how a driver feels the car and how it behaves in dirty air and clean air. It is remarkably complicated stuff.

“To say you know exactly how everything is going to work until you get into running is unrealistic, actually. We have a lot of data to go through and more learning to be done to know how all the parts fit together and interact with each other. The teams are going through that process now.

“It gives options. Whether every one of them gives you something you want or not, I’m not sure. Giving teams more options, we are all for; we like that.”

IndyCar officials, led by director of aerodynamics Tino Belli, came up with a complicated combination of strakes, “barge boards,” Gurney flaps (also called wickers) and other tweaks to create a balanced approach to additional downforce.

One of the changes was even a rear-wing “pillar” that was inspired by Arrow McLaren driver Alexander Rossi in IndyCar’s offseason meeting with drivers last December.

“He’s a smart cookie,” Ward said of Rossi. “He has lots of great ideas, and he’s not afraid to voice them. A lot of people in the series all have a common goal of making a better product for the fans.

“That was a good suggestion from him.”

There are myriad options for the teams to determine what will work best when they return for the biggest race of the year in the Indy 500.

But will the changes have the desired effect of creating closer racing with more passing opportunities?

“It’s hard telling,” Moyer said. “You saw people running a little bit closer. There was plenty of passing Thursday. Some was legit, but you also saw some people lifting and letting the pass happen to get to the back of the pack. I think there was some legit passing.

“I think it will be harder to stay up front by yourself, which is probably good for racing. All of the changes are in the right direction, just like Texas. IndyCar thought it out pretty good through that and made some good decisions.”

Simon Pagenaud, who won the 2019 Indy 500 while at Team Penske but begins his second season at Meyer Shank Racing, told NBC Sports Thursday that farther back than fourth place will have a hard time getting to the front because Indianapolis is still a “one-groove track.”

Moyer is a bit more optimistic than his former driver.

“It all depends on who those four guys are,” Moyer explained. “At Texas, you could see it was a good thing between the top four, but because of those four, no one had a drive in how they used each other.

“If you get two guys up front that know how to battle between each other but not let anybody else in, I could see that. If you get some guys that are more aggressive, I think all the way back to eighth place could be in play.”

Moyer oversees all three of Team Penske’s NTT IndyCar Series entries, which include two-time IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, two-time IndyCar champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power and third-year driver Scott McLaughlin.

Moyer calls McLaughlin’s race strategy on the timing stand.

Of the “Rubik’s Cube” of aerodynamic changes, Moyer explained to NBC Sports which he thinks are most effective and which changes are most creative.

“The rear wing helps a little bit, but that downforce was always there because you could run a bigger wicker,” he said. “Nobody was running full rear wing downforce Thursday. There might have been a couple teams testing, but nobody went to plus-5. You could always put the wicker on the old wing, so I don’t think the wing is as important.

“The underbody with the wicker for the infill coming off is a huge benefit for all of the teams.”

That is the area where Moyer believes IndyCar made the most creative change.

“It’s the infill section,” Moyer said. “The mods with the wicker, all of that seems to be a pretty good move by IndyCar to make that change. Even though we added a bit of weight to the car, everybody needs more front downforce so that helps that. The strakes help, but that is minor, to be honest. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but if you said we didn’t have it for this year, I don’t think it is that big of a thing.”

All of the changes — including strakes, wickers and “barge boards” on the undertray or infill section — create a vortex effect that sucks the car to the ground giving it incredible aerodynamic downforce.

That allows the car additional traction to use parts of the track that would be risky with a lower downforce car.

“None of it gives us tons of downforce,” Moyer said. “It’s little things are giving us a little more so if you add it all up, it’s a small percentage of what we have already.”

The changes also create more drag in the race, but that will not have an impact on qualifying when teams “trim out” their race car, sacrificing handling for maximum speed over four laps.

“Everybody will take it off for qualifying,” Moyer said. “We won’t have more drag and downforce than we did last year in qualifying. All of the modifications will be off the car for qualifying. It’s all race stuff.

“The whole thing is about being closer to the car in front so that you can get the suck up to the car. If you can get closer, that means you can suck up longer and make the pass easier. If you can’t suck up, then you won’t get the run as easily and then it ends up late into Turn 1 or Turn 3. On Thursday, some legit passes were made just past the start-finish line, three-quarters of the way down the track. That’s where we were three or four years ago. We are back to doing that and it’s a pretty good balance they came up with to match.”

Before joining Arrow McLaren midway through the 2022 season, Ward was an engineer at Team Penske and worked with Moyer. Prior to that, Ward was an engineer in Formula One for Red Bull.

The talented Canadian now is in charge of a three-driver Arrow McLaren effort in IndyCar and a four-driver effort in the Indianapolis 500 with the addition of 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan to the team.

Ward takes a calculated, measured, and steady approach to determine the benefit of the aero bits and pieces and how they add up to a winning formula.

“They are all sensible options,” Ward said. “If I was to pick one out, it would be the wicker on the back of the leading edge of the underwing infill panel is one of the most interesting things to play with. We are all in favor of better safety, so the stability wickers are a good development from the series.

“I’m happy to see them be proactive on that.”

Unlike a practice session that leads into qualifications setting the starting lineup for a race, a test session is much different because teams experiment with which changes are effective.

That is one reason why Moyer wasn’t putting too much emphasis on Newgarden turning the fastest lap of the test at 227.686 in the No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet for Team Penske in a  busy session where he completed 115 laps.

“He had the fastest speed last year, too, and you saw what that did for the race,” Moyer quipped, referring to the fact Team Penske struggled in last year’s 500 with Newgarden starting 14th and finishing 13th.

“Don’t hold much into testing,” Moyer continued. “You have to look at yourself and the team behind the scenes. We made some improvements and hopefully they show up when we come back in a few weeks. “He was fastest last year, too. With the tows, if you put on a couple sets of new tires, you will eventually get there.”

Moyer’s mission is to improve the efforts for Newgarden, McLaughlin and Power as Team Penske aims for a record-extending 19th Indianapolis 500 victory.

Scott Dixon, who has won a record five Indy 500 pole positions (including las year), takes a lap in the Indy 500 Open Test (Walt Kuhn/Penske Entertainment).

At Arrow McLaren, Ward is trying to formulate a winning strategy for Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist or Kanaan to return McLaren to Victory Lane at the Indianapolis 500 for the first time since Johnny Rutherford in 1976.

McLaren cars also won the 1972 Indianapolis 500 with Penske Racing’s Mark Donohue and in 1974 when Rutherford gave the McLaren team its first Indianapolis 500 win.

“The test went well from our point of view,” Ward said. “We went in there with pretty humble ambitions. At the Speedway, the key is to build up progressively. We wanted to make sure we understood the new parts and how they worked, step through them bit by bit and on multiple cars.

“Although that may not seem like the most time-efficient plan, it’s important to build driver confidence and understanding of the cars. We had some strong race cars last year, so we are working fairly methodically.

“There are some pros and cons for sure. There are going to be interesting decisions for teams to make, and you will see teams taking different routes and pivoting throughout the month of May. It will be an interesting behind-the-scenes engineering exercise going on without getting into too much detail.

“Overall, we got through a heck of a lot. We knew the weather was coming Friday so our plan was very frontloaded for Thursday. We got through the day and was pretty chilled out knowing we wouldn’t run on Friday.”

Another limiting factor to the test is the number of available tire sets. By running so many laps Thursday, teams were down to just one or two sets for Friday, which would have probably meant fewer laps.

“From our point of view, if we ran Friday, we were going to do data gathering runs,” Ward explained. “We only had a few sets of tires left because we knew it was unlikely there would be much running on Friday.

“The conditions on Friday looked like it was going to be pretty cool and unrepresentative anyway. The more representative stuff in terms of pack running was going to come on a hotter track. You can fool yourself on a cooler track how it will feel in the pack.

“From our point of view, we were looking at the opposite of a long run on Friday.”

The timing of this year’s Indy 500 Open Test is important because next weekend is the annual trip to Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

Marco Andretti preps in the No. 98 Dallara-Honda during the Indy 500 Open Test (Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment).

After that is the last weekend off before the three weekends in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It starts with the GMR Grand Prix on May 13, continues with a week of practice and qualifications for the Indy 500 and culminates with the race on May 28.

“The test was very productive,” Moyer said. “It is nice that IndyCar does this open test because it gives you time to reset yourself before you come back. That first week goes awful quick when you come back for some reason. It’s good to get a good run in and then you can go back and reset yourself before you come back.

“In our case, we worked pretty hard over the winter. Some of the gains came back, we believe, but it’s so hard to tell with the tows and some people weren’t running their ‘Indy’ car. They were running backup cars. You never know.

“Everybody knew going into Thursday there was a good chance this would happen with a rainout on Friday, so everybody powered through. You didn’t see a lot of cars going back to the garages. If you look at the lap count, everybody got through five or six sets of tires on Thursday. Some even got into seven sets of tires on Thursday. That’s a lot of laps and a lot of miles.”

Moyer applauded IndyCar’s efforts to be quick to adjust the schedule to ensure that all teams got more than enough track time on Thursday, rather than stick to the original schedule, once it became apparent bad weather was on the way for Friday.

“They were up front with everything,” Moyer said. “It was good to move the start of the test earlier. Everybody was nervous about the wind in the afternoon, but it never really showed up to what everybody thought it was going to get to. It was plenty safe to be running. Even in the later hours, when the wind picked up a little bit, it was still good enough you could get good test results. Everybody ran in packs and got a good feel for what their race car feels like.

“All in all, I think it was OK whatever happened Friday, whether we ran or not.

“Everybody across the board in the series was happy with what they did on Thursday.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

JOSEF’S FAMILY TIESNewgarden wins Indy 500 with wisdom of father, wife

Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and six red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500