When fatal or debilitating accidents happen in racing, speed is often labeled the culprit.
So last year, after Tony Renna was killed while testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Kenny Brack and Gil de Ferran suffered serious injuries, Indy Racing League officials decided that the 230-mph-plus speeds that cars were running were too fast. That prompted a reduction in engine size from 3.5 liters to 3.0 liters, a loss of nearly 100 horsepower and, officials hoped, at least 10 mph.
Whether it worked will be known today when drivers try to get the maximum from their cars during four-lap qualifying runs for the 88th Indianapolis 500 on May 30. Practice speeds this week indicate the new formula is working.
Helio Castroneves won the pole last year with a 231.725-mph average, with one lap of 232.215.
This year’s best has been 222.668 on Wednesday by Tony Kanaan, one of Michael Andretti’s four-driver team.
“I wish I could say I did that myself, but I got a tow from Bruno [Junqueira] coming out of the pits,” Kanaan said. “Then when he pulled in, my teammate Bryan [Herta] pulled me around for two laps. I would like to say that was my true speed, but in all honesty, it wasn’t.”
Rain, which wiped out four hours of practice Thursday and all of it Friday, will make today’s time trials even more unpredictable. The weather forecast is for cool and clear conditions.
“I’d say, if the weather cooperates, the pole speed could be 222.6 or maybe 222.8,” said Kanaan, the Brazilian who started second and finished third in last year’s 500.
Added Robby Gordon, who has been on the front row in two of the last three 500s, “I know you’re not going to see a 223 in qualifying. You’re probably not going to see four laps at 222. You’re looking at a 220, 221 four-lap average.”
Gordon, who was hoping for an early starting time today so he could return to Richmond, Va., for a NASCAR Nextel Cup race tonight, got his wish. He will be the second driver out on the 2 1/2-mile rectangular oval.
Rookie Ed Carpenter, stepson of IMS owner-president Tony George, will be the first qualifier.
“It’s a shame we didn’t have a full day to try things with the car, but I’m confident in the direction the team is headed,” said Carpenter, who is driving a Dallara-Chevrolet for former 500 winner Eddie Cheever.
“We have two hours to practice [before qualifying starts], so we’ll focus on making the best of our time. Everyone is dealing with the same conditions, so we’re all in the same boat.”
And on Friday, a boat would have been appropriate.
Forty-nine cars have taken laps this week, but 22 have been backups.
“We had hoped that track speeds would be around 224-225 and when teams get more familiar with the new specs and the track gets more rubber on it, I think we’ll see them,” said Brian Barnhart, IRL operations manager. “Of course, pole speed at Indianapolis is dictated by weather and track conditions.”
Reduction in speed has been part of the 500 since Parnelli Jones was the first to exceed 150 mph in 1963 and railbirds claimed it would never be broken.
Jimmy Clark upped it to 158 the next year.
Since Arie Luyendyk did four laps at 236.986 in 1997, however, there has been no chance for track announcer Tom Carnegie to intone those famous words, “It’s a newww track record!”
A more dramatic engine change was made the following year, dropping more powerful turbocharged engines for ones normally aspirated.
But as the engineers worked overtime to gradually get back the lost speed, the margin narrowed and after the chilling severity of last year’s accidents, another reduction seemed to be in order.
“Obviously, everyone will bring out their best available engines for qualifying on Saturday, but I think you’ll continue to see new development throughout the month,” said John Faivre, Toyota IRL program manager. “What might be the best on Saturday may not be the best later in the month.”
Roger Penske, whose drivers have won 13 Indy 500s, said he would rather have more speed later.
“The pole position is important to us, as it has been in the past, but I think the day we want to be fastest is race day,” said the veteran team owner, whose drivers this year are two-time winner Castroneves and two-time IRL champion Sam Hornish Jr. in Toyota-powered Dallaras.
“I think we have a much safer environment for the drivers. I think there is no question, with the soft wall and the lower speeds, that is good. What we have also done, in taking some wing out of the cars, is to reduce the downforce, making the cars less stable.”
Most drivers agree that the changes in horsepower, along with other changes in the aero package designed to prevent cars from taking off like airplanes, has made driving more critical, more demanding.
“The window [of tolerance] gets a lot narrower when you don’t have the downforce to support the car,” Kanaan said. “The downforce can actually mask a lot of problems on the cars. So, not having that much has definitely made it a lot more difficult. It makes it a lot slower, yes, but also much more exciting.”
Castroneves noted, however, that no matter how much the horsepower is reduced, to qualify well a driver must have his car on the ragged edge:
“Like [four-time 500 winner] Rick Mears says, ‘If the car is too comfortable, that means you are too slow.’ I totally agree because always when you are going to try to go fast, you must try driving the edge. I like that.”
* When: May 30, 9 a.m. PDT.
* Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
* TV: Channel 7.
* Coverage of today’s time trials: 9 a.m. (ESPN), 10 a.m. (Channel 7) and 2 p.m. (ESPN)
* Defending champion: Gil de Ferran.