INDIANAPOLIS – When testing speeds at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crept back above 220 mph last month after a brief slowdown, no one in the Indy Racing League flinched.
In the aftermath of Tony Renna’s fatal accident at the Speedway last fall, the IRL had hoped to slow the cars by about 10 mph in time for the Indianapolis 500, and it looked as if the goal was in reach.
Helio Castroneves won the 2003 Indy pole at 231.732 mph, and Renna was already at 227 mph on his first fast lap in a Ganassi Racing car when he lost control and flipped into the third-turn fence Oct. 22.
Without rule changes, it was expected that the manufacturers would have escalated performance to at least 233 mph by the time practice for the 500 opened today.
The one-lap track record is 237.498 mph, set by Arie Luyendyk in 1996.
To control speeds, the IRL sped up its adoption of a 3.0-liter engine – it had used a 3.5 since 2000 – and altered the configuration of the rear wing. Speeds fell accordingly. Only two drivers reached 220 mph in testing April 27-28; the other top contenders were in the 215-219 mph bracket.
Said IRL President Tony George of 220 mph: “That’s where we start to see a difference in safety.”
How far the top speed will rise during the May 15-16 qualifications is uncertain. Last year, Alex Barron paced April testing with a lap of 229.1 mph, which means Castroneves pushed it up 2.6 mph to win the pole.
If that progression holds true this year, pole speed should be about 222.7.
“That’s a good, safe speed,” Castroneves said. “Of course, things can happen at any speed, but anything you can do to lower the speed gives the driver more time to react to things. This is certainly a lot better than where we would have been without the (rule) changes.”
Included in the changes are aerodynamic features intended to redirect sliding cars to the ground when air gets underneath them. The IRL had a record five cars go airborne last year, with Kenny Brack suffering multiple career-threatening injuries in the season-ending race at Texas Motor Speedway and Renna losing his life the next week.
Also, Mario Andretti flipped into the Speedway’s fence during April 2003 testing after contact with debris left on the track from a Brack crash, and Dan Wheldon’s car lifted up and turned over after he hit the third-turn wall late in that year’s Indy 500. Castroneves also was thrown into the fence when he ran over Tony Kanaan’s wheel during testing at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
IRL officials have tried to create additional aerodynamic downforce with devices designed to act like wings. They affixed a quarter-inch wicker bill strip to the car’s nose and ran it all the way to the engine cover. They also mandated a three-eighths-inch-thick curved plate on the bottom of the car.
“Before there was a negative pressure (under the car),” Andretti Green Racing general manager Kyle Moyer said. “Now there’s a positive pressure. It looks good. It should work.”
Another benefit of the aero changes, which cost about $1,700 per car, is that there is no change in handling when the car moves in a straight line.
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