Big, flat speedway gives Winston Cup drivers unique task
By Mike Fish, CNNSI.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- You'll pardon Kyle Petty and the boys if they're pumped about the Winston Cup stop here this weekend for the Brickyard 400.
Remember now, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway isn't like any other track the stock-car crowd gets to see. The racing shrine is a huge, two-and-a-half mile oval built for open-wheel racers. The turns are a quarter-mile, alone. And there's little or no banking to be found. "In a lot of ways, Indianapolis is Martinsville on steroids," Petty offered. "You square the corners off a little bit, you stretch and stretch, and there you are -- a big Martinsville in the middle of Indiana.
"You can drive it like Martinsville. You go hard down the straightaways and try not to use up your brakes before the day is over. Indy can really take a toll on your equipment, so you are always trying to find that fine line between running as fast as you can go and lasting the full 400 miles.
"The guys who have found that fine line over the years are usually pretty easy to name -- go look on the trophy."
The place is so humongous that, according to locals like Tony Stewart, it can be raining at one end of the track and dry as a bone at the other.
Stewart is a resident expert on Indy, having been raised in a small community 40 miles away.
"It's probably the most sensitive track to temperature that we run at, considering the speeds we run," said Stewart, currently fourth in the Winston Cup point standings. "You constantly have to be paying attention to not only the temperature at the track, but the wind direction. You normally don't talk about the wind direction and wind speed -- but it is sensitive here.
Stewart claims the most telling variable is surface temperature. The hotter the track gets, the more it loses grip and cars tend to slide around more. And thus, speeds come down.
Buckshot Jones jokes about flying in his own meteorologist to help plan race strategy.
"What makes it even more tricky is the fact that the track is so big," Jones said. "It could be sunny on one end, but cloudy and raining on the other end. It is amazing how much the track changes even from lap to lap. The race setup on a car can change drastically all day long depending on the weather."
The crews will fine-tune the car setups dependent on what Mother Nature brings Sunday afternoon, and the current forecast is for hot, steamy conditions.
"What is probably going to be bad for them is the heat, because it's supposed to be hot," said Dr. Henry Bock, track doctor and IRL medical director. "These guys are pretty well climatized by this time of summer, but they're still going to have to deal with temperatures in the upper 80s and 90s. I would imagine it's at least 10-to-15 degrees hotter inside the cars, depending how they vent them.
"There's a lot of heat that comes up through the floor and burns them a lot of times. They've got uniforms on that don't breath well and a helmet."
Even without the warm temperatures, the track can physically beat up drivers.
Drivers complain about the G forces experienced going through the flat turns, and the wear it puts on their neck.
"We run a variety of flat tracks, but none at that high a speed," Elliott Sadler said. "I think we're running 205 or 206 miles-an-hour at the end of front straightaway. It's a 90-degree turn with no banking. It's a pretty hard course to drive. It's probably the hardest racetrack that we race at. It offers a lot of demands physically and mentally.
"You go through the corner so fast here, the G forces pull right hard on your neck and arms. The G forces are related to how fast you're running, also. And these are four separate corners, so by the time you think you're going to get break you get another G pull. It just makes it a little hotter, and it is always hot this time of the year. We're running the middle of daytime up here. With all the front stands, and the stands all the way around, there is not a lot air circulating in this place.
"So you've got to pay attention to what is going on, and really try to drink a lot of water and be physically fit when the race comes."