If I was Dorothy I’d not be surprised to find myself blown away to the Land of Oz. It was about that windy Wednesday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Verizon INDYCAR Series practice, leading up to the 101 Running of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Firestone technology measured gusts up to 25 mph. Others reported 30-35 mph. It was inconsistent but more on than off, and in the Pit Lane the tall, spindly electronics antennas were swaying like millennials at a rock concert. Certainly no day to be wearing a press hat. NBCSN Pundit Will Buxton coined the phrase “Windy 500.”
The third day of Practice was not the most exciting day, but at least it was dry. There were five Cautions for track inspections and debris, totaling 12.40 minutes of down time. The Starter didn’t have much to do save hold the flag stick and let the wind display the flag full and proper. There was not much race activity at any given time, so the drivers didn’t have much chance for racing in traffic. No drama, mama.
When the track opened at noon, it was 84 degrees F for ambient temperature/29 C; and the track measured a high of 108F/42C. The temperature actually varied turn by turn, ranging from 94-116 degrees F. And as the afternoon progressed, the skies got grayer and grayer, with a high cloudy overcast. And then … the cloud cover dissipated somewhat and by 4pm the pit grandstands overlooking the Pit Lane were bathed in warm sunshine.
Ed Carpenter/No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet ended up fastest with a lap of 222.451 mph, and his No Tow time was also fastest – 222.894 mph. “I felt it was important to run on a day like today just because it is a challenge. The wind was very, very gusty, variable. And to me, if you can go out and get comfortable in conditions like that, I think that bodes well for the car, the race car and how comfortable you can be.”
Second and third were drivers who had also led during the afternoon – runner-up Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and Jr Hildebrand/No.21 Preferred Freezer Services Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet.
Dixon said he “actually expected it to be worse. I think once you got running, obviously the car has more downforce in it and you kind of are trying some bigger items. You can’t feel the subtle stuff, but there are definitely some gusts that can catch you out, especially in Turn 2 with the wind coming from behind. Nothing too crazy for us. Tried to get through some big-ticket items and we weren’t real happy with the car yesterday across the board with all four cars. We’ve been struggling. We had some ideas we needed to try and today felt a lot better than yesterday A good improvement.”
Hildebrand agreed with his teammate, “about it being important to get out and run a little bit in these weather conditions, just because it could be like this, even whether it’s over qualifying weekend or it’s next Monday, Carb day or it’s the race.”
The drivers were slow to go on course. By 2pm, only 11 drivers had been on course, the Pit Lane wasn’t exactly bustling, and more teams seemed to be headed to rather than from their garages. At that point, the fastest drivers were JR Hildebrand/No.21 Preferred Freezer Service Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet; then Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, and then Hildebrand’s Team Owner and teammate, Ed Carpenter/No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka, who led for a long time. Then Dixon went faster – 222.599 mph.
After Dixon had met with the Media at 4pm as the then-fastest driver, Carpenter went faster. His lap was 222.894 mph and that was with No Tow. As with most drivers who meet with the Media, their necks are craned towards the Timing & Scoring Monitor and they make no secret of what they’re doing – monitoring/measuring their competition.
At day’s end, Fernando Alonso/No.29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda was the fastest Rookie, who ran mid-pack before jumping to fourth overall in the waning moments of Happy Hour. His fastest time was 219.533 mph and that was without a tow. He has an in-car camera mounted behind his head so you can see his hands move, which isn’t a lot.
By 2:30pm, only thirteen drivers had turned a lap, but the speeds weren’t fast and not many had a tow. The fastest OA speed at that point was 221.253 mph by Carpenter. The fastest speed alone/without a tow was Hildebrand’s 220.398 mph when he was running second. No driver was faster Wednesday than the other two days. So far, 19 drivers were fastest on Monday, the rest faster on Tuesday.
Track wise, at least the drivers could practice pit stops. That’s what Sage Karam/No.24 DRR Mecum Auctions Dreyer & Reinbold Chevrolet had been his plan, when he dropped by the Media Center for a chat. “We pretty much wrote off today. This is going to be windiest we’ll see. You’re not going to learn much from a day like today. It would be too risky. We went out to do some pit stop practice to get the guys ready to go and make something of the day. We are set to do some good work on Thursday.” Karam ran nine laps, for a seventeenth place overall on the chart. His best lap was 151.130 mph, and with no tow, it was only 68.882 mph.
I felt a pang of sympathy for all the driver spotters high atop the grandstands in the elements, having spurts of activity interspersed with longer periods of nothing. INDYCAR mandates that all drivers have two spotters for the Indy 500 – in Turn One and in Turn Three. The Spotters Stands are high atop the grandstands in those areas, and unlike some other speedways, IMS has no escalators or elevators. It’s quite a hike up those grandstand stairs; and once on top, there’s no protection from the elements, be it wind, rain or sun.
It’s not spectating up there – it’s hard work. In addition to the two-way conversations with their drivers, the spotters are also in communication with Race Control and the Pit Box. That’s a lot to digest and keep straight. The spotters have a couple of mandatory meetings with INDYCAR officials prior to race day.
The spotters situate themselves by teams on the roof, and watch each other for hand signals. The spotters wave one arm when their driver is going to pit. This allows the other spotters to advise their drivers of the pitting driver.
Damon Hill, a Kiwi from Melbourne, Australia, has six years of experience spotting for Andretti Autosport at The Brickyard. He does just the one event a year, and he could be the only spotter coming from another country. And while he’s named for the famous British driver, he’s no relation.
This first week Hill is spotting for Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda through Friday. For Qualifying through the race, Hill will spot for Takuma Sato. Tuesday through Thursday of race week, the VICS drivers are on their North America Media Market blitz to promote the race, leaving INDYCAR spotters some downtime. In Hill’s case, on Thursday he will spot for one of the Andretti Indy Lights drivers.
It must not be that much fun, either, for the corner workers who have to staff their posts from noon to six, whether there are cars on course or not. No sheltered turn stations or protection from the elements, and standing all that time.
Those drivers that didn’t go on track much or at all had a variety of options: skate boarding, riding golf carts, signing autographs and posing for photos, hanging with their pals, debriefing and discussing stuff with their crew, eating ice cream, strolling through the Media Center, or collecting race stickers and other swag.
The INDYCAR Scrutineers had packed up shop by noon – no takers. Garage door down in the Bay and everything put away by the transporter.
Meanwhile, the INDYCAR Communications Staff is hard at work with the plans and logistics of sending 33 VICS drivers around the US and Canada to promote The Greatest Spectacle in Racing on the Tuesday-Thursday, before Carb Day. It happens within a 24-36-Hour period: In-Out and back to Indy. Maybe a driver will come to a place near you. One of the two drivers from my area, JR Hildebrand of Sausalito CA, will meet with the media in a waterfront pub near the ballpark in San Francisco. And the other, Alexander Rossi of Nevada City CA will travel to New York City with Fernando Alonso to make the rounds of the TV and Radio studios and visit with print media also. And I look forward to the nickname the Andretti Autosport boys are hoping to find for Fernando, who’s currently going by Fred.