Nicci Daly shares her story from the Indy500 pit lane where she soon develops a healthy respect for oval racing and finds out which drivers have what it takes.
Indy or Bust
May is the longest month in the racing calendar where the focus lies solely on one race… the Indianapolis 500 in Indiana. This year was a special one as it was the 100th running and tickets were sold out. With 400,000 people in attendance, the Indy500 is the best attended sporting event in the world.
When it comes to oval [track] racing though, the majority of the world are of the same opinion.. Simple and Boring!
Well, I will admit I wasn’t a huge fan of ovals either and my initial thoughts were that it can’t be that hard, but after witnessing it first hand and working at it, it didn’t take long for my initial thinking to be squashed like an African wildebeest eyeball.
The Need for Speed
As a data engineer, I am concerned with throttle pedal position, mechanical and aero balance. The throttle pedal position data doesn’t lie and from one signal trace you can tell very quickly how big your driver’s balls are!
Going over 200mph flat out around in circles seems easy but if you are not able to reach at least 220mph you don’t even get to enter the race and anyone driving below 225mph is considered a hazard. Combine this with being only inches away from a concrete wall and it doesn’t take long to see why drivers treat this place with respect.
In order to go fast you need to have a balanced car. There are two ways for the car to generate grip, mechanical or aerodynamic. Too much aero grip and you induce drag which slows you down, not enough mechanical grip and you become unstable. An unstable car will hurl the back end into a spin with the slightest bump or the slightest increase in steering input.
Being on the absolute limit of adhesion all the time means there is no room for error. This is why it is so important that the driver’s feedback as much information as possible to the engineers so we can give them confidence in the stability and they can then push the car to its limit every time.
Once you cross the limit, its a case of “hit and hope”. You know you are going to hit but you just hope the hit is not too destructive and you hope you walk away. The aero balance is difficult to get right too because temperature, traffic and wind all affect it. A rise in temperature will lower the air density and reduce aerodynamic downforce. If you can not get the most mechanical grip you would like you may use the aerodynamic elements to help stabilize the car so a rise in temperature can upset the balance and make it difficult to drive at high speeds.
Youth vs Experience
We were fortunate to have experienced oval driver, Kyle, on our team so our younger inexperienced driver, Zach, could learn. By the end of practice we were happy with the aero and mechanical balance of the car but it took almost 50 laps for Zach to stay flat for just one lap. He was so scared he could only stay out for a total of four laps before coming in. During the race Kyle overcorrected, a mistake that caused the front to respond to the steering input and fling him straight into the wall. Zach ended up at the back of the pack with an unbalanced car and a small set of balls. It was not a great weekend for Juncos Racing but it was a huge learning experience for me.
After a busy week working I got to enjoy the weekend of the 500 race where my cousin Conor was racing. The atmosphere in the place was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Every lead change induced a Mexican wave of echoing cheer around the 2.5 mile oval. There was pride and passion among the American fans when an American would lead the race and eventually win.
I now have a huge appreciation for what racing drivers do around oval tracks and I look forward to working at Iowa at our next oval race. Next month we race in Toronto, Iowa and mid Ohio. If you are interested in motor racing, check back then as I continue my blog from the pits.