Monday, May 18, 2015

(Going on their) head case

INDIANAPOLIS -- ... and welcome, everyone, to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, aka Hey, Look, Ma, I'm Upside Down, aka Thank God I Remembered To Bring My Helmet.

There was May rain and lush May heat and brave folks scaring themselves May-green as they flew around the place north of 232 mph. And then ...

Well. And then, they just flew.

Helio Castroneves went on his head. Josef Newgarden went on his head. Ed Carpenter went on his head. Three times in a week, IndyCars did what IndyCars rarely do -- turn greasy-side up. They did more flipping than Jeb Bush on Iraq.

It all begged the question what exactly IndyCar was doing with all that time and money it spent on the new aero kits it rolled out this spring. All those computer models, all that research and development, and they didn't know the things would turn into helicopters the first time they went racing on an oval?

"Hindsight always gives you a different perspective," Derrick Walker, president of competition and operations for IndyCar, said Sunday.

Yeah. Such as, how come there wasn't more foresight?

To the credit of IndyCar and the Speedway, they did some prodigious thinking on their feet Sunday, after Carpenter crashed in the morning and it became clear the prevailing aero and boost setups weren't tenable. You can ding them for dialing back the boost to race-day levels, thereby scrubbing five or six mph off everyone's top end for qualifying, but not to do so would have been inviting disaster.

Racing may be an inherently perilous sport -- everyone in it understands and accepts the risks involved -- but no one goes into it looking to fill a cemetery plot. There's a fine line, and a vast difference, between taking it right to the very edge and going beyond it. No one who values the health of the sport actively seeks the latter.

And so, they dialed back everyone's boost after Carpenter's crash.  It was absolutely the right move, because as negligible as that 5 mph might seem, when you're traveling 225 mph and beyond, it's anything but.

"Oh, yeah, there is a difference," Newgarden said Monday, after qualifying ninth Sunday at 225.187. "You're on such the limit of grip here at Indianapolis, so, you know, 5 mph into a corner is a huge difference. It's generally a lot harder to drive the car (at the faster speed).

"I don't want to make it sound like it was easy yesterday in qualifying, because it wasn't. We ran our race type setup for downforce, but we were as trimmed out as we could be and still on the edge as we could be. It was still tough to go and out and put four laps together."


"But it wasn't as hard as it could have been," Newgarden went on. "The boost would have made it harder. It would have made it more difficult to really lay it out there."

And potentially deadly. And if occasional death has always been a regrettable part of racing, it's never done anything but damage the sport when it happens -- particularly when the public perception is that witless negligence or callous indifference was the cause.

Thus, the cluster that was Sunday. Unavoidable in one context; completely avoidable in another.

 "This problem is solvable," said Walker, pledging that more testing is in the offing before IndyCar hits more high-speed ovals at Texas, Fontana and Pocono. "Backing up to the race here, we need to err on the side of safety, and I'm very confident we will resolve whatever issues we've got. I don't believe we'll be sitting here a year from now still scratching the head."

For the sake of his sport, he'd better hope not.  

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