Indianapolis 500 drivers get a grip

Posted: Tuesday, May 17, 2005

INDIANAPOLIS — Speeds are up, tire wear is down and things are finally getting back to normal at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

A year after the Indy Racing League reduced speeds at the track by decreasing the size of the engines, and a month after handling problems and excessive tire wear caused trouble during a tire test, drivers believe the newly repaved 2 1/2-mile oval is now producing more like they expected.

''We have all kinds of grip and that means you can run closer to other cars,'' said Sam Hornish Jr., a two-time IRL series champion who tested for Roger Penske's team last month. ''Before, it was a little more of a struggle to go flat out.''

If things keep improving before the Indianapolis 500 is run on May 29, it could make for a quicker, more competitive race. More grip could lead to more challenges and more passes — a perfect race day scenario.

But a month ago, it seemed implausible.

The problems began after the track was repaved in the fall. This spring, track officials found some small bumps and asked workers to grind them out.

When drivers returned for a tire test in early April, they were contending with more than just the usually tricky winds and fickle temperatures — they were dealing with few grooves, little grip and cars that were slipping and sliding when they came out of the corners.

''It was an inconsistent surface,'' speedway spokesman Ron Green said. ''We went from one kind of asphalt to a freshly ground asphalt and that created some problems.''

The result was troubling.

Speeds topped out at about 209 mph — barely a crawl on a track where 220 is considered slow, and drivers were tested just to keep their cars going straight.

''It was a handful for the drivers,'' said Kyle Moyer, general manager of Andretti Green Racing, which is co-owned by Michael Andretti.

Speedway officials responded by calling in workers for another grinding treatment to smooth out the entire track. Two weeks later, the drivers returned for another test and found many of the problems were gone.

Since then, there have been test sessions for NASCAR and the Infiniti Pro Series, a developmental circuit for the IRL. Rookie orientation took place May 8-9, and that, combined with dragging large tires around the oval a week before practice opened created a noticeable difference during last week's practice sessions and qualifying.

Even after heavy rain Friday and Saturday washed the track clean, 20 of 22 qualifiers Sunday had faster four-lap averages than Buddy Rice did in winning the pole last year at 222.024 mph.

Brazil's Tony Kanaan, this year's polesitter, went 227.566 in his four-lap qualifying run and the field average so far of 225.324 is more than 7 mph faster than the average of last year's 33 starters.

''Looking at the speed charts, I think the surface appears to be producing higher speeds,'' Green said. ''You also have another year of development with these engines, so it's a combination of factors.''

Besides the new surface and an additional year of engine development, drivers were also helped with a cool day that provided ideal qualifying conditions — something that may not be much help during the final weekend of time trials. Early forecasts are calling for sunshine and temperatures in the 80s.

But, for now, the drivers have no complaints.

''There seems to be a reasonable amount of grip, and I think everybody's more prepared,'' said IRL points leader Dan Wheldon, who was won three of four races this year. ''It all seems to be good.''

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