The forecast for this weekend’s Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston calls for ambient temperatures around 90 degrees and humidity ranging between 70 and 80 percent.
If that sounds uncomfortable to experience standing trackside – a bit like having a dog breathe in your face all day – imagine what it will be like for the 23 drivers wearing thick fireproof suits in the midday sun for a 90-lap race on Saturday. And when Race 1 is done, they get to come back and do it all over again 24 hours later for another 90-lap contest.
Add in the physical forces they’ll deal with as they wrestle with maximum downforce – all without the benefit of power steering, rapid fluid loss from extreme exertion, plus increased muscle fatigue – and you have a formula that could push many drivers to the brink of exhaustion before Race 2 is over on Sunday. Drivers have raced in higher ambient temperatures, but the combination of heat and humidity presents a swampy situation unlike anything else on the 19-race calendar.
Many Verizon IndyCar Series drivers take a fanatical approach to fitness, meaning the Houston double-header should be something most are prepared to handle, but according to Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson, heat exhaustion is a concern for even the fittest athletes on the grid.
“This will test everyone,” said Wilson, who uses hard cycling regimens at home in Colorado’s thin air to increase his cardio capabilities. “Anyone who says this weekend won’t be an issue [physically] is either lying or not driving fast enough. Everyone’s concerned about it, and some people deal with heat better than others…”
Championship leader Will Power is known for his insane workouts, and says those who’ve waited too long to get on top of their cardio and muscle endurance could be in for an unpleasant surprise.
“There’s nothing you can do in this two-week gap [between races],” reckons the Team Penske driver. “I think what you’ve got is what you’ve got. There’s nothing you can do that’s going to help you. You would have had to have done that all at the beginning of the season. It’s not like you can just start working extra hard in the last few weeks to build up for those conditions.”
Last year’s Shell & Pennzoil Grand Prix double-header was held later in the year in October, yet featured high temperatures and stifling humidity for Saturday’s Race 1. Passing thunderstorms changed the local weather enough to make Sunday’s race more tolerable, but at the moment, Wilson says he’s expecting a pair of demanding races in Texas.
“I think it’s going it be bad,” he added. “Last year, I remember thinking ‘this is tough’ after the first race – I was laying on my bed just worn out from the heat. There’s definitely an element of the unknown. It was sweaty hot last year on Saturday, then there was the storm, and by Sunday it was 20 degrees cooler, we lost a lot of humidity, and the race was actually pleasant. I don’t see us getting that lucky this year. It’s going to be quite a challenge.”
Fluid consumption will be a major part of the Grand Prix as drivers and crews fight to stay ahead of any issues that may arise. The Verizon IndyCar Series is looking into having walk-through misting devices on pit lane to help keep teams cool, and a variety of electrolyte replacement powders and cool suits will also be employed by teams and drivers.
“The key is on hydration, pre-hydration and staying hydrated the entire weekend,” Wilson explained. “I use a drink mix, SOS, that works really well for me. I have a cool vest I wear that you slide icepacks into during the double-headers that I use now. For me, it’s the temperature that drains you more than anything else, so doing all you can to manage that is where you have to put your focus.”
The field of IndyCar drivers will need to battle the elements as they attack for 90 laps in both rounds, and inside the car, they’ll have a second battle to wage as their bodies act like heat exchangers dealing with the ambient conditions. They’ll also generate heat while expending significant energy through their muscles. Like engines getting close to overheating, one of the main themes to follow this weekend will be how each driver endures the conditions, followed by how well they can maintain a performance level at or near 100 percent.
IndyCar’s road and street course events are normally run at a torrid pace, making any drop-off in intensity – even a few tenths per lap – an opportunity for the fresher drivers to seize upon. Look for some to shine through in both rounds, and by the numbers, you can also expect a few to struggle. The 2014 championship is far from decided, making heat an interesting variable that could influence the standings once Houston has been run.
Penske’s Power, who has plenty to gain or lose, knows the heat will take its toll, but expects to deliver this weekend as he looks to extend his points lead.
“You know going in the heat’s going to fatigue you,” he said. “If you’re going on a run, you’re always quicker if it’s cooler than if it was hot. When it’s hot, you use so much energy trying to combat the heat, your heart rate’s higher, and it’s so much harder, but it isn’t a mystery or something you don’t expect. And I always find the second race isn’t as bad as I think it will be.
“It will be difficult, and I always find the first half of the race is tougher as your body is getting used to things, but after that, you’re kind of locked in to the race. If there’s a yellow around the halfway point it’s perfect, because you can recover a bit and get your second wind. I think everyone’s aware it’s going to be bloody tough, but I can’t wait…”