“What’s normal for us is deemed completely insane by 99.9 percent of the population,” Sebastien Bourdais says of flirting with the walls at a 200mph-plus superspeedway. “I mean, how do you relate that to the guy sitting next to you in the airport?”
James Hinchcliffe isn’t sure it’s actually possible to translate the crazed world exploding past his visor at warp speed.
“It’s an experience that, in the grand scheme of people on this planet, a very small percentage have had the privilege to really live through,” says the 2016 Indy 500 pole winner. “As a driver, you almost have to forget what you’re doing while you’re doing it or else the smart part of your brain will kick in and say, ‘You know, you should probably stop now…’
“But there’s just something so beautiful about being able to take a machine and push it to those extremes and keep it in control. You’ve got this piece of metal that’s essentially exploding 12,000 times a minute behind your back and hurtling you through the air at 240mph, and you’re somehow controlling that. The precision required, the attention, the focus; it’s unlike anything else, and it’s a really, really hard feeling to describe to people who haven’t done it. But we’re very lucky to get to do what we do and get to say that we’re some of the few people who’ve lived it.”
So how does the mind deal with the sensory overload that comes with driving devastatingly fast machines? To break everything down, the mental frame rate must increase – like a super high-speed camera that shoots a thousand frames per second – so each slice, every moment in time, appears in slow motion.
Bourdais, like all the top guys, is adept at it now, but recalls a time when his brain wasn’t so dialed in to life at warp speed.
“I remember my very first Formula 1 test back in 2002,” he continues. “That was the first time I had a feeling of, ‘OK, I’m not sure I’m up to this.’ It’s just – it’s overwhelming. I’m late on everything. The acceleration was insane, and then I kept missing apexes. I would brake too late. Everything was happening way too fast.
“That evening I was thinking, ‘I don’t think I can do this. I think I’ve reached my limit here. I can’t do this.’ But the next day I got back in the car and things had slowed down dramatically. I wouldn’t say I felt at home, but it was such a difference in terms of appreciation and perception of the whole experience.
“With a night to sleep on it, the brain had time to think about it and readjust; the body relaxed and the mind settled and everything felt much more normal, which I really didn’t know was possible. Sure, it was still quick, but I felt like I was somewhat back in control.”
The Verizon IndyCar Series is all about speed. Yes, it’s the drivers doing all that 240mph stuff, but it’s also the guys in the pit lane and on the shop floors. IndyCar’s unrelenting pace is a prerequisite for all those who accept the challenge.
“It’s the backbone of what we do,” says Team Penske competition director Kyle Moyer. “When we talk speed, the cars are a lot faster than when I first came here, but the biggest change recently hasn’t so much been the speed of the car; it’s the speed of everything else that happens.”
In an era of such evenly-matched cars, it was only natural for the hands and minds in charge of those machines to work faster, arrive at conclusions quicker, and try to solve the puzzle before the competition works out its own answers. Where drivers are judged by their lap times and – harsh reality alert – can keep or lose a job based on their effectiveness and results, similarly tough criteria has filtered down to the rest of the team.
According to Moyer, the mental stopwatch is always running within IndyCar Series teams, and the push to shave seconds from routine tasks – and minutes or hours from the big ones – has become a competitive way of life.
“Guys used to crash at Indy, and you’d be happy to get the car back out by the weekend,” he says. “Now, if you don’t make it back out by the end of the day, you’re disappointed in yourselves. The mechanics have to be so much more prepared. Everything’s evolved to be faster, more efficient, and you can’t really compromise there.
“We have less time during the sessions to make the cars faster, and the time between sessions isn’t that much, so the thing we fight for internally is to make more out of the same time that everyone’s given. If we have 45 minutes of practice and we can get through 10 setup changes while the guys next to us only get through eight, that’s an advantage. Our guys can do a front spring change in two minutes now. Three would be considered slow. That’s the pressure to perform that everyone’s under.”
How normal can we be?
For a Verizon IndyCar Series driver, 200mph-plus is normality. But even they question it sometimes…
“It’s definitely more frightening to watch myself from outside of the car than to be in it,” says 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. “I’ll watch the footage and it’s like, ‘Whoa, careful, man!’ I’m a late turn-in guy. Always have been. Road courses, short ovals, superspeedways, I’m always on the later side of town. I know some guys who turn in a little bit earlier and away from the wall, but I like to be right there with it.
“Doing 240 at a place like Indy, your eyes are so far up the track. You come halfway down the straightaway and you’re already looking at your turn-in point. By the time you get to turning, you’re already looking at the corner exit, where you’re going to place the car, because every inch of track that you can use is potentially an advantage.
“Radius equals speed, so that’s always the case. The more track you can use, that usually ends up being the better way to go at Indy. The hard part, or the whole challenge of it all, is not to use up too much. Sometimes, when you see your right-front tire is inches from the wall, you count your blessings.
“You’re strapped into this car, doing what’s probably the most ridiculous thing anyone can think of, defying the odds – just keeping it off the walls with every lap you turn – and loving every minute of it. How normal can we really be?”
This feature first appeared in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season preview issue of RACER magazine.