PRUETT: IndyCar’s home run derby

Image by Scott LePage/LAT

PRUETT: IndyCar’s home run derby

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: IndyCar’s home run derby


We are in the midst of an extraordinary IndyCar phenomenon. Of the 12 races completed this season, six have gone down as majestic butt-kickings, and an argument could easily be made that we’ve seen seven. What an extraordinary thing to witness.

The same old axiom about the NTT IndyCar Series and how any among the top 15 drivers could win each weekend remains true. What’s changed, however, is the methodology behind those wins, as we’ve had more events turn into cakewalks, smackdowns, or outright knockouts than I can recall in a single championship run.

It’s races like the Indianapolis Grand Prix, where three drivers led 15 or more laps and an interloper swept in at the end to steal a dramatic victory, that feel like rarities.

Takuma Sato started the trend at Barber Motorsports Park after claiming pole and leading 74 of 90 laps to win for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Alexander Rossi, in one of his two disappearing acts to date, took pole in Long Beach and crushed the field by leading 85 of 90 laps to win for Andretti Autosport. Simon Pagenaud opened his first of two statement-making wins for Team Penske by capturing the pole and leading 116 of 200 laps at the Indianapolis 500; next on the lap-leader list was Rossi at 22.

Rossi did it again at Road America, taking the lead from second on the grid on the opening lap and running away from Will Power, who finished second, 28.4 seconds in arrears. In the 55-lap contest, Rossi was up front for 54; Graham Rahal led the one Rossi did not due to pit stop cycles. Talk about demoralizing.

It was Lap 1 and done for Rossi at Road America. Image by LAT.

Pagenaud continued the home run derby at the recent Toronto street race, starting from pole position and leading 80 of 85 laps while leaving everyone else — even the charging Scott Dixon — to scrap for runner-up status. And then we have last weekend’s race in Iowa, better known as the “Just Give Josef The Dang Trophy 300.”

Newgarden’s sprint from fourth on the grid to stomping the competition for 245 of 300 laps extended into early Sunday morning. It was the closest thing we’ve seen following Rossi’s Road America body slam. And if it weren’t for the caution period late in the race, the championship leader would have likely lapped more than the 15 cars he thrashed on the little oval.

We could also make a case for Will Power’s performance at Circuit of The Americas where he charged into Turn 1 from pole, then led 45 laps and had the race completely under control — but lost it all when NBC Sports’ beloved “Danger Zone” struck as Felix Rosenqvist crashed and the pits closed before the Penske man could stop. When he did pit, a gearbox failure sealed his fate while attempting to pull away from the box.

Despite the inopportune crash and broken gears, Power was almost finished authoring our seventh runaway race of 2019 until the racing gods intervened.

So, besides the crazy odds involved where more than half of this year’s races have felt like lead-off and walk-off home runs, is there a central reason behind this amazing increase in lopsided wins? Rossi’s race engineer Jeremy Milless has an idea on the ‘why’ and ‘how.’

“I would have to say it’s tires,” he said. “They change so much every year, every event. Firestone says they’re tiny changes, but they’re never tiny. Everything’s always different. So, I think it’s just that changing and you don’t know how the final tire’s going to perform sometimes until the race weekend starts and you run on them, because those tires aren’t always available when we go testing. So it can make it more unpredictable, which means if you hit the balance just that one bit better than all the other cars, you can destroy them.”

If Bretzman (left) and Pagenaud are smiling early in the weekend, chances are they’ll stay that way throughout given today’s realities. Image by Michael Levitt/LAT.

Simon Pagenaud’s race engineer Ben Bretzman isn’t sure on the ‘how’ and ‘why,’ but has a solid grasp on the ‘what.’

“I think most of it is when you do your prep work right, and you start the first session with the driver basically saying there’s nothing you can do to make it better, then all you do is just build confidence the rest of the practice sessions and qualifying,” he says. “And when you have an upper echelon driver, who’s got a really good car and who doesn’t need to pay attention to what the car is doing, and they can just focus on driving, then the weekend’s just going to be easy, right?

“And because the driver’s going to be good, the car is good, and you don’t really need to do too much to it — you’re just building that driver’s confidence the entire time. So he’s just getting better and better.

“As long as if you unload close on setup, the driver’s confidence is going to be skyrocketing. So he doesn’t have to worry about anything except for driving and that’s when you see these incredible performances. At the Indy 500, at Toronto, we never touched the car. So I think that’s going to be most of it.”

Just as Milless thinks tire variables have led to different driver and teams finding the magic solution, Bretzman looks to the ever-increasing use of off-track testing tools — driver simulators, chassis setup simulators, suspension rigs, damper dynos, and more — as contributing factors to the phenomenon. Every IndyCar team owns or has access to the tools, which has leveled the playing field to a greater degree — at least on the stopwatch — but there’s also a chance for some teams, and possibly just one of its driver/engineer combos, to really nail the setup.

“Oh for sure it’s helps, and all of our guys have access to that,” he said. “It helps a ton. That part makes the weekend much smoother from the standpoint that you don’t have to spend time trying things that you’ve already crossed off the list. It just guides you in the right direction, but I think you have to start really strong, which — if you can find that direction before you go into that first practice — is a huge thing.

“I don’t think you’ll ever see a guy dominate a weekend if he’s like 15th in Practice 1, because he just too far behind at that point in this day and age. Toronto was like that for us. The plan coming out of [Penske’s pre-race off-track testing for Pagenaud] was so good, it translated immediately once we got going on track.”

In seven out of 12 races held so far, teams and their drivers have swung for the fences and connected. Will this weekend’s event at Mid-Ohio make it eight?