The last two champions of the NTT IndyCar Series — Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon — got an advance look at two important elements of the season to come when they tested aeroscreen-equipped Indy cars on the Richmond Raceway oval on Tuesday, in preparation for the addition of the cockpit protection device to all cars and the series’ return to the short oval next June for the first time in a decade.
For Newgarden, it was the first taste of both, after teammates Will Power and Simon Pagenaud had tested the Chevy-powered car equipped with the aeroscreen at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Barber Motorsports Park, respectively. Like them, he didn’t report having any significant issues getting used to it.
“It honestly was pretty seamless. It didn’t feel that different,” Newgarden said of the aeroscreen. “When I first went out, in my perception of how much grip the car had and how much control I had in the car, was slightly different. But I think that was because it felt foreign. You’re not used to having a screen over your head.
“But after 20, 30 laps when you got used to it, the car feels very similar as far as the way I drive the car. The way the car feels compared to a place like Iowa or Gateway, it feels very similar. From a tuning standpoint, it didn’t take much to get the car back into the correct window as far as the balance. I think the balance is still very good, even with the screen on. From that standpoint, I don’t think the cars are going to change dramatically going into next year.”
The Tennessee native was equally enthused by the 0.75-mile track.
“Well, yeah, I like it. I’m pretty easy to sell on this stuff, though,” he admitted. “I’m a big fan of short-track racing, specifically with IndyCar. That’s really the only experience I have with short-track racing. I’ve always loved it. To get another one on the calendar has been very cool for me.
“It feels very, very similar to Iowa. It’s just a lot smoother. Iowa is very, very bumpy, has those characteristics to make you think about the setup. I think here from a compliance standpoint, you can run the car a lot more like a smooth short oval, but it still has that styling, what feels like raceability like Iowa. I’m hoping a second lane comes in. If it does, I could see it racing very similar to that place.”
Along with additional aeroscreen track time, the test included trying multiple configurations of tires for to help supplier Firestone determine the best options for the June 27 race.
“We’ve been going through 10 or 15 sets of different (tire) construction and compounds,” Dixon related. “The car does feel a lot different from when even we first ran here in the early 2000s to the last time we ran here, through that race as well. A lot less downforce, probably a little more power or similar power. It’s quite tricky, a lot of fun to drive. Feels fairly low grip at the moment in some situations. It’s hard to say, too, from a racing perspective as it’s only Josef and me here, and we’re mostly doing single runs at the moment.”
The aeroscreen was unchanged from the way it appeared at Indy, although Dixon expects some tweaks to be tried when he and Newgarden make additional runs later this afternoon.
“We pretty much stayed with the same configuration from Indianapolis. I know the noise box I think has a few more openings on it, which is helping the (air) flow there. There was a device that we tried earlier in the day, but it wasn’t secured well enough; that we’ll revisit later this afternoon.
“I think for the oval stuff, the car’s fine. I know there were some different additions they ran at Barber with the other two drivers there. Those I think we’ll try maybe later this afternoon as well with some helmet cooling options to prep everybody for the upcoming season.”
Dixon agreed with Newgarden that the addition of the screen did not have a significant effect on tuning, although he still expects the new device to have an effect on performance.
“I think you may see some differences, maybe, in outright lap time. We did add almost 60 pounds to the car. It may affect the aero a little bit,” said the New Zealander. “You’ll get some more (tire) deg with the higher COG, as well. There are some things that may slow down the performance a little bit.
“But honestly, I think it’s going to be almost a net zero on that kind of situation with the development in the off-season, people kind of working around it. I think it will be interesting.
“We felt some slightly different situations in running with Will at the speedway in traffic. We’ll have to see how that plays out. Again, I think it’s more of a tuning thing you’ll have to kind of build in for when we are racing in packs, at least in racing conditions.”
Newgarden added that he felt the aeroscreen actually made it slightly easier to hear radio transmissions although again, the effect was subtle.
“It’s a slight reduction in wind noise. You’re not getting the wind directly over your head as dramatically as you would before. All that external noise has just been dimmed,” he explained. “You can hear the radio a touch better, things like that. But the engine noise is still quite prominent. It’s bolted directly behind us, so you still hear quite a bit of what’s going on in the car and the engine. I don’t think concentration-wise you’ll be any different.”