PRUETT: Notes from the Speedway

Image by Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Notes from the Speedway

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Notes from the Speedway

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After Scott Dixon and the Chip Ganassi Racing team delivered their Texan smackdown, we took a deep dive into the program’s offseason engineering shuffle where Dixon’s race engineer Chris Simmons was promoted to a new overarching performance director role, and IndyCar veteran Michael Cannon was brought into take the reins from the guy whose Twitter handle is pure engineering comedy.

In trying to understand how Dixon’s No. 9 Honda entry has gotten off to such a crushing start, there’s no need to rehash that angle, but it is worth acknowledging how an abstract subject like ‘feel’ can play such an important factor in how racing teams evolve.

CGR could have left Dixon’s team alone after the team scored two wins, earned an impressive 10 podium visits, and finished fourth in the 2019 standings. It could have been dismissed as Team Penske’s year, and with a solid off-season of work to bridge the gap, there’s every reason to believe Simmons and former assistant engineer Kate Gundlach could have helped Dixon to achieve the same wins at Texas and Indy in 2020.

But there was a general feeling inside the team that it was time to try something different, and despite having no proof it would work, that notion was acknowledged, respected, and acted upon. It was a courageous move in that regard; nothing whatsoever was wrong; the same engineering combo delivered the 2018 IndyCar title for Dixon and CGR, and nothing obvious leapt out during 2019 to necessitate a change. But there was that nagging feeling that a change was due.

Simmons was elevated to a bigger role where his experience could benefit the entire team, Gundlach left for Arrow McLaren SP in a new, more senior role as a performance engineer, and CGR acquired Cannon to fill Simmons’ seat on the timing stand. CGR veteran Ken Brooks – an old acquaintance of Cannon’s – was placed alongside him in Gundlach’s old seat after Ganassi’s Ford GT IMSA program was shuttered, and boom, you have two new faces positioned next to Mike Hull, Dixon’s race strategist.

Was it change for change’s sake? It was not. They had a feeling – something that couldn’t be quantified or proven through data analysis – went with it, and are reaping the early-season rewards.

With the main topic explored, here’s a bunch of random brain dumps from the event:

  • IndyCar has an aeroscreen cooling problem that can no longer be ignored. I’ve read comments from a few veteran drivers on social media saying today’s drivers need to toughen up, and sure, extreme toughness never hurts, but that’s not the problem. Wrangling an 1800-pound car with 5000 pounds of downforce, with no power steering, while frying like an egg, will make even the strongest beg for mercy. Let’s go back to the most recent scenario of brutal cockpit heat and its negative effects. I happened to be covering the Grand-Am Rolex Series race at New Jersey Motorsports Park in 5000-degree weather about a decade ago, and with the closed-cockpit Daytona Prototypes which had front-mounted radiators, drivers of all ages, strength, fitness, and toughness levels were falling out with medical emergencies. With the crazy ambient heat flowing through water radiators that were well over 200 degrees, the cockpits became vomit-inducing kilns. EMTs toured pit lane with a stretcher during the race as drivers were dragged out of cars, taken to the care center, given IV fluids, and treated for heat exhaustion. It was pure stupidity on Grand-Am’s part. Now, of course, we didn’t have a situation like that on Saturday at Indy, but we were, according to a number of drivers, getting close to having serious problems with the side-mounted radiators and a lack of moving air in the cockpits turning the cars into microwaves on wheels. The Grand-Am recollection wasn’t just to paint a portrait of the worst-case scenario; it was also a tipping point for the series, which refused to introduce air conditioning, as paying drivers began to shy away from the DPs. Why fork out obscene amounts of money to enjoy driving a fast race car, only to spend your time behind the wheel in in heat-related agony? DPs got a deservedly bad reputation for baking their drivers, and it wasn’t long before it began hurting commerce. More than half of the IndyCar grid is populated by drivers who bring funding to their teams. Let’s hope IndyCar acts swiftly and avoids the same mistake that damaged the defunct Grand-Am series.

It was hot. Image by Cantrell/Motorsport Images

  • The quality of Alexander Rossi’s early season fortune is found in the championship standings after two rounds. If currently holding 23rd in points isn’t bad enough, the 2016 Indy 500 winner sits directly behind two drivers – Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato – who’ve missed one race apiece.
  • In a carryover from Round 1 at Texas, more problems took place on pit lane than on the race track. Dropped, lost, or loose wheel nuts (Santino Ferrucci, again, Spencer Pigot) continue to be the go-to problem, plus stalls, and we added dropping a car onto a wheel gun into the mix on Saturday. In a change from last year’s Indy GP, we had no refueling fires, so that was a positive. But overall, pit lane has not been the biggest friend to far too many drivers in 2020.
  • Don’t look now, but Colton Herta is fourth in the championship and has yet to do anything spectacular.
  • Can’t say if it’s a worthy concern, but when Will Power is doing exceeding well in a race, there’s a little voice in the back of my head asking when the transmission is going to break, or a mishap on pit lane, or some other road block will appear and derail his day. After two races, he’s 15th in points, which seems ill-fitting for the potential the No. 12 Chevy has shown.
  • Dixon’s combined margin of victory from Texas and Indy is a ridiculous 24.3578 seconds.

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