NTT IndyCar Series drivers have a serious love/hate relationship with the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
For all of the high-speed risks and technical accuracy the 2.2-mile circuit demands, drivers have come to love the challenges posed by the flowing road course over 90 intense laps. IndyCar drivers have also learned to hate Mid-Ohio for the physical toll those 90 laps extract from weary muscles.
Presented with a need to make up for lost races in the year of COVID-19, converting Mid-Ohio into a doubleheader, with 75 laps of racing on Saturday, followed by 75 more on Sunday — upping the total to 150 — has tipped the love/hate scale in favor of the latter.
“Mid-Ohio has always been known to be one of the more physical tracks, just because you don’t have a whole lot of time to rest over each lap,” Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay told RACER. “So yeah…doing two of them, especially on the first day doing practice, then qualifying, then a 75-lap race, is going to be definitely a physically taxing day. It’s hard for the crew, too. They’re taxed as well. Then we race again on Sunday. It’s just a lot in a short amount of time.”
Like most IndyCar drivers, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud approaches physical training with fanatical dedication. The constant turning at Mid-Ohio is exacerbated by a lack of power steering in IndyCar, and with nearly 5000 pounds of downforce to manage with the steering wheel, Hunter-Reay’s note regarding minimal time to rest between the corners will have some drivers dealing with heavy muscle fatigue at some point during the doubleheader.
“The physical aspect usually makes the last 10 to 15 laps very difficult in Mid-Ohio,” Pagenaud said. “So I think making the first race 15 laps shorter than normal would make it easier, but then you have to do it all over again on Sunday with 75 more! With the adrenalin, I think you’ll be fine, but it’s the track where the heart rate is the highest over the whole distance. So it could be interesting.
Although it won’t help their overnight recovery between Rounds 1 and 2 at the Honda-sponsored event, Hunter-Reay says doubling up at a number of recent IndyCar weekends has been helpful in preparing for Mid-Ohio.
“Oddly enough, we’re getting used to doing doubleheaders, so from the driving side of it, I think a lot of the drivers are getting accustomed to packing a lot in over a short time frame,” he added. “I think it’s just being super conscious of getting all your levels back up, whether it be getting the right nutrition in you, fluids for the next day. I’ve been drinking a lot of Pedialyte over the race weekends, that type of thing. Once you’re done with the first (race), you’re immediately switched to the race the next day.
“Mentally, you’re thinking about what can we do different? How do we get the right strategy? This and that. So I think that I’ve been just very conscious of trying to get the right nutrition over the race weekend, especially electrolytes and all that stuff. It’s a boring topic, but definitely important so that you’re back up to optimal working potential on the next day so you’re not physically depleted.”
Pagenaud is confident he and the other IndyCar veterans have learned how to keep themselves in proper shape for the trials they’ll face on Sunday.
“I tell you what, Sunday morning, some drivers will be more sore than others,” the 2019 Indy 500 winner said. “I think the older guys know better how to manage their effort, but there’s something about being young, too. So it’s interesting — in the past, I used to have a lot of muscle fatigue because I’d be so intense on the wheel. And now, my preparation is so much more defined for racing that second day I actually feel OK.
“It’s more about being fresh in your mind. It’s not just the physical aspect. It’s also what I call the (mental) CPU, right? You’re making really fast decisions and you’re also getting tired. Your brain’s also getting tired. So that has just as much importance as the physical aspect, is your quickness at making the right decisions.”
Of all the drivers entered at Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay could be in store for more hate than love across the doubleheader. Having filled last weekend with six hours of racing at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta with the Mazda Motorsports DPi team, a toasty run to second overall with teammates Jonathan Bomarito and Harry Tincknell kept the 2012 IndyCar Series champion busy while the majority of his open-wheel rivals sat idle.
“It was a good race weekend, hot for sure,” he said. “We had some issues with cooling in the car and were able to open up some vents on each stop that we came in. But it was a good weekend overall; we soldiered on and really made the most of what we had. It was a good points day, and that’s what you want to do as an endurance driver: come in, get the job done, make sure the team gets the points needed for the championship. And I think second place was a good result for the 55 car. Then we move right into Mid-Ohio with the DHL Honda. Going into back-to-back weekends, It’s going to demand a lot out of me, but I’m ready for it.”