Scary crashes prompt series to slow down Indy 500 qualifying
IndyCar officials slammed the brakes on significantly higher speeds at Indianapolis 500 qualifying.
Instead of adding horsepower to the cars, they reined it in. Rather than allowing the fastest nine cars to compete in a pole shootout, they limited each driver to just one shot. And instead of posting the fastest pole speeds in nearly two decades, they brought them down.
Yes, in a sport filled with danger, the series decided to play it safe after another frightening crash in Sunday’s morning practice.
“It was a pretty hard decision, but I think they did the right thing,” defending series champion Will Power said. “The problem was the fact that when you crash, the car flies. But I think that this is the first year we’ve ever had with this car that you could trim enough to make it quite hard to drive and people were making mistakes and crashing.”
It might be more than just a few mistakes.
Over a five-day period, three drivers hit the walls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all wound up with a similar result: going airborne when they started rolling backward down the track.
Nobody seems to know why it’s happening.
Three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves was the first to feel the eerie sensation when he crashed in the first turn on his second lap in practice Wednesday. The next day, rising American star Josef Newgarden, who won his first career race late last month, flipped his car. On Sunday, when two-time Indy 500 pole-winner Ed Carpenter went flying into the second turn catch-fence, qualification day was turned upside down.
IndyCar leaders met with team owners and officials from the two engine manufacturers, Chevrolet and Honda, debating a solution. They settled on reducing the horsepower, requiring teams to use race setups instead of qualifying trim, not awarding points for qualifying and eliminating the pole shootout.
On a day all 33 starting spots were filled and one driver, 1996 race winner Buddy Lazier was sent home, Scott Dixon of New Zealand took his second Indy pole with a four-lap average of 226.760 mph. He broke Team Penske’s eight-race stranglehold on the top starting spot, though two Penske drivers — Power and Simon Pagenaud — round out the front row. Power will start second after going 226.360 while Pagenaud qualified third at 226.145.
Dixon was more than 4 mph slower than Carpenter’s pole-winning speed from 2014 and roughly 7 mph off the pace most expected it to take to claim this year’s top spot.
But there were no more accidents.
“We don’t want to see cars getting in the air, and there’s only a few tools that you have in the toolbox to use,” Dixon said. “IndyCar, whether it’s the right or wrong situation, for safety, it’s kind of all they had. I think we saw today, obviously, the speeds came down. With the speeds down, obviously, I think the safety is going to get better.”
All of the cars are using new aero kit packages, but the only ones that lifted off the track were Chevys.
Derrick Walker, IndyCar’s president of competition and operations, said the causes of those crashes were different. He blamed Castroneves’ wreck on an aero balance setting that was pushed too far, Newgarden’s on a cut tire and claimed Carpenter’s was merely an accident.
Walker also said the problem may not be limited only to Chevy and that both manufacturers continue to study the data.
The good news is that none of the three drivers were seriously injured. Castroneves and Carpenter, in fact, were back in the cockpit less than six hours after hitting the wall.
Still, many wonder if enough testing was done before coming to the 2.5-mile Brickyard for the season’s first oval race.
Series spokesman Mike Kitchel said earlier this week the kits were tested extensively on other ovals during the offseason. But nothing is like Indianapolis, which has the longest straightaways, produces the fastest speeds and has four distinctly different corners.
Power insisted testing anywhere other than Indy would not help.
“This is such a unique place, and we had ample time here to understand it,” he said. “But you know, how can you understand what a car does backward at 220 mph? How can you understand that? There’s no wind tunnel. There’s no one who wants to be a crash test dummy and try that out at an oval, so it wouldn’t have mattered.”
While acknowledging the series officials erred on the side of caution, some Honda drivers weren’t happy with the decision.
After chasing Chevy all season, Honda felt it had closed the gap after losing five poles and four of the first five races.
Almost immediately after the announcement, American Graham Rahal predicted that Chevy cars would dominate the starting grid again. They did. Only two Honda cars made the top 10 for next Sunday’s race.
“I just feel like it’s playing into Chevy’s hands. Chevy’s really, because of their problems with the aero kits lifting, that’s really what forced this issue in the first place,” Rahal said before qualifying started. “So I don’t fully understand why the Hondas should be penalized.”
Art St. Syr, president of Honda Performance Development, issued a statement saying the company supported series officials in their pursuit of safety.
Jim Campbell, the U.S. vice president for Chevy’s performance vehicles and motorsports also issued a statement calling safety a “priority.”
And Walker continues to insist the problems can be fixed. But they until they are, series officials and race organizers will continue to stay cautious.
“The ultimate test is when you get on the racetrack and that, somewhat, is where we are now,” Walker said. “We’ve got a situation and we’re trying to learn as quickly as we can while, at the same time, put on a competitive race with basically two different configurations.”