INDIANAPOLIS — After surveying all the drivers that I talked to here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway via zoom or a media bullpen this month, the common theme is Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) is going to be a track position race. More so than in recent years because it’s just too sketchy to pass from fourth or fifth on back.
In turn, that means pit road on Sunday is going to be the place where this race is won or lost. As Tony Kanaan told me, there’s a lot of good drivers in this series right now. Maybe one of the most talented Indy 500 fields from top to bottom ever. So, there’s not a lot of mistakes made on the 2.5-mile racing surface.
That means, time won or lost on pit road could be the difference in drinking the milk in victory lane or sipping on a water bottle on a lonely walk back to Gasoline Alley. There’s more pressure put on the pit crews this year than in the past because of that.
I mean, this isn’t too new, but here’s why the pressure is.
We’ve talked about this a lot over the past years at the Indianapolis 500 and that’s the key role that pit stops play. This is the longest race of the year and with a longer race creates more time on pit road. But, the less amount of time that you spend sit idling in your pit stall and the more time you spend racing around the 2.5-mile track, the better your odds are at crossing the yard of bricks first when it’s all said and done.
It happens in every race. Pit lane can make or break your chances. A slow stop here. A penalty there. A malfunction with a fuel hose or pit gun, well it can take a car with race winning pace and put them outside of the top 10.
Will Power had a quick car last year but was penalized near the midway point. Alexander Rossi had a slow fuel nozzle which caused him a lengthy stop. Neither won last year’s Indy 500. Simon Pagenaud did.
Well, this year pit road will be even more magnified. That’s because we’ve seen so many problems on pit road this year already. There’s been way more than normal and a lot of that can be accredited to the coronavirus.
See, teams aren’t getting as much practice as normal because they can’t really be in the shops. With a year of social distancing, pit stop practice isn’t necessarily a thought that comes to mind for these teams. Plus, with more doubleheaders on the schedule and racing in the heat of the summer, you can combine all of these factors and get a worn out pit crew without any practice.
How does this play into Sunday’s race? Well, we’re going to be pitting more. That means there’s more chances at mistakes which means there’s more chances to see faster car have problems.
“Pit stops are important here always, but it’s going to be interesting to see,” Conor Daly said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the guys, a lot of pressure on the one-off teams more than ever because everything is condensed.”
The big teams aren’t immune to this either. We’ve seen Will Power and Scott Dixon have pit road problems in races this year.
“Pit stops are critical,” said Power. “Especially for us considering our first few races this year. They’re all great guys on my crew, we’ve just had something different each time. I hate to give away race wins like that. We gave away a chance to win here last year in the pit. It’s just something that you cannot do on race day. So, we definitely going to be pretty focused on making sure we execute.”
With track position being a premium in this weekend’s race, if you lose it from a slow stop, you may not be able to overcome it when it matters the most. An extra couple of seconds on pit road could take you from a top five to just inside of the top 20.
“I think personally I’ve been struggling a little bit getting close to other cars in traffic,” said one driver.. I think I’m not the only one, though. We don’t see a lot of overtaking going on at the moment. I think some cars are definitely stronger than others. It’s definitely, like, 20 or so cars that can’t really get around others.”
“I definitely won’t beat around the bush, they don’t race well,” said another. “It’s tough. It’s hard to know if it’s the Aeroscreen that’s making it a little bit worse. Probably is. That’s the only difference and only variable.”
“It’s a little harder to close up for some reason,” said a recent 500 champion. “I don’t know if it’s because we have a little bit more drag on the cars due to the excess weight with the Aeroscreen. It will be what it will be. I think we should have a good race anyways. You can see some passing up front.
“Last year was the same. The first two guys were passing a lot. I do think track position is going to be very important. You’re going to want to be in the top five in the last 30 laps to have a chance. That’s 100% sure.”
I can go on and on. So, if you lose that track position, it could be game over. That’s why getting on and off pit road is so key too.
“Coming off of 4 to the cones under braking is huge,” said Sage Karam. Some guys will almost start lifting in 3 and some guys will be flat until hitting the cones, so you can make up a lot of time there. If you can pick 1 or 2 seconds on track, coming into the pits, it’s a lot more than 1 or 2 seconds on track. That can be 5 or 10 positions. You’re going to see guys pushing the in laps hard. Then, the outlaps, it’s on the verge of being flat once you hit the cones all the way around until the backstraight. Some guys have more confidence in that in staying flatter longer. I think you’re going to see guys making up time on that as well. Then, when you get out on track, if you get it timed right when somebody has 10 car lengths or so up front, if you can go flat out, you can get a nice draft on your out lap which can really help your times. There’s a lot of factors. Obviously, the worse thing is if you come out in traffic around a lot of cars.”