INDIANAPOLIS — Trick-or-treat. On Friday, you could drive through the tunnel at Gate 2 on the southend of the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway and recite those words and you get greeted with the ultimate treat that anyone could offer.
Kidding. Sort of.
You didn’t have to mimic that phrase, but you could witness six NTT IndyCar Series machines circling the track on Friday for a 5 1/2-hour test session around the World’s Greatest Race Course.
Halloween meets Christmas on Oct. 30.
INDYCAR started their month here and will end it on the very same race track in a very important test session at hand. While it’s technically the same year, Friday was all about 2021, not 2020 anymore.
This past year’s champion, Scott Dixon, was on hand towing this past year’s Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato around the track at one point. Then vice versa. They were leading P2 in the championship standings Josef Newgarden as well as Indy 500 Rookie of the Year back in August Pato O’Ward, 2014 Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and three-time Indy 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter in Friday’s test session.
That’s about as good as it gets for a test day at Indy in terms of drivers available.
“It’s good man,” O’Ward told me following the conclusion of the test. It’s a good experience for me. I only have 1 ‘500 under my belt and laps around here always help. I was actually pretty happy that I got to do it. To just remember what it’s like. It’s such a different mentality from the road courses. Hopefully it will better prepare us for next year.”
The reason for that is the need for data. Friday’s test was to figure out how to close these cars up to each other a little more when they return to this very race track in seven months.
This past August, didn’t feature a lot of passing due to how difficult the cars were to handle with the addition of the Aeroscreen.
After record breaking years in terms of lead changes from 2012-2017, when the new car came out in 2018, it made passing more difficult. You didn’t get that slingshot action up front with the prime position on track not being in the lead.
But, with the UAK, track position became more prevalent again.
Between 2012 and 2017, the six year span saw at the very minimum 34 lead changes each race. It’s gone downhill after with 30 in 2018, 29 in 2019 and 22 this past year.
Also, in that same five year span, just once did the race winner come from a top 10 starting position. With the UAK, we’ve had all three winners start on the front row.
While Jay Frye has always said that passing should be hard and the leader should have an advantage, they cars have separated a little more for their liking from one another.
This test is to reel them back in a bit but not go to the extreme of the era from 2012 through 2017 though too. There’s a happy medium in there and that’s what they’re trying to accomplish by this test.
“It was good,” O’Ward said on how the car felt today compared to just a couple of months ago. “Honestly the baseline car from the race earlier felt the same. Which was good to then get the changes to the new stuff, the new addons.”
Each car had three setup options to go off of. You had the baseline from this past year’s race, a first small change, a second smaller change and a third change with everything put together.
It was the final change that had the drivers liking what they felt.
“The little addons didn’t do much but the full package did a significant amount of positive to the car,” said O’Ward. “I was able to run behind traffic a lot better, passing was a lot easier. It’s not just as horrendous anymore. During the race, it was so aggressive when the car takes off and the window of opportunity trying to save it was very small. I am all in favor of these changes.”
O’Ward noted that the first step wasn’t any different what the car had for August. The second step was an improvement, but after 16-17 laps in a run, it went back to where the car initially was in step 1. The third step, well it was eye opening.
But, how much can we take away from today and apply it to next May. The ambient temps were in the high 40’s on Friday. The last several race days were well into the 80’s, with some years doubling today’s temperature.
“It is a bit too much to look into for next year but it’s also less tires going around, less grip,” said O’Ward of the conditions today and applying what they learned to next May. “When it’s hotter it’s going to be tougher, but this did a significant improvement from the baseline car that we had in the race. If it helped now, I’m pretty sure it should help later on as well.”
So, what was it about the third setup on Friday that O’Ward liked?
“You’re able to follow the car in front of you, even if there’s 2 or 3 in front of him, a lot closer,” he said. “That then allows you to try to pass. Usually it’s a pretty late move because of the draft that he has, but we need this to improve the racing.
“It stuck the car more to the ground when you were right behind someone. The understeer was a bit more predictable so you go with it and it was very manageable. Before, it was kind of just take off and you’re going straight towards the wall.”
O’Ward says that if they can run a race similar to how they tested on Friday, then it’s a win-win for all parties involved.
“I think it’s just going to make the racing all around for the fans a lot better,” said the future star of the series. “A lot better for us too. I mean it really does get kind of annoying whenever you’re not even close to the guy in front of you and you’re holding onto your life like not knowing what the car is going to do. Man it was tough during the race. I’m all for these changes.”