Top 5 things learned from the 2-day IndyCar test at IMS in preparation for next month’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS — 3,956 laps were turned in 6-hours of green flag action on Friday from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as 31 drivers took to the 2.5-mile track in preparation for next month’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).

Here’s the top five things we learned from the two-day session.

Guys That Were Quick Last Year Were Quick Again

Last August, Takuma Sato led Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal across the yard of bricks to win his second career Indianapolis 500. On Friday, the trio were in the top five of the overall speed chart. In fact, throw in fourth place finisher a year ago in Josef Newgarden and you get the entire top four of last year’s finishing order in the top five of the speed chart overall.

Newgarden (226.819 mph) led the way while Sato (226.396 mph) was P2. Dixon (225.906 mph) and Rahal (225.644 mph) were fourth and fifth respectively.

Does this bode well for next month? So far, it seems like it should.

Montoya Will Be Strong

Juan Pablo Montoya hasn’t raced in an Indy Car since 2017. A lot has changed since then. From a new car, to less downforce to an Aeroscreen. There’s nothing about now that resembles the last time he’s been in a car here.

But, in his first time back in one, he was third quickest overall in the two-day test session. That was one of the more underrated storylines of the test with Montoya turning 68 laps on Friday with a top speed of 226.123 mph in his No. 68 Chevrolet.

Montoya has actually only raced in this event just five times, but among those five are four top six results including two wins.

He further proves that he could be among the all-time greats here if he never left for F1 in 2001.

Chevrolet Looks Improved

Chevrolet had the preferred power in this race in 2018 and again in 2019. They’ve swept the front row both years. In 2018, they led nearly 150 of the 200 laps run. 2019, they combined to lead 155 of the 200 laps. Last year, it was all Honda.

This time Honda swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots. They’d lead 179 of the 200 laps and sweep the top four finishing spots and take 8 of the top 10 finishers overall.

How much can Chevy close the gap and how much can Honda gain or even lose was a big question entering this test. But, after the two-day session, it appears that Chevrolet has definitely improved.

They took two of the top three spots in the overall speed department and four of the top seven in fact. That’s all due to the fact that Penske, Arrow McLaren SP and Ed Carpenter Racing looking stout. Conor Daly was quickest on Thursday, fastest this morning and sixth overall this afternoon. Ed Carpenter was second yesterday, fifth this morning and 14th this afternoon.

The Penske’s looked very fast and very racy. That was their goal though. They weren’t going to come back again without putting up a fight.

“I think Chevy has done a great job, as evidenced with Juan as well,” said Josef Newgarden. “I think the McLaren boys are quick. I think we feel pretty good about things.

“I think they’ve definitely made improvements, and we needed to in the off-season. We all did. Us as a team, I think Chevrolet, we all got together and looked where we were weakest. I think there was a little bit to go around on all sides. They’ve really stepped up.

“We put in a lot of effort. I think we found some good stuff. It’s getting hard nowadays. These gains you’re looking to find are so small. I think they’ve managed to find a decent chunk, which is impressive with how far along we are. Very encouraged with Chevrolet.

“It looks a lot more even this year, is what I would say at the moment. Someone could obviously be miles ahead by the time we get to the month of May. It’s possible. But I would say it looks a lot more even right now than where we were at last year.

“We’re all excited about that. I think Chevrolet has done a great job. It’s going to provide an interesting show for everybody.”

An Indy 500 win and a championship. That’s the top two goals for any NTT IndyCar Series race team. But for Team Penske, those aren’t lofty goals. Those are realistic. When they don’t win either, as was the case for 2020, it means they take it personally.

So, how do you balance those goals? Putting too many eggs in the Indy basket can compromise success elsewhere and vice versa. How do you go all in at trying to make the gains to win at Indy, but not lose ground elsewhere a vie for a championship?

That’s the challenging part of INDYCAR racing. There’s superspeedway’s. There’s short ovals. There’s also road and street courses too. Everyone is trying to improve on areas to where they’re bad at, so even if you’re good in one area, you can’t rest on your laurels. For an organization like Team Penske, you can’t go all in and try to win the Indy 500 but risk a decline in stats for other tracks either.

“It’s a balancing act, for sure. That’s a good point,” Josef Newgarden told me during INDYCAR media days last month. “You have to try and understand, when you push resources one way, how does that affect everything else. I think for us, we’re pretty good at balancing that formula.

“Indy is a really tough track, not only because it’s the most important race but I think because it’s all about very small details, and those little details take a tremendous amount of time and effort to move the needle. It’s all these little things that add up at the end of the day when you show up in the month of May. It takes a tremendous amount of time to make large progress at Indianapolis, whereas at another track you may find a small difference or small change with something that you found that didn’t take nearly as much energy or money or resources.

“I think you can have these bigger magnitudes of shift at a place like a street course or a road course compared to Indianapolis. Indianapolis really takes a ton of time, ton of resources to make those little incremental improvements forward. That’s why we emphasize trying to get that right. For us, it was skewed last year in that Indy was probably one of our worst tracks. There’s no doubt. We didn’t perform like we wanted to at the 500 from a qualifying standpoint and race standpoint. I think that’s why we’ve heavily leaned to get that right in the off-season.

“We haven’t left anything else behind. We’re still pushing forward on all the other fronts because we need to be strong across the season.”

Newgarden has won two NTT IndyCar Series championships to his credit. He nearly won a third last year. But, the one thing that’s nagging in the back of his head still is the lack of an Indy 500 win. Newgarden, is 0-for-8. He does have four top 10’s in his last five starts there, but that lack of taste of the milk in victory lane isn’t quenching his thirst.

“We want to win an Indy 500,” Newgarden said. “For me specifically, that’s a big goal. I’ve not won that race. Obviously as a team, we’ve had a lot of success there. They’d like to add to that. For me, I’d like to get my first.”

See, Penske is synonymous with Indy success. Heading into 2020, Roger Penske had just purchased the place. He figuratively and now literally owned victory lane. But, Penske’s cars struggled on track in August. They finished P4-11-14-22. They were rarely found up front on any speed chart all month.

That’s not good enough for Penske. It was honestly rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2021.

“Last year our qualifying form was not strong,” Newgarden continued. “We were all disappointed with our speed. That was first and foremost. How do we fix the speed of the cars from last season? There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s been put in. We have the best of the best in my opinion when it comes to talent and personnel. There’s been no shortage of effort and time to make these Penske racecars as fast as possible. That was first and foremost.

“Then I think the race condition of the car, how does it really work across 30 laps on a set of tires in multiple-car drafts? That’s probably the most important ingredient nowadays is just figuring out if you get buried 10 or 15 cars back, how is your car reacting in that much dirty air. That was something we needed to be stronger at.

“Just outright speed and the car’s potential in a big wake. That’s all different this year, too. We tried to learn where we were deficient last year, but now we also need to figure out where we need to be better in the future with the new aero parts. Quite a bit of difference with not only the front wing but the underside build of the car aerodynamically. There’s going to be some new elements. The car is going to drive different. We need to be better all around.”

Will Power, Newgarden’s teammate, agreed.

“I feel pretty good about definitely being better than where we were last year at Indianapolis,” said Power. “I think that’s probably the most disappointing we’ve been since I’ve been at Penske. It was a surprise to us. Certainly worked very hard on that.”

Car Was Still Hard To Pass With, But Improvement Still In Wake

One of the main goals of this weeks test was to see if the improvements made to the car between August to now worked. The drivers that tested this package last Fall felt like it would be an improvement and they echoed that sentiments two weeks ago. But, some of the drivers felt this week that the cars are still difficult to pass with.

Conor Daly said in the middle of the day on Friday that despite these new aero pieces that he found it difficult to make passes. He said that the cars felt a little bit better in wake but unless the driver or car in front of you makes a mistake, it’s still going to be really tough to make passes.

The thing is though, he also noted that it’s not too concerning in the sense that it’s only Day 1 essentially. They have plenty of practice days ahead next month to get the cars dialed in.

Josef Newgarden though said that he feels like the show will still be improved from last year.

“Yes, definitely. It’s easier to follow,” said the quickest driver of the test. “It’s still tough. You’ll still get a big front wash in traffic. 10 cars back, it’s always going to be difficult. But I think they’ve made the ability to follow better. That balance separation between clean air and dirty air is definitely reduced.

“Some of them are tricky to drive, some of these parts. I think you’re seeing some split camps here along pit lane. Not everybody is running the same stuff. That’s been interesting to watch. There’s more downforce on the car. I think the balance shift in traffic is less.

“Yeah, the ability that we’re going to have to race compared to last year will be better.”

Also, Daly figured the weather conditions played a role too. Temperatures soared into the upper 70’s and was even at 80 degrees at the time of the checkered flag. That plus some high winds also affected the cars on Friday. Newgarden though said it didn’t faze them much.

“I mean, I think it was a pretty easy day,” he said. “It was pretty ideal conditions. Not too hot. Certainly not too cold. A little bit windy. That was probably the most difficult part about the day, was the wind, the movement of the car. Pretty standard for this place. You’re always kind of fighting that depending where it’s coming from. It’s always playing a factor.

“Weather wasn’t an issue. It was a pretty easy day, for the most part, to be honest.”

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 was a difficult race in terms of passing, hence the changes. So, INDYCAR held a test at the end of October at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year to help with the superspeedway racing package. The race last August featured a lot of single file racing with on track passing being really hard to do.

See, from 2012 through 2017, the racing at Indy looked like something you’d see NASCAR have at Daytona or Talladega. No, it wasn’t a “pack race” but rather a sling shot race to where you don’t want to be leading. The tow as well as the drag was so big in those cars, that it made passing easy.

The 2012 race had 34 lead changes. The 2013 race had a race record 68 of them. 34 more followed in 2014 with 37, 54 and 35 more between 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively.

INDYCAR wanted to reel that in a bit. Unfortunately, they went too far in the other direction. Since this new car came out in 2018, passing has been great on road/street courses as well as short ovals. Indy, well it’s been really difficult. We had 30 lead changes in 2018, 29 in 2019 and just 21 last year.

That’s why changes have been made again.

The series knows though that they can’t go too far the other way because it could create artificial racing. Passing isn’t supposed to be easy. The faster cars are supposed to be up front. They’re just searching for a happy medium, hence the potential of push to pass for 2023.

But, for the immediate future, the test in October was to help for the 105th Running this May. Well, by the sounds of things, it seems like the test went so well that setups from that test were used as a baseline for the last session a few weeks ago.

“Everything that we’ve found in the November test from that aero dynamic side was already on the cars today,” said Alexander Rossi at the test a few weeks ago. “So that package that we kind of adjusted for 2021 already exists. It’s what we had here is what we will race in May. The push to pass was just with a view to the future and once the hybrid systems become a reality and we can use that to change the way the race goes.”

Jay Frye said that he thinks the aero changes they’ve made to the car for this year’s Indy 500 will be “really good.”

That’s a far cry from what drivers were saying last August.

Pato O’Ward told me during that test last October, that everything felt great.

“It was good,” O’Ward said on how the car felt in October 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 in October 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.

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, 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.”

Fans Will Be Here In May

The two-day NTT IndyCar Series test here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was met with some concern among race fans. See, a lot of fans were anticipating coming out here for the test to bask in the ambiance of the race cars while sitting in the Turn 2 spectator mounds. Then, they went behind closed doors.

Was this trending towards where we were for 2020? Would the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 really run behind closed doors for a second straight year?

Well, I think we can put those rumors to bed. This test was closed to the general public due to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway focusing solely on May 30. This decision was made with an abundance of caution. That’s because the full focus is, how can we get the most fans that we can for the 105th Running next month? If you host fans yesterday and today, does that risk the amount of fans that you can for May 30?

That’s the questions being asked for any day where fans can come through those hallowed gates between now and May 30. Does having fans come in risk fans coming in on May 30?

So, with this just being a test session, they felt it was best to just close the gates and focus forward still. IMS President Doug Boles calmed those nerves on Friday by saying, “we’re going to have fans here” in regards to the Indianapolis 500.

As to how many?

Boles says that number will be known in a couple of weeks. They’re still uncertain on how many they’re allowed but as Governor Eric Holcomb said on Friday that it’s all going to depend on the 7 day COVID average, hospitalization rates, deaths, vaccines, etc.

The rates are up a bit from a couple of weeks ago, but as Boles noted, it’s no where near the levels that it was last summer when they had to make that fateful decision in late July to run the race without any fans in the 104 year history of the event.

So, fans will definitely be here. I don’t think you have to be worried anymore about having the rug pulled out under you. While I get the trepidation because of how last year was handled, this year won’t be like that. Fans are coming.

Has that sunk in yet? Fans will be here on May 30. How many more people do we need to hear from to tell us otherwise?

The next question was, will fans be here for anything else throughout May? Boles said that the plan is to still have fans here for practice and qualifying days, but in terms of how many, that isn’t known yet either. He said that the plan is to just focus on May 30 and come up with the best plan for the right amount of people and then let the ancillary events fall into place from there.

It sounds like there’s no focus on qualifying days, Carb Day or even any random practice day for May. It’s literally 100% focused on May 30 because after all, doesn’t that day matter the most? It certainly does for IMS and INDYCAR, so the key right now is May 30 and the rates of infection and vaccination. The formula between those will determine the fans on May 30.

So far, we know at least 170k tickets have been sold. Can all come? Well that’s TBD. I do have a feeling that some of those 170k may opt out as they did last year when fans were in the plans to come. The key is honing in on a number that can safely come and then determine the ticket holders from there.

It’s not just Boles and Holcomb saying that fans can come. So did Roger Penske, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Health Department Director, Dr. Virginia Caine.

“We’re much further ahead in the game,” said Caine a few weeks ago in a difference between now and last year when we were at a similar situation related to the Indy 500. “So we’re hoping to be very optimistic. I’m a fan of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and they have such an outstanding team and the consultants that they’ve brought to bear related to our safety.”

“If we’re looking at numbers and how we’re trending, I believe we’ll have fans at the Indy 500.”

I do think that we can have a sizeable crowd though too. Penske spoke to the media via a zoom call on the Tuesday morning following the Bristol race weekend and he said that the goal is to have 250k coming through the gates on May 30. While that’s a lofty goal, who’s to say that can or can’t happen.

Do I believe that we’ll see 250k coming? No. He was referring to the grandstand seating capacity limit. But, he also says that 170k tickets have already been sold. I think we can get to that number if things keep trending the way that they have.

“Our goal is to have 250,000,” Penske said. “That’s what we want to have. It’s outside. We’ve got the biggest stadium in the world here, and it’s a matter of where we’re going to be with the CDC and the governor and the mayor, so I don’t have any number that I’d want to hang my hat on. We’re not making any predictions at all, because anything I would say today could be completely wrong.”

If we want to push a crowd of 175k though, it’s going to come down to the positivity rate and what comes out of this March Madness atmosphere.

wrote about that literally a month ago today too. The city started opening things back up early last month. I was happy but somewhat afraid in the back of my mind what this would do for May.

The Big 10 Tournament as well as the entire NCAA Tournament would be played in Indianapolis. With bars easing restrictions and fans able to attend these games, there was a possibility that the numbers could rise again.

This happened last year. We tried to reopen but numbers spiked. In November, everything shut back down again.

Last November, mayor Joe Hogsett and Marion County Public Health Department Director Dr. Virginia Caine announced the new changes amid rising cases. At that time, Marion County reported more than 700 cases in a single day The seven-day positivity rate was 12%.

At the time, Caine attributed the rise in cases to social gatherings. The changes included venues restrictions on venues, closure of entertainment venues by midnight, sporting events limited to 25% capacity and other guidelines too.

That’s why I was waiting to see how this all played out, which I figured would decide the Indy 500’s fate again.

Hogsett said just that too.

“We will have data that tells us unequivocally whether or not these large events that we are currently hosting has caused any kind of significant uptick in positive cases,” he said.

Go ahead and re read that again.

“We will have data that tells us unequivocally whether or not these large events that we are currently hosting has caused any kind of significant uptick in positive cases,” he said.

Early March, according to a report, Marion County’s positivity rate has plunged by three-quarters in seven weeks to 3.8%. It’s at 4.1% now.

Holcomb said though that 3/4 of Hoosiers over the age of 70 are fully vaccinated and nearly 2/3 of those in their 60’s are.

On top of that, hospitals have the right amount of resources available to handle another surge he says if there happens to be one. Furthermore, hospitals are near record lows and deaths are continually dropping in numbers.

This is all great news for the race. Everything is trending towards this crowd maybe exceeding 100k.

Even Hogsett acknowledged that IMS being an outdoor venue helps, especially with so many already vaccinated and how many more will be to come in the next few months.

“We all acknowledge that because of what we understand of the virus, outdoor environments are safer,” he said. “By the time of Memorial Day weekend, we’ll have had many more weeks of increased vaccine distribution, which I think will certainly plan in an important role in decision making as we go forward.”

The thing is, a crowd at Indy would likely make it the largest one day attended event in this COVID era too. That’s most certainly going to get attention from the opposite side. Those that said you better line the streets outside of the track last year with body bags if you allowed fans to come to the race. Those that want to push fear and give this race and this city unpopular attention. Those are look at this race because of the name and because anyone is showing up will not give it the right attention or help their narrative.

I trust Roger Penske, Doug Boles, Mark Miles, Jay Frye and company. These are four of the best businessmen and leaders in this entire country right now. You know that their plan is as pristine as the IMS grounds and Penske perfect.

What the pundits won’t tell you is that the IMS is a campus is 935 acres. 244 of that includes the infield alone. You can fit Vatican City, Churchill Downs, Wimbledon (the entire facility), the Roman Coliseum, Yankee Stadium and the Rose Bowl all snuggled up inside of those 244 acres inside.

So, putting a large crowd north of 150k, you can safely distance everyone throughout the grounds rather easily.

As NASCAR has started holding fans since last summer, there’s been no tied outbreaks to these races. They’ve pulled it off in great fashion. IMS can do the same. Daytona just had 30k at the Daytona 500 with a seating capacity of 101,500. No outbreaks happened.

NASCAR has used staggered entry points to staggered entry times, to distancing to everything in between, IMS can make this happen. The grounds are so massive, you can’t let the number of people there scare you off. You won’t encounter that number.

These are all good signs for race fans next month.

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