It was only one day, but racing package appears to be even better for next month’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

INDIANAPOLIS — It was only one day, but after 3,107 laps turned around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday, it appears that next month’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) should be even better than the thrilling races that we’ve seen in the last few years.

Jay Frye and his talented team around him have done a great job of trying to make this racing package perfect. They know passing shouldn’t be easy. It’s the most talented race cars drivers in the world, so you can’t just dumb this thing down to where anyone can do it. But, with the UAK, passing was almost too difficult to start with. The flip side of things is these are the best drivers in the world and they rarely make mistakes. So, how can you pass a driver of equal talent in a car that’s equally as good on a track to where they’re going similar speeds?

In 2018, the first year of the UAK, the lead changed dropped from record levels prior to 30. The next year, it was down to 29. Most of those during pit sequences. Then, factor in the Aeroscreen for 2020, it went down to 21 lead changes.

However, we had 36 lead changes in 2021 and 38 more last year, which seemed to be a better version. Yes, it was sunny, but yes it was also cooler too.

Still, the last couple of years looked vastly improved from the 2020 race. The front few cars could pass with ease while fifth on back was difficult. If the lapped cars in front at the end of the 2021 race weren’t in the way, I know with the upmost certainty that Helio Castroneves and Alex Palou would have had a hell of a battle for the win. Strategy played a part in how Castroneves got the victory, but Palou could have made a counter move back if cars weren’t in front of Helio.

This year, there’s more downforce on these cars and if Texas was a preview for Indy, then watch out.

An insanely close finish last year in Texas saw 15 lead changes with 12 of the 27 starters leading at least one lap. I’d say Texas delivered.

How would this year look?

With some more downforce added and similar race conditions, this year’s PPG 375 delivered an even better show than the one of last year. The 26 lead changes were the most there in over two decades. The 2001 race was the last time that we had as many lead changes on the 1.44-mile-high-banked track.

The 482 passes for position was nearly 200 more passes last year.

Indy has even more downforce added which could only get better. On Thursday, it was.

Josef Newgarden during Thursday’s Indy 500 open test. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

The drivers made mention that you could follow closer to other cars in front of you. That’s great news because on a hot and sunny day that saw temperatures soar into the upper 70s and 80s, if you could follow close today, then you certainly can on race day next month.

The only problem that does need to be mentioned is the fact that when you get a run, but pull out to pass, you kind of hit a wall of air that slows you down to where you struggle to complete the pass. That’s natural right?

If you’re behind a car in tow, they’re punching a hole in the air which the headwind naturally slows them down like they’re carrying a parachute. The car behind doesn’t have that wall of air to run into which naturally makes them quicker. When they pull out, they meet that wall of air too.

So, what they’re needing is a little more horsepower to complete that pass and the ability to time the pass to be able to pull out and complete it.

Still, it’s great news that you can follow closer now than last year which is a massive bonus.

“I think purely speaking from what’s available, there will be more load on the cars than last year,” Josef Newgarden said. “That should pack everyone up theoretically. I think that will happen.

“I don’t think you’re going to get the Texas effect. This is not a two-lane racetrack. At least not currently. Outside of restarts and starts, you’re not going to have side by side lap after lap. You’re going to have really exciting restarts, really exciting start to the race, then it’s going to be a matter of how do you work traffic, et cetera.

“I think the goal would be giving a little bit more of the frontrunners an opportunity to shuffle around. Typically it’s just the front two shuffling. I think if we could get the shuffle going three, four deep, even getting people opportunities in the mid pack to make moves more often, that’s really the goal without overstepping it. It remains to be seen if we’ve struck that right balance. It’s just very hard to predict.”

The other aspect to this is all the aero pieces that they can use or if they choose, not to use. A lot of these pieces are optional. Which makes the aero game a fascinating one here.

The less aero you use, the faster you’ll go. However, sometimes the faster you go here, the slower you’ll also go. Less aero means less downforce and less downforce makes these cars tougher to drive. You’ll hear drivers up front talk about trimming out because they don’t have that dirty air in wake as those that are running 5th on back do.

Trimming out makes you faster and by being faster, you’re harder to catch. The caveat to this is, the cars mid pack on back will pack on downforce in efforts to make passes.

The last few years, they’ve struggled to make those passes. Now, that doesn’t appear to be the case. So, as they get closer and closer to the front, they’ll also begin to start peeling off downforce to go faster.

The thing is, there’s a fine line to where the limit is. If you’re on a lower downforce configuration and fall down the pack, you’ll lose the handle even more and drop like an anchor. If you have too much downforce, you’ll get better in the turns but get eaten alive down the straights.

That fine line and these aero options make a fascinating game during practice week to figure out where that fine line is and in turn, will make the race a thrilling one.

I applaud INDYCAR for this. They have held multiple tests to figure out ways to improve the show. How do you make these cars race closer but not make it too easy. That’s the fine balance they’re working with and so far, it seems like they may have found it.

The thing is, the beginning portions of the race are always going to be all about fuel saving with the ending an intense shootout, just as we witnessed in Texas. I feel like INDYCAR is close to a perfect package here and that the 2023 race will be even better with the direction that they’re heading in.

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