INDIANAPOLIS — History was made on Wednesday at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While this is a place well known in record books, another historic moment was made on a cold winter day in the Circle City.
While it’s only January and wind chills were well into the teens, it didn’t stop NASCAR from taking to the IMS road course for some on track testing. See, just last week, NASCAR announced that this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race on July 4 would be moved from the 2.5-mile oval to the road course instead. It was a move to spark more interest for that race weekend as a whole.
But, with such a late move, NASCAR needed data and needed it fast. They’ve yet to turn a lap around the IMS road course and with not much time in season to get data, this was the best time to accumulate some.
How long would the race last? Well that needs to be determined which layout they use. What about tires? What about gearing? There would be a lot of questions needing answered in a short amount of time to do so.
So, Matt DiBenedetto, a Wood Brothers driver in the NASCAR Cup Series took to the track to test out a number of different items. While some would ask, why DiBenedetto, well one is, Penske owns the track now and the Wood Brothers are aligned with Team Penske in NASCAR. Plus, DiBenedetto is among the best road racers in NASCAR and could give very good feedback to everyone involved.
“Its been fun,” DiBenedetto said of his test. It’s cool getting acclimated to the course and evaluating some of a couple of different layouts”
The first thing they wanted DiBenedetto to test is both road course layouts. One is a 12 Turn course where they come out on oval Turn 2 and go all out through oval Turn 1, down the frontstretch and into the heavy Turn 1 braking zone. Basically, the old F1 layout.
The other is the 14 turn course that the NTT IndyCar Series uses in May.
After a full morning of testing both layouts, DiBenedetto likes what he sees. He likes it so much, he’s regretting taking part in this test since by doing so, he’s not eligible to run the race this July.
“I’m already jealous of these Xfinity guys of just how cool the race is going to be and how good of a show it’s going to put on,” he continued. “Pretty honored for them to come and ask me to do this test. It is a neat deal to get to evaluate all the options and circumstances. I’m really excited for those guys. My only regret is this negates me from the opportunity to race in the road course race here.”
DiBenedetto’s favorite part of this course? All of it. He’s not just blowing smoke either. While he doesn’t have a favorite layout yet, he says this course offers everything you want as a race car driver which in turn, will make this a phenomenal event.
“The part that I like the most about this course is that it actually does have multiple passing opportunities. That was one of the things we wanted to evaluate on how it was going to race and how technical it is in the passing zones. The cool thing is on what we love as road racers are heavy braking zones. Clearly, the end of the front straightaway here, you have a very heavy braking zone. You also have another long back straightaway getting into Turn 7 which is a heavy breaking zone. Then, on the 14 turn course you have another braking zone coming into 12, 13 and 14 when you get up on the short chute, you get on the brakes too. There’s high speed stuff, there’s low speed stuff, there’s pretty much everything we could ask for from a competitors stand point. There’s a lot of different elements.”
With that being said, another unique characteristic of this track is going to be finding the right setup. The straights are long and fast, but the corners are slow and technical. Which area do you compromise in? Some parts you will be tight, others you will be loose.
“100 percent yeah,” DiBenedetto said on if this is one of the most challenge tracks to land a setup on. “This is going to be a tough road course, tougher than I thought. There’s a lot of technical zones, braking zones, etc that we love as racers. I think it’s going to be where a driver and crew chief and stuff can really shine a lot here based on driver ability, things like that. It’s a tough little road course. It’s not just a course where you’re flowing around easy. It’s got everything we ask for as road racers as far as technical stuff, braking stuff and going to put on a good race.”
DiBenedetto, said another unique thing about this track is it’s almost compared to all the road courses that the series runs.
“I’ve made my comparisons already. Some coming off of that chicane exiting it, I’ve made my comparisons to Sonoma. Then, some of the low speed stuff when you’re in gears 1 or 2, it’s like Mid-Ohio which is also a really neat course. Then, I guess you can compare it to like Watkins Glen where you’re flying down the front straightaway and go into a heavy braking zone where it’s perfect. It has different elements which should provide great racing.”
Speaking of the racing, both he and director Wayne Auton feel this could be the race of the weekend. It’s going to be challenging and physical for both the drivers and their cars. Both expect there to be some hurt feelings on July 4.
“There is no doubt going to be some very physical racing,” DiBenedetto said. “There’s a lot of areas where you can not only outbrake and pass, but also set up a prior corner to setup for those passing zones. There’s some low speed zones where people might just use their bumper and knock them out of the way. There’s some opportunities for all of that. The good thing is they can race very physical safely because the track is F1 certified and super, super safe course. There’s plenty of run off area is anything happens or blow the corner or get into each other.”
“This is an exciting time. You’re talking July 4. You’re talking fireworks. I think these guys and ladies if there’s any in the race, will put on some fireworks on the race track.
“There’s a lot of passing zones here. Technicality inside of the race car is going to make a huge difference. These boys and men in the Xfinity Series don’t mind rubbing a little bit. We will see how they hold up here at Indy.”
Auton, mentioned a couple of times about the series’ motto is “where names are made” and that this is going to be a place where that’s amplified.
“This (road course race) has been talked about for a while but when Mr. Penske took over the Speedway, it really ramped up in a hurry. We’re going to come here and in this series where names are made, somebody’s names going to get made. I can say when it comes down to winning this race, I don’t know if I want to be in first place on that last lap because I know as that old cliché says with chrome horn sitting behind me, it would get used a little bit. When you got a race track that’s a wide as this race track is and as technical, one little mistake will cost you 7,8,9,10 spots if you’re leading. It’s going to take every lap. It’s going to be interesting.”
Auton also said while the configuration will be the biggest thing that they’re working on since that will lead to race distance and laps etc, they’re also working on data for Goodyear and gearing ratios. Then, they’ll take that all back to the NASCAR R&D Center back in Concord, North Carolina and evaluate all of it then make an announcement here pretty soon on which course they will run.
“The one thing with the engineers that are here and with the data in Matt’s (DiBenedetto) race car is we look at the gearing to make sure we’re not too slow with the RPM’s when you get into the slower corners here or you’re not hitting the chip going down this long front straightaway or the long back straightaway where you’re upsetting the engine. There’s a lot where we will also look to the team for. Matt’s input inside of the race car is very valuable. The biggest thing is, Goodyear is here which brought a couple of different setups. We brought a tire from Road America and Mid-Ohio and we also brought a setup of tires from the ROVAL at Charlotte Motor Speedway. It’s not just NASCAR’s getting a ton of data, Goodyear is getting a ton of data too.”
Auton mentioned this is kind of an open notebook per say and that they will share what they gather here in Indy with all the teams.
“It’s going to be one heck of a race. The main thing that we want to do here with the NASCAR Xfinity Series where names are made is, we want to make a name. We want to put on the best show we can for the fans, for NBC which this race will be on and definitely we want to make sure the NASCAR Xfinity Series shines here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You get to see the road course one day and the oval the next. There’s no other race track you can do that at. It’s going to be a challenge for all of us with the garage area and swapping the race track from the oval to the road course. We are going to put on the best show here at Indy that the fans are really going to like.”