Paulk: Weather still an intangible at Indy
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Before the green flag waves to send the 33-car field roaring into Turn 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next Sunday, drivers and engineers will analyze data to ensure they have flawless race strategies.
They will factor in tire durability, fuel mileage and aerodynamics. They, too, will rehearse pit road strategy to avoid a costly, time-consuming miscue that could cripple their chances at victory in the 97th Indianapolis 500.
If history is a barometer, then Mother Nature is the incalculable intangible too fickle, too unpredictable to gauge during a 200-lap race on the 21⁄2-mile oval where shifting winds and changing temperatures affect race strategy and challenge a driver's nerves.
At the Brickyard, underestimating the oft-fluid conditions can be penal.
In 1992, pole-sitter Roberto Guerrero was victimized by a surprisingly cold race-day morning. He spun out on the pace lap after locking up his wheels, a seemingly inexcusable mistake for a driver who a week earlier established a track record (232.482 mph) that lasted four years.
Weather has factored significantly during preparation for this year's race. The drivers lost nearly four hours of invaluable practice time when heavy rain washed out much of Fast Friday, then delayed Saturday's time trials.
It didn't matter whether it was three-time champion Helio Castroneves or journeyman E.J. Viso, their crews spent much of this weekend scurrying about Gasoline Alley trying to figure out the right setup for qualifying. As the clouds lifted, qualifying setups were altered to accommodate a drop in temperature.
“One of the key things for me around here was always the weather,” said Rick Mears, a four-time winner here. “Just worry about the weather coming in and setting your strategy when you need to get things done.
“But as far as the track, we were talking the other day, every time you roll out of pit lane here the last thing I did was look at the flag to see which way the wind was blowing. You always have to figure weather and wind into the equation of the change you made on the car.”
The wind, of course, factors more in the corners. Rookie Conor Daly discovered as much during Thursday afternoon's practice session when he lost control of his Dallara-Honda coming out of Turn 3, where he hit the wall.
“So weather, as far as all four corners are concerned, is always changing on you with the wind direction,” Mears said.
The wind wasn't much of a problem Saturday when qualifying began nearly two hours behind schedule. However, the wind whipped up midway through qualifying to force some drivers to finish qualifying runs they may have otherwise waved off.
“A couple days ago, I opened my hotel room window and the trees are blowing, I'm like, “Oh, crap,' ” said A.J. Allmendinger, making his Indianapolis 500 debut. “I've never been here before, but I'm learning quick that weather will play a huge factor.”
The wind and rain didn't appear to bother Allmendinger and his Team Penske teammates — Castroneves and Will Power — as they sat 1-2-3 midway through qualifying. And all three advanced to the Fast Nine shootout.
“The wind is so bad around this place, especially this car, more than the previous car because it's a little bigger,” Power said. “And, you know, the wake that's left of the car in front is a massive deal.
“I mean you totally change the balance, so it's really hard to get the car working around that. But that's something you've got to always be aware of when you go out.”
“Weather always plays a big factor in this place,” Castroneves said. “You've got to reset every time you come out there.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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