Tires squealed and engines roared as the green flag waved for the first practice session. “They’re going the wrong way,” one crew member chuckled. If I had a nickel for every time that phrase was uttered, I would have my own race team.
The first practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a sight to see in 2014. There were a lot of questions heading into the weekend, and not many people had the answers. How would teams set up the car? Where are the passing opportunities? How would the race affect the Indy 500? People weren’t quite sure how to feel about the whole thing, myself included.
That changed for me on a random April afternoon in 2013. As part of the $100 million facility upgrades for IMS, the infield road course was undergoing some modifications. I ran into Doug Boles, President of the Speedway, and he offered to take me around the recently repaved circuit.
One of the first things Doug mentioned was the new layout in Turns 5 and 6. The drivers were able to hit Hulman Blvd at a higher rate, which would really showcase the speed of the cars. One concern for the racing was a lack of elevation change, but that was quickly squashed when we got to Turn 12. Much like Turn 1, there is a significant slope going from the oval circuit to the road course. It was something you could definitely feel as we drove through.
When the official announcement of the race was made, traditionalists were less than thrilled. Many were saying it was a slap in the face to the Month of May, and that it was a gimmick that wouldn’t last. This weekend will be the fifth IndyCar Grand Prix race, and I would argue that the event has been a great success.
Each one of the four races have had memorable moments. There have been several hold-your-breath instances as well, in the case of Sebastian Saavedra, James Hinchcliffe, and Martin Plowman. There has been an average of 11 lead changes each race. By comparison, only four races last season had more lead changes.
Simon Pagenaud ran out of fuel on the cool down lap after winning in 2014. In 2015, Scott Dixon’s spin on the opening lap and Graham Rahal’s charge from 17th to 2nd were incredible. The 2016 race featured a sensational performance by Conor Daly, and Pagenaud’s lightning-quick 6.7 second pit stop. Last year’s race went caution-free, much to the dismay Castroneves, who was ready to pounce having been on a different strategy.
One of the biggest aspects of this race is the ability to showcase the diversity of IndyCar. The casual fan will see that there is more than the Indy 500. This is vital to the growth of the series. I was able to give away a pair of tickets to the 2014 race. The only race this particular couple had gone to was the Brickyard 400. I reached out to them about a year later, only to learn that they had become hooked, going to several IndyCar races each year.
Graham Rahal said it best following his test from September 4, 2013. “We’re all here for the Month of May anyway, so let’s put on another good show and give the fans something else to see,” he said. “It’s a totally different form of racing. There’s no reason not to do a road race, I think it would be awesome.”
Another positive is momentum, as the excitement of May builds. The days of three full weeks of practice are long gone, but this event fills that void in a slightly different way. As James Hinchcliffe recently told IndyStar’s Jim Ayello, it has become the new tradition for some. “For me, May really kicks off when we hit the track for the Grand Prix. That’s the new tradition, and I love it.” There are also 50 valuable points up for grabs on Saturday. That is important, as the championship has come down to the final race of the season for 12 consecutive years.
The event also means more races, which is good for teams, drivers, fans, and IMS. The Indy Lights series returned in 2014 after a 7-year hiatus. The Pro Mazda and USF2000 series made their IMS debut in 2014, and really bring the Mazda Road to Indy full circle. It is a fantastic opportunity for these young drivers.
Despite all of the extra on-track action, the Month of May is still about the Indianapolis 500. It is the very definition of tradition. Boles reiterated that statement on several occasions. “It always has been and always will be about the Indy 500,” he said. “If we elevate the beginning of May, we will elevate the Indy 500.”
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a grand theater that plays host to one of the greatest sporting events in history. That doesn’t mean it cannot have other shows. The nostalgia you feel as you enter the tunnel is still there. The smell of the tires, the sound of the engines, and the taste of victory. It truly is an assault on your senses.
To those that continue to scoff at this event, I would challenge you to think of it separate from the 500. Do not stay idle during the race either. One of the luxuries this race provides is the ability to see it from many different angles. Watch on top of the viewing mounds in Turns 1 and 2 to see the heavy braking. Watch them from the bridge on Hulman Blvd as they go into Turn 7. There are so many places to see all of the action. This is one of my favorite aspects of the event.
An IndyCar race on the IMS road course is not crazy, after all. Failing to embrace and appreciate this event is.
I have a feeling Carl Fisher, James Allison, Frank Wheeler, and Arthur Newby would all approve.