Just like spring training in baseball or training camp for football, where everyone loves their team going into a season, everyone loves their car going into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.
“I feel very confident. I genuinely feel we have a pretty good shot,” said Andretti Autosport driver Colton Herta, reflecting the prevailing pre-race mood. Herta starts 21st in the field.
For the mid-pack starters, those not quick enough to get into the coveted front rows, it’s not as simple as faith and belief.
The variables jump when you don’t start up front. Traffic is an obvious issue, but so are the aerodynamics. Though more downforce has been added to the cars for the 2023 race, due to turbulence, it’s tough to gain track position with cars in front of you.
The pressure on pit stops to help create better track position becomes higher. Of course, the risk of getting caught up in someone else’s trouble also rises.
Still, strange things happen to keep drivers in the race, too. A well-timed yellow flag or a perfectly executed strategy can overcome a lot for the mid-pack starters.
“It’s not impossible to win from anywhere in this race. We’ll try to make it as clean as possible. Good strategy, good pit stops, good in and out laps -- that’s how we make up time in the race and try to go a little longer than some other people. I feel comfortable starting back in the pack, even with the aero wash,” Herta said.
Herta hinted at fuel strategy being one classic way out of mid-pack jail, but there are others.
“It doesn’t matter where you start, the ingredients are always the same. You need excellent pit stops, your strategy has to be correct for the day and you’ve got to be consistent, moving forward all day long. I think that’s true whether you start up front or in the back,” said Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, who starts 17th.
Progress will almost certainly be made off track as well as on track in the pit-stop exchanges. Newgarden’s Penske teammate, Scott McLaughlin, found one devil in one detail of the important in-and-out laps for pit stops, where quite a bit more time can be made up versus laps at speed.
“There’s a lot of time in that out lap trying to get in the inside apron, which is just a car width. It’s hard to get almost flat there, but there’s a lot of time in that, too, so we’ll be practicing that,” said McLaughlin, who starts 14th.
The inside apron he’s referring to is the pit exit lane on the south end of the track. Cars re-enter at the exit of Turn 2.
Strategy, good pit stops and consistency on track are all vital for mid-pack starters, but so is luck. Simon Pagenaud, the 2019 Indianapolis 500 champion who will start 22nd, is hoping Mother Nature smiles on his Meyer Shank Racing machine.
“When it gets hot, downforce goes away. The tires get hot, and nightmares start for a lot of people. I’m hoping for 120 degrees ambient. That would be amazing just to throw a curveball at people. Our chassis would show more,” Pagenaud said.
Alas, the forecast calls for a more reasonable 73 degrees at the start of Sunday’s race with a mid-afternoon temperature around 80.
DO IT FOR SCANDINAVIA
IndyCar is in something of a golden age of Scandinavian-born drivers. Denmark is represented by Christian Lundgaard. Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson is the defending champion and very much a contender again for the powerful Chip Ganassi Racing contingent.
So is Ericsson’s fellow Swede, Felix Rosenqvist. He starts on the outside of Row 1 for Arrow McLaren. Rosenqvist took racing inspiration from the first Swede to win at Indy, Kenny Brack, champion of the 1999 race.
“Me and my dad stayed up at night watching Kenny. That sparked my racing interest at a young age, even before I watched Formula One. Winning the 500 would be a full-circle moment for me,” Rosenqvist said.
Rosenqvist doesn’t mind starting on the outside of Row 1 as opposed to the pole position held by Alex Palou.
“Theoretically being in third is probably the best position to be in for the majority of the race. Leading, you’re spending way too much fuel. Being second, you can save fuel, but you have a false sense of what your car is doing in traffic. In third, you’re saving fuel, but you can play with your car in a bit more traffic,” Rosenqvist said.
Arrow McLaren’s Tony Kanaan is racing in his final Indianapolis 500. He was asked about an unusual 500 memory he’s not previously shared.
“I was watching the race in 2013. Roger Penske told me they changed the podium procedure after my win because it was a mayhem. I remember it a little bit because I had to pour the milk over my head twice because someone gave me the bottle too early,” Kanaan reflected. “The amount of people I hugged on the podium that I don’t know who they were and still don’t -- it was unbelievable. I’ve always been baffled. It was just fans I guess.”
Stefan Wilson, who fractured the 12th thoracic vertebrae in his back in a Monday practice collision with Katherine Legge, had surgery on his back Wednesday.
According to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, “Stefan underwent surgery with a T10-T12 posterior fusion and internal fixation of the fracture.”
Wilson posted an update to his social media account Thursday afternoon from his hospital bed at IU Methodist Hospital.
“I’m really pleased with the results. I’m feeling a lot better today. The recovery journey starts now and the race recovery for 2024,” Wilson said. “I can’t believe all of the support the fans have shown me over the last 32 hours. I’m so thankful.”
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