CHICAGO - Data (noun) - information, often in the form of facts or figures obtained from experiments or surveys, used as a basis for making calculations or drawing conclusions.
In racing, data has a much more focused definition. Data is the key to speed.
Every time an IndyCar Series machine turns a wheel on track, it is gathering data in order to make the car go faster. Team engineers have mountains of data on every track, for every situation and for every weather condition, and that data is plugged into an endless skein of equations designed to yield speed - especially on the 1.5-mile ovals that are a staple of life in the IndyCar Series.
But data is a cruel mistress. It is very rigid not only in what it gives a team, but how it gives it. It doesn't take much to miss the key to the Victory Lane, even if it the answers are right there sitting atop the Everest of data in the notebook.
Saturday at the Chicagoland Speedway, Ryan Hunter-Reay (#17 Ethanol Dallara/Honda/Firestone) and Rahal Letterman Racing found that the key to speed that its data gave them was in reality, the key to the eighth row.
Hunter-Reay and his RLR teammates were frustrated as today's four-lap IndyCar Series qualifying run left the Ethanol machine in the 16th starting spot for Sunday's PEAK Antifreeze & Motor Oil Indy 300, sending the team back to the garage looking for answers.
"Obviously we're extremely disappointed," said Chief Operating Officer Scott Roembke. "That speed wasn't what we expected to see. We have to go back and look at the data because we missed something. Based on the pace of the car in race trim this morning, we can be a little more optimistic, but now we've got a good bit of work to do in order to get to the front."
Hunter-Reay was eighth-fastest in the morning practice around the 1.5-mile oval where he finished seventh a year ago. Standing in ninth place in the point standings heading to this weekend's season finale, the Floridian was looking for a strong performance in qualifying as he looks to maintain his top-10 perch in the points, but will now have to battle his way through eight rows of traffic to get to the front.
"We were just flat slow and it was embarrassing," said Hunter-Reay. "But we have raced better than we have qualified all year long, and we'll have to do it again. I really don't know what the problem was today, but I know the guys are going to put the hours in tonight to figure it out."
Hunter-Reay went faster on each of his four qualifying laps, topping out with a orbit at 25.5830 seconds (213.875 mph). The effort paid off a bit at the end as his last lap boosted his average speed enough to earn him another spot on the grid, but it would not be enough.