The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its gates for the first day of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup practice this morning, where 50 drivers will prepare to qualify for the 13th running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. For generations the historic ...
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened its gates for the first day of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup practice this morning, where 50 drivers will prepare to qualify for the 13th running of the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard.
For generations the historic speedway opened its gates once a year for the Indianapolis 500. Now the speedway hosts three major races and while there are many similarities between each event, there are distinct differences too.
Jeff Dickerson grew up in Indianapolis wanting to win the Indianapolis 500. He worked for an IndyCar Series team, spotting for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing and driver Robbie Buhl. When Buhl left the cockpit to move the roof to spot for the team he co-owns with Dennis Reinbold, Dickerson moved to Mooresville, NC. Now he works as a spotter for Kyle Busch at Hendrick Motorsports.
"Perhaps the biggest difference is in the time we're here," said Dickerson, regarding the the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400. "But there are a lot of similarities too, the purse is big, the race is fast and even without Jim Nabors the atmosphere is electric."
While Dickerson would like to add an Indianapolis victory to his resume, losing the Brickyard 400 "is not the end of the world." Getting over a loss at the 500 is different. "If you don't win the Indianapolis 500, you could be in a funk for a couple of months." Working in the NEXTEL Cup Series where teams compete in more than 36 races a year, a loss at the Brickyard simply means focusing on the next goal, the chase for the championship.
A walk through the garage area reveals that most of the differences between the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 are easy to spot.
Tires. They're everywhere this weekend. Goodyear has 2,800 at this event. A wall of wheels and tires stretches along the north garages, from N7 to N14, stacked six deep at some points. At the Brickyard, teams can buy as many tires as they want. Most had six sets for practice and qualifying with another 10-12 sets for the race.
At the Indy 500 teams are allocated a limited to the number of Firestone tires and they all fit nicely inside the garage on the eve of the race.
Garage space. With 50 cars competing at the Brickyard each driver is given one garage space. Spare cars stay on the transporter unless they're needed. Although the Indy 500 starts 33 cars compared to 43 this weekend, spare cars officially entered in the 500 are assigned a garage. When Andretti Green Racing ran five cars in this year's 500, the team was assigned 12 garages. One was used as a driver's changing room while the adjoining garage was full of engineers crunching data.
Getting the cars around Gasoline Alley. An IndyCar glides smoothly through the garage area, moved by two individuals. One mechanic, using a tail jack to lift the rear wheels, steers the rear of the car while a second pushes and steers. The crew member with the tail jack can usually maneuver the car by themselves, allowing the second crew member to sit on the sidepod and steer. This is only done to make the guy holding the steering look cool.
It takes four to six crew members to push a NEXTEL Cup car around the garage area. Each of them places one hand on the car and that's to look cool too.
Transporting the tires around the garage area. Even though the Cup teams go through more tires, they carry their tires around the garage area on foot, four at a time, stacked on a specially designed hand truck. IndyCar tires are transported four or five sets at a time on a gas powered, flat bed shop cart. The shop carts are cool and some have loud air horns that are used to scare people. Cup guys wish they had cool shop carts too.
Fans. Indy 500 fans stand at the entrance to Gasoline Alley and shout at the drivers as they pass by. They know some of the ex-drivers and most of the team owners too. Cup fans do the same thing but they know the drivers, team owners, crew chiefs, lead mechanics and sometimes they even know the guy who puts gas in the car. Some Formula One fans at the United States Grand Prix are not above this type of behavior. They know the drivers names and the names of their supermodel girlfriends.
Once the gates are opened to Gasoline Alley most Cup teams are set up within an hour. One Petty Enterprises crew member said they could set up their garage in 30 minutes. Roll the tool box in, set up the cool down unit and these guys are ready to rock and roll. Week in and week out, the Cup teams have perfected the science of set up, tear down and getting down the road to the next race.
On the other hand, IndyCar Series teams spend the month of May at the speedway. It takes at least two days to move into the garages, installing walls for offices, moving in desks and office furniture and leveling the critical set up pads that will be used to ensure that the car's weight will be properly distributed between the four tires.
Food. When the lunch bell rings at a Cup race, the crew gathers around the transporter for a tailgate picnic cooked by the team's truck driver. He fires up a grill and serves a fine assortment of American favorites including hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecued chicken and sausages. Crews working at the Indy 500 are often invited to dine at the team's hospitality areas where fine gourmet meals are prepared by chefs that travel from race to race. That's not to say that many of the 500 crew members wouldn't trade their "foo-foo" gourmet meal for barbecue cooked out on a grill.
Adjustments to the cars. Spending part of the day observing the technical inspection process, I noticed huge differences in the way crews make minor adjustments to the cars. Failing tech inspection at the 500 usually entails heading back to the garage area where a pneumatic grinder or a hand file is used to trim an offending part. Not in the Cup Series. If a fender or body panel is doesn't conform to the proper specifications it can be massaged with what looks like a ten pound hammer. Bring a big hammer anywhere near a car competing in the 500 and you'll likely be escorted from the garage area.
While the differences between the two events may span social, cultural and technological gaps, both events are all about speed, competition and winning. Deep in the hearts and souls of the fans and the competitors, it's really all the same.