After a trio of road and street races, INDYCAR makes a return to an oval this weekend, and an old friend of an oval at that. Despite it’s relatively short life on the INDYCAR map, New Hampshire Motor Speedway left an indelible mark on the open wheel landscape during the 1990’s, rivaling other bullrings at Milwaukee and Nazareth.
Bobby Rahal, who dominated the inaugural run there in 1992, is happy to see the one-mile oval return to INDYCAR after more than a decade away. “This is a track that holds great memories for me and any time you win the inaugural event at a track, you are going to remember it fondly,” Rahal recalled. “This place was a big part of my last championship in 1992, and I am glad to see the track hosting open-wheel racing again.”
As far excitement goes, the small, flat, one-mile rings come second to no one. Case and point, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, and Dario Franchitti all stood a chance to win Milwaukee before Kanaan crashed out and Castroneves cut a tire, leaving Franchitti the win. At Iowa, Kanaan and Franchitti were once again involved in a fight at the front, this time with a hard charging Marco Andretti. The three staged an outstanding battle, with Andretti eventually coming out the victor.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway has also seen it’s fair share of classics, none more excited than the 1993 New England 200. Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, and Nigel Mansell put one of the all-time great races on a track that had just a been repaved after the old asphalt broke up during NASCAR race earlier that summer. Tracy charged through the pack to take the lead from Mansell in the opening stint as they battled through traffic, with Fittipaldi joining the fray after the halfway point. Eventually, after numerous swaps of the lead between the three as they battled through slower cars, Mansell would overtake them in the dying moments to take the win.
However, there will be a big difference in the track they will compete on. In 2002, four years after the most recent INDYCAR race there, New Hampshire Motor Speedway saw a significant facelift. The corners received a progressive banking (ranging from four degrees to seven degrees) and the apron was paved to become a part of the racing line.
Newman Haas engineer Craig Hampson, who was with the team for that aforementioned amazing day in ’93, believes the changes negate any data they had. “We are not using the old data because in 2002 the track was repaved and the banking reprofiled,” said Hampson. “We are instead working from our simulation program. Quite a few members of our team have been with NHR long enough that we did attend the races in the early 1990s. We remember the 1993 race pretty fondly. But the 1994 race was quite disappointing - since Nigel and Mario crashed into each other!”
Hampson added that team who tested there will have a leg up on everyone else. “For the moment, we have very little information about the amount of grip on the track, or how smooth the surface is. Having not tested there, Thursday will be a learning experience for the team. The teams that did test - Ganassi, Andretti, Penske, Rahal - they certainly have a leg up. The Ganassi and Penske teams will also have a lot of helpful information from their NASCAR operations.”
However, Newman/Haas is not alone in their uncertainty. The only active driver to have raced on “The Magic Mile” is Paul Tracy, who last competed there in 1995, and no current driver has raced on the updated layout. Oriol Servia sums up the challenge presented to the drivers this weekend. “I do not know much about the track apart from watching this year NASCAR race,” said Servia. “It looked like it will be a lot of fun with an Indy car because of its long straights and tight corners. It also looked a bit bumpy on the braking zones, which will provide an interesting challenge for all the engineers in the paddock to come up with a good setup. It is great that we have all day Thursday to test on it.”
Teammate James Hinchcliffe echoed those sentiments, but does hope the team’s past experience will pay off. “We pretty much have to treat it as a new track since it's a different car and really a different era since the team last ran there,” he said. “Having said that, there may have been a trick or two that worked year to year with different cars that they have up their sleeve! We will just have to wait and see!”
(View the weekend’s schedule here).
-The stretch to the championship won’t see much drama if Dario Franchitti can manage to avoid and mishaps. With a 63-point lead, greater than one full race’s worth of points, Franchitti has his title push on cruise control. Unless something drastic changes between now and Las Vegas, the title is Franchitti’s to lose.
-Tomas Scheckter will fill in this week for the injured Justin Wilson. With Scheckter having raced with Dreyer and Reinbold in 2009 and 2010, there is a familiarity that will help in the coming weeks. Larry Curry explained, “Even though we get that extra run time there Thursday (practice day), we have to cut to the chase fast. We know him and he knows us, and it will take him only two or three laps to know what he needs out of the car and how we can adjust it. It was more of a choice based on who was available and who we had a relationship with. That was pretty imple actually."
-Even though he is not running this week, Simon Pagenaud deserves accolades for his job at Mid-Ohio. Without any practice last weekend, Pagenaud qualified the No. 22 entry a respectable 18th, barely missing the cut in the first knockout session, and finished 13th. Not a bad weekend for someone who hadn’t brought any of his driving gear with him and had to borrow equipment from about half-a-dozen other drivers. Pagenaud is working on making a full season effort in 2012 and tested with Sam Schmidt Motorsports at Mid-Ohio during the group test last week.
-Since finishing second at Milwaukee, Graham Rahal has results of P15, 13, 25, and 24. Mistakes and contact, some his fault and some not, have relegated him to ninth in the standings. He’ll look to stop the freefall this weekend.
-Pippa Mann will make her second career start this weekend as she joins Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the first of three races at the end of the year (the other two being Kentucky and Las Vegas). She tested at Loudon in July with the team and is excited to be back in the saddle after finishing 20th at this year’s Indianapolis 500. “So far this year I have gone from having no races, to one race, and from that race to having three more races!” Mann said. “It feels like it has been a long lay off since the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500, and I can't wait to get back on track this weekend for my second IZOD Indy Car Series race, and my first with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing!”