By Kirby Arnold, Staff Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – Sage Karam rolled out of the garage comfortable and fast Tuesday morning in the first Indianapolis 500 practice at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But that doesn’t mean all is perfect in the preparation of his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet for the May 29 race. This is Indy, after all, where the mental stress of figuring out how to go faster can be worse than act of steering into Turn 1 at more than 230 mph.
The dilemma of the moment: Should the team focus on race prep, or spend more practice time than usual in qualifying trim even though three practice days remain before qualifying on Saturday?
With only 33 entries this year, there won’t be bumping. But Karam and others feel a different kind of anxiety over qualifying. Because of aerodynamic changes, especially the aeroscreen, it has become increasingly difficult in recent years for cars to move up from deep in the field on race day, which makes a strong qualifying effort imperative.
Karam has started 31st the past three years, with a high finish of seventh last year in what he described as a perfect race for the team.
“I don’t know if I could have maximized anything else out of that thing,” he said. “I’m talking yellow flags, pit stops, (avoiding) mistakes on track. Everything went right and we got seventh. It took us all day to get there. If you can start 20th or 15th or 10th, you’re already up there and it makes life a lot easier.
“It’s definitely been more of a track position race. When I first came in (nine years ago) you could start anywhere in the field and win the race. Now, qualifying is very important. You see more drivers taking risks at the start of the race and on restarts, and it’s going to be the same trend this year.”
Karam and his new Dreyer & Reinbold teammate, longtime friend Santino Ferrucci, already have had a friendly debate in the garage about how much they should work on race setup vs. qualifying trim.
“I told him, ‘Dude, we can sit here every day and work race setup, but if we qualify 31st we’re going to hate it. It’s no fun back there.’
Ferrucci responded, “Well, I’ve started 22nd (actually 23rd last year) and finished sixth.”
Karam’s comeback: “That’s way better than starting 31st. It’s not fun. When you’ve got to take that many risks early on to gain those spots, when you’re at risk of going a lap down early, it’s not fun. You need everything to go perfect. Personally, I would like to spend a little more time in qualifying trim just to figure it out.”
Six hours of practice scheduled for Friday, when teams get extra turbocharger boost that’ll give them 40-50 more horsepower for qualifying, would seem like plenty. But Karam looked at the weather forecast and wondered if the team should do some simulated qualifying runs as early as Tuesday afternoon when everyone else was running in race trim.
The forecast the rest of this week steered the debate. There’s a 90 percent chance of rain Wednesday. Fast Friday, when teams get the extra turbo boost, is supposed to be hot (nearly 90 degrees) and windy (gusts up to 30 mph). Temperatures Saturday are expected to be about 10 degrees cooler with scattered thunderstorms.
Which means the most similar conditions for qualifying prep could have been Tuesday afternoon, with the air temperature 80 degrees, track temp 121 and little wind. Saturday’s forecast: 78 degrees with a potential for thunderstorms.
“Weather is very important here,” Karam said. “On paper you get five or six days of practice, but in reality you may only get two. It looks like Fast Friday right now is going to be hot but it’s going to be really windy. You’ll have to run qual stuff (Friday) to see those numbers, but I don’t know if that’s the best day to run qual stuff. This (Tuesday) is like a perfect day to do that stuff, the trimming and everything, (although) without the extra horsepower that you get on Fast Friday it’s difficult.”
Aside from the question of when and how much to practice qualifying setup, Karam was a happy driver Tuesday. He said practicing at IMS in April helped the team roll out fast in the morning practice, where he was third on the speed chart at 226.398 mph. In the afternoon session, on a hotter track surface, he was 23rd at 224.666 mph but said the car felt good in traffic.
“This is the most comfortable I’ve been coming to the Speedway on opening day,” Karam said. “First lap out of the pits I was flat (out). That usually doesn’t happen. Usually I come here in May and have to build up to it a little bit, work those kinks out. But being able to get out of the pits, be on it and feel comfortable, knowing I did it a month ago, it’s just another day.”
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