By Kirby Arnold, Special Contributor
INDIANAPOLIS – Of the hundreds of laps each driver has run in practice for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, they had little chance to work on one of the most important factors that could lead to victory.
The last lap before a pit stop and the first lap after a stop around the 2½-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway are critical to gaining – or losing – track position. In laps and out laps, as they’re called, have won and lost this race, and there isn’t a driver in the field who didn’t make them a part of their preparation for Sunday’s race.
“The in and out laps are really important here, and they’re something I really focused on to improve,” said Stefan Wilson, who was set to start 25th prior to an injury sustained in a practice crash earlier this week that will keep him out of the car on Sunday.
Scott Dixon, known as a master of the in/out laps, has a simple description of how to do them well.
“Going fast!” he said.
It’s a little more complicated than that. Actually, it is a lot more complicated.
To do it right, a driver must maintain full race speed out of Turn 4 before diving left toward pit entry, gear down and lean on the brake to reach the 60 mph pit road speed limit, stop exactly on marks laid onto the surface of the team’s pit so the crew can add fuel and replace tires, and do it without wasting a fraction of a second.
Leaving the pits, a driver will launch the moment he or she hears “Go!”, release the pit speed button and drive hard around the Turns 1 and 2 acceleration lane to get the tires into optimal temperature.
Do it right, and hopefully they’ll gain time on those they’re racing against. Mess it up in any way, and there will be more positions to make up on track.
“No matter who you’re racing with, if you pit under green you’re going to come back onto the race track with them. That’s how the sequencing works here,” said Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing. “You just have to make sure you don’t lose that amount of track position on the out lap.”
Sure, speed is the biggest factor in entering and exiting the pits. But so is the need to adjust the car on pit exit so it’s set up to make a quick out lap.
“It’s (a matter of) understanding where you need the weight jacker, where you need the roll bars,” Dixon said. “Ideally as soon as you leave pit road you want to be flat all the way out. Depending on wind conditions or track temp, that can alter quite a bit.”
All the while, drivers must ensure the tires are in optimal condition coming and going – not too hot or worn in order to make a strong in lap, but also making sure they’ve got sufficient heat on the out lap before the car enters the track on the back straight.
“It’s an arts and science project,” Hull said. “Every driver is different, but how you heat the tire carcass determines how fast you can go as you leave the pit lane. For a driver leaving on cold tires after he releases the speed control at pit exit, how he heats the tires before he finds the race track determines what you do with that first and second lap.”
Entering the pits becomes a lot easier if a driver has taken care of the tires on track, Hull said, especially if it’s been a long stint.
“The in lap itself is not as important as the last 20 percent of the run,” Hull said. “If the driver has kept the tires underneath his or her car for an entire run and they’re not worn out over the last 20 percent, you gain a lot of track position over others. The in laps come with that because your tires are still ample enough that you can get after it to get to the pit lane. That’s really, really important.”
The biggest challenge this month, especially for rookie drivers and those who haven’t raced at Indy in a while, is carrying as much speed as possible out of Turn 4 before slowing from more than 220 mph to the 60 mph pit road speed limit. Dixon suffered the most painful of consequences last year when, entering for his final pit stop while leading the 500, he broke the speed limit by 1 mph. The penalty cost him a what could have become his second Indy 500 victory.
Drivers had little opportunity to practice a true entry into the pits the first week of practice because they were required to use the deceleration lane that begins at the entry to Turn 3. The only practice time to pit off Turn 4, as they will in the race, were two-hour sessions Monday and Friday.
During early practice sessions, Wilson said he tried to carry as much speed as he could on the deceleration lane in the third and fourth turns, then accelerate until he reached the pit entry.
“That’s about as much as you can do to simulate the in lap off Turn 4,” he said.
Even getting into his pit box is an area to gain time, Wilson said.
“Those couple of tenths of a second can cost you positions,” he said. “It’s so hard to make up positions around here, you can’t afford to give up anything. We’re measuring all of that and at the end of each day looking at those reports, seeing where we can improve and what we can do better. (The first practice day) I had the fastest out laps. That’s an area I feel really good about, but I had to work on my pit in and getting into the box.”
Nothing in practice, Dixon said, can completely simulate pit-in and pit-out situations that drivers will encounter in the race.
“In practice we may be in qualifying trim or lower trims with used tires, and that will be a lot different feeling than with full (fuel) tanks and those scenarios for the race,” Dixon said. “You don’t want to make a silly mistake.”
Mistakes cost not only time, but potentially victory in the biggest race of the year. If anyone knows that, it’s Dixon.