By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
From Spa-Francorchamps to Indianapolis, Ben Hanley and his entire DragonSpeed squad has had an extremely tumultuous 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 35-year-old racer out of Manchester, England didn’t found out that he was going to compete in his second Indianapolis 500 until August 5th – four days before opening day of practice.
Where exactly was Hanley when he got the news? Competing in the 4 Hours of Spa with DragonSpeed as the race marked Round 2 of the European Le Mans Series where the Elton Julian-led LMP2 machine finished second.
“It was late. I’m not sure when the team knew, but obviously I got told on the Saturday,” said Hanley, driver of the No. 81 Flex-Box Chevrolet. “I left Spa went back to the UK on Monday and then Tuesday flew straight here. Yeah. It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks.”
Hanley had to overcome traveling conflicts where for 30-40 minutes, he wasn’t even going to be allowed to board on an airplane. Eventually, he was approved to fly overseas and was reminded how hard it has been for everyone during the pandemic as DragonSpeed is the only NTT IndyCar Series race team whose shop are based outside the United States.
“It’s hard just to travel,” Hanley admitted. “Even just from the UK going to Belgium, I ended up having to drive across with my engineer because there’s not as many flights anymore. Everything is just becoming a massive task for all the teams.
“Everything’s hard for the teams to organize, especially with those up in personnel, doing both. It’s a massive task to get everyone to where they need to be. You didn’t really appreciate the ease of flying (pre-COVID-19) and now it really sticks out. It’s massive.”
Once arriving in the United States, stress levels shifted from traveling to his Chevrolet as Hanley and his team have been working non-stop in order to build a promising race car setup this Sunday (coverage begins at 1:00 p.m. ET on NBC).
Due to their dedication on race trim, Hanley was the only driver who had a four-lap qualifying average of under 225 mph (222.917 mph) and will roll off 33rd.
“We were never looking to go quick in qualifying. We were still finding our feet with the base setup. Ideally, we wanted to do one more run and hopefully get onto the back of the runner’s kind of thing in terms of speeds,” Hanley on his Indy 500 expectations.
“We were just starting to be a bit happier with the balance. So, we were going to push a bit more. We knew we were already in, so the focus as the whole team have been saying, since we realized that we were going to come here and there was only 33 of us, the focus was fully on race setup. So that’s kind of what we were still doing in the early parts of the qualifying runs.”
Prior to qualifying last weekend, Hanley had another hurdle to overcome and that’s getting practice laps to see if they’re up to par with the rest of the field.
IndyCar didn’t approve them until the end of last Thursday’s practice where he had a private session. That’s because they’ve lost time in the first two six-plus hour practice sessions due to electrical issues and adapting to the aeroscreen which he only had ran during testing at Sebring International Raceway early in the year.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t phased Hanley as he knew everyone had their work cut out for, especially when they decided to run the 104th Indianapolis 500 at the last minute.
“It’s full focus on the race. So yeah, completely different perspective on our goal’s targets and what we’re trying to achieve,” said Hanley. “At the same time, it was no secret that we were a bit last minute in participating in the race, so that ultimately had a knock-on effect on those missing parts of the early running. Then some electronic issues with the car. Made us miss even more running.
“We’ve just been on them playing catch up really. Especially with the aeroscreen and the different challenges that presents a lot of the teams have run with it already on ovals. They have an idea of what to expect. Whereas for us it was, you know, first time. So yeah, we’re just, we’re just a bit behind and going through the motions of the fine tuning, fine tuning things.”
Despite competing in sports cars, ranging from the Rolex 24 at Daytona to Paul Ricard, Hanley felt it wasn’t hard getting used to the closed open wheel cockpit, but it still had its challenges when navigating on an oval like IMS.
“It’s more tricky in trying to control the effects it has on the car,” said Hanley. “The effects on the Speedway are completely different to the effects on a road or street course with the speeds being much lower, etc. So, you don’t see that big of an Aero balance shift on the shorter circuits, but everything is different. So, we’re just working to try and try and be in a comfortable window.”
Hanley was one of the biggest surprises in last year’s Indy 500 because a large majority of people predicted they’d be one of the three cars going home. With tremendous concentration on making the field, not only Hanley qualified 27th and avoided Bump Day, it symbolized their potential in the sport.
“It was certainly the most rewarding because it’s not just about where you qualify as we we’re in. It’s a matter of being in the race or not. There’re very few events that are like that in the world,” Hanley on making the field a year ago. “So yeah, it was massive, huge for us, especially considering everyone was putting us in the bottom three to be one of the ones going home and we went straight in. It was even more rewarding in that sense. Cause you know, it shows that you smaller teams can come and make the race.”
Once race day rolled along, their 500 debut was short lived as a driveshaft failure knocked Hanley out early, ending up 32nd after completing 54 of 200 laps.
With his second appearance in the Indy 500 looming, Hanley took a moment to reflect on his debut at the event last year.
“It was obviously great experience because I haven’t been there before to know what it’s supposed to feel like and what it can feel like. It that respect it’s really positive,” said Hanley. “At the same time, last year, we were weak in traffic because we were all focused on getting in the show. It’s a completely different scenario this year and we’re trying to be more competitive in the traffic scenario.”