The second rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder program, the Pro Mazda Championship, has been light on ovals this season. With the ladder program foregoing the Night Before the 500 events at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, finding a short oval suitable for USF2000 and Pro Mazda has been challenging. Although not ideally suitable, the USF2000 series raced at Iowa Speedway. The lowest-powered cars in the MRTI ladder finished in more or less the order they started, but importantly with all cars running. The Pro Mazda Championship, which used to race at Iowa, will instead have their first and only oval race of the season at Gateway Motorsports Park, a narrow, asymmetric oval just outside of St. Louis, MO. They will join the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indy Lights Series on August 25th and 26th. This will be the third oval of the season for the Indy Lights Series.
Speaking with INDYCAR’s Jason Penix, moving back to a schedule of one oval for the USF2000, two for Pro Mazda, and three for Indy Lights is a goal, as is finding a way to bring the USF2000 and Pro Mazda series to the Lucas Oil Raceway during Month of May. It’s important to the MRTI program, and to IndyCar to have the young drivers learning to compete on an oval circuit, and to have them around the Indianapolis and Speedway area during the celebration of speed that is the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. After the Indy Grand Prix on the infield road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the MRTI drivers took part in an oval clinic to learn the nuances of oval racing. While the classroom time is valuable, the lessons only truly sink home once the drivers are in their cars and at speed on an oval circuit.
This past Thursday, the Pro Mazda Championship and the Indy Lights Series held a test at the newly resurfaced Gateway Motorsports Park, and we were there to see if the junior formula cars responded as well to the new asphalt as the IndyCars did the previous week. It also allowed many of the drivers who have never raced on an oval, but the lessons they learned at the MRTI Oval Clinic in May to use. With the surface being so new, the track has not yet had time to install the in-track timing sensors, so all times during the session were recorded by the teams using stop watches. That means no timesheets for us, but ultimately, that’s not what this test day was about. It genuinely was a test, not a practice.
The Verizon IndyCar Series, which ran as the speedway the previous week, runs on Firestone tires whereas the three Mazda Road to Indy series all run on Cooper tires. Whenever there are different tire manufacturers and compounds being laid down on a racing surface, there’s always concern about the compatibility of those compounds. We hear about this occasionally during a Formula 1 weekend when they share the track with various sports car and other junior formula series. Not all rubber is the same, and incompatible compounds can lead to less grip on track, not more. Fortunately, since the beginning of the Cooper Tire relationship with the Mazda Road to Indy, the compounds used by Cooper and Firestone do not hinder each other’s performance, and grip was certainly not an issue on Thursday. There was concern about tire wear with the new, potentially abrasive surface, but the morning sessions quickly allayed those concerns. While the track surface offered abundant levels of grip, there was no abnormal tire wear. That’s not to say that drivers won’t have to manage their tires during the full length of a race in a couple of weeks. They will, but it won’t be an abnormal amount of wear where there might be concern of the tire surviving the duration of the race.
One aspect of the Gateway Motorsports Park oval that will do the most to facilitate exciting racing is its narrowness, flatness, and asymmetry. We spoke with TJ Fischer, driver of the No. 82 Pro Mazda machine for Team Pelfrey, at the test and he described it as having to drive two separate ovals. Turns 1 and 2 are banked at 11 degrees with a radius of 130 yards, while Turns 3 and 4, although banked at a flatter 9 degrees, have a larger radius of 165 yards. Setting up and driving the car involves a long list of compromises. If you optimize your setup for Turns 1 and 2, you’re leaving speed on the table through Turns 3 and 4, but if you trim out the car to optimize for Turns 3 and 4, you have to slow too much through Turns 1 and 2. It becomes a game of balancing conflicting demands on the chassis.
Both the Indy Lights and Pro Mazda drivers were needing to lift through Turns 1 and 2, although the Pro Mazda drivers it’s more of a feathering. As TJ put it, one has to “convince the throttle” through the south end of the track. The difficult balance to find is feathering just enough to get the nose of the car to turn in, but not so much that you lose momentum. You have to convince the car to both turn and maintain speed. It’s tough business, and not all drivers will be able to master the subtleties involved, but those that do will be rewarded.
Another hindrance to good racing in general, but especially good oval racing, is the turbulent wake of the leading car substantially and negatively affecting the aerodynamics of the trailing car. This was a test, not a full practice, but the drivers did get to run in close formation to evaluate how well their machines would run in a group. There were no issues from either the Pro Mazda or Indy Lights cars. They all ran well and close in small groups. The inability to run close and pass on an oval has plagued the Verizon IndyCar Series as of late, but for the two Mazda Road to Indy series, it seems not to be an issue at Gateway.
Mr. Olsakovsky and I will be at Gateway in a couple of weeks for the races and will bring back a full report as well as a plethora of images.