Can we get back to racing? Please?

There’s a line late in the second act of the Broadway smash Hamilton asking, “Can we get back to politics? Please?!” After months of talking about nothing but politics, viruses, virtual racing, and civil unrest, I more than ever want to ask, “Can we get back to racing? Please?!” Thankfully, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES finally kicks off its abbreviated 2020 season this Saturday night under the lights at the lightning fast Texas Motor Speedway just north of Fort Worth, Texas, with the Genesys 300.

As is the case with every season, the series will start the season with significantly more questions than answers, both those of the short term and long term variety. With so much uncertainty and little work being allowed for all the teams since the series’ false start in March at St. Petersburg, Florida, most teams and drivers will be arriving in Texas with their fingers crossed and not completely sure what to expect out of this year’s event. With four weeks off before the series resumes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4th, most entrants will look to escape Texas with the cars in one piece and just grab as many points as possible.

The biggest unknowns this weekend are really two fold: the new-for-2020 IndyCar Aeroscreen and the rookies who will be getting their first taste of IndyCar on a high-speed, nail-biting oval with a type of racing they have never experienced before and that cannot be simulated in any virtual world. Both could be major issues at Texas Motor Speedway. Or both could actually end up being non-factors, the worry for which ends up being completely overblown.

The Aeroscreen

If I’m being completely honest, I think the Aeroscreen has the potential to be more detrimental to this weekend than the rookies. I think there are still a number of unanswered questions about the product that INDYCAR and its teams have not been able to fully address. Questions – perhaps fairly significant questions – still remain about the unintended consequences of the new device. While concerns about visibility and distortion seem to have been put aside for now (though running under the lights with debris from 23 other cars is still a concern), great concerns about driver cooling and extrication are still to be answered.

As is usually the case when the NTT INDYCAR SERIES hits the Texas high banks, temperatures are expected to soar over the weekend and will put the questions of driver cooling front and center throughout the day. Temperatures during the afternoon practice and qualifying sessions are forecast to be in the mid- to upper-90s and expected to fall only to the lower 90 and upper 80s by race time. As far as I know, no IndyCar drivers have run with the Aeroscreen in these conditions and certainly not for the prolonged period of time required for Saturday’s race. INDYCAR, Red Bull Advanced Technologies, Dallara, the teams, and various helmet manufacturers have experimented with various cooling ducts and other apparatuses, but I’m not sure the effectiveness of any of them have been confirmed at this point. Running for nearly two hours in the blazing Texas heat will certainly be the most extreme test the Aeroscreen cooling situation has faced in its development thus far.

The other Aeroscreen challenge will be driver extrication. No driver – to my knowledge – has yet crashed their race car with the new Aeroscreen in place, so removing a disabled driver from his vehicle remains an unknown at this time. The AMR INDYCAR Safety Team is the absolute best in the business, and they will no doubt have prepared themselves for every possible situation. But until they are put on the spot with an actual driver in the cockpit, the practices and procedures for removing a driver from the car will be somewhat theoretical. My understanding is that the Aeroscreen can be forcibly removed or cut away in an emergency situation, but I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’m sure the teams do as well. It goes without saying, however, that the safety team should, must, and will do whatever is necessary to remove an injured driver in such a situation that would require removal of the Aeroscreen.

As if these concerns weren’t enough, concerns continue to swirl about the altered weight distribution and aerodynamic performance of the INDYCAR IR-18 Racecars due to nearly 50 additional pounds of high-mounted weight. I personally think this is being blown way out of proportion and being used by some people to just have something smart-sounding to talk about. It might have a slightly detrimental effect on the Firestone Firehawk racing tires and might ultimately slow the cars down by a couple tenths of a second, but when the rubber meets the track, I think the performance and handling differences will be pretty much negligible.

The Rookies

If the entire starting grid from the 2019 NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at Laguna Seca 258 days ago and no other drivers were starting this weekend at Texas, I think there would still be concerns about a nine-month layoff and jumping into a race with almost no off season testing and only one practice session. Throw in three drivers who have never driven an Indy car on an oval (during a race weekend) and another whose only experience was a DNQ for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 and you have the makings of a potential serious situation.

In no one’s dream world would a season start out at the Texas Motor Speedway. The speeds are high, the quarters are narrow, and the reaction times necessary are fractional. Danger lurks around every corner and the slightest misstep can spell disaster for a driver and his counterparts. But this is the hand the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES has been dealt, and everyone must make the best of it.

For Oliver Askew, Rinus Veekay, and Alex Palou, the goal for Saturday night is to stay out of the way, finish as many laps as possible, and bring the car home in one piece. Staying out of the way might be the hardest of those three goals. No amount of simulator time or iRacing can prepare them adequately for what they will experience Saturday night. Askew and Veekay will at least come with experience from previous seasons in Indy Lights, but both expectations and demands will be much higher on Saturday night. Speeds and car counts will be much higher than they have previously been exposed to, so knowing where and when to place their car will be at a premium.

INDYCAR was wise to allow the rookies a 30-minute practice session prior to turning the entire field loose for their one-and-only practice session prior to qualifying and racing. It’s still not nearly enough, but it’s better than throwing everyone into the deep end together and having the newbies figure it out alongside the veterans.

In the end…

When it all shakes out at the end of 200 laps, I think the results of the 2020 Genesys 300 will be typical of what we have seen over the years on high-speed ovals. Will Power and Josef Newgarden will be fast from the onset. Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive very calculated races, bringing their machines home safely and looking towards good points nights. Alexander Rossi will make some bold and daring moves all night long. Marco will probably be quick but ultimately have something go wrong that costs him a good finish.

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan duo of Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato will run strong all night with at least one of them challenging for the win late in the race. Scott Dixon will hang around all night long and then “suddenly” appear out of nowhere for a top-3 finish. Marcus Ericcson (in the other Ganassi car) and the McLaren/Schmidt guys will have quiet nights that make you eventually forget they are in the race. Santino Ferrucci will have a great run for a while with moves that leave you breathless. And Ed Carpenter will have another great run that typically ends with him getting taken out in a crash or coming up just short of the victory.

Or, as is even more typical, my predictions will be 100% incorrect and James Hinchcliffe pulls out the win in a part-time ride with Andretti Autosport, yielding a great return on investment for Genesys, his car sponsor and the race’s title sponsor, to secure more events later in the season.

Regardless of how it places out, I am sure there will be exciting racing (thankfully with real race cars now!!), and everyone associated with the NTT INDYCAR SERIES will be ecstatic to be back on track rather than talking about hypotheticals and virtual worlds. I know I can’t wait!

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