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FKI Full Article Bonus – What’s It Like to Drive at Indy? As a karter, you know more than you think.

Proof that I actually drove at Indy (same helmet scheme)...Oh, and that I can hit my apexes!

Ahhh, the month of May.  If you consider yourself a serious race fan, the month of May can only mean one thing – The Indy 500.  To this day I get asked what it is like to drive at Indy.  I will do my best to convey that unique experience in a second but will say this, driving at Indy is unlike any other track and is beyond fast – it brings fast to the ridiculous.  You as a karter, have a deeper insight into that experience than you might imagine.  I’ll explain.

I think the best way to begin is to start with something they said to us in our rookie orientation meeting.  Brian Barnhart, chief steward at the time, sat us all down and proceeded to tell us that although we are all fast, experienced drivers, keep in mind that the fastest we have gone is most likely 190mph for a split second on the fastest straightaway at the biggest track we have been on (true).  Brian continued to stress that, “Keep in mind that here, once you get going, your MINIMUM speed on EVERY lap will be around 217 mph (also true).  If you go into Turn 1 and feel a wobble, don’t take it into 2, put your hand up, get off the fast line, pull it into the pits and sort it out with your engineer.”  In a nutshell Brian just laid out the other big rule at Indy – when you crash, it’s everyone’s problem.  You can’t just jump off the throttle and hit the brakes at 200+, the car becomes extremely sensitive and responsive at those speeds.

Brian was dead right on his numbers.  For me personally, my best lap was a 220.4 which translated to me entering Turns 1 and 3 at 230 mph with exit speeds of 217-218 mph.  The fast guys were entering at 239mph and probably carrying 2-3 mph more through the mid corner.   Brian was dead right about another thing, even my minimum speeds, 217 mph, were a long way away from the momentary 190 mph top speed of my Indy Lights car.  Even at the fastest oval in Indy Lights, my cornering speeds were 160 – 170 mph.  Fast yes, but Indy is literally another 25% faster and mentally this is not a linear jump, it’s exponential.

Indy is all about speed and every year that I go I try to impress this upon my guests with a van.  If you drive outside the front straightway of the track on Georgetown Road from the end of the grandstands in Turn 4 to the end of the grandstands in Turn 1 it is 7/8 of a mile long.  At the speed limit, 40 mph, it takes roughly a minute and a half to cover this distance in the van.  In the IndyCar, it takes 9 seconds.  For me personally, it would take me a day to get re-acclimated to the speed.  The two times I went there (Rookie Orientation and then the week of qualifying) on my second day back I was always a touch quicker in my first session than the entire day before and much more comfortable with the speed.

In the cockpit everything goes by so fast and looks very narrow and you are forced to look as far ahead as possible to slow everything down and stay ahead of the car.  Another thing that I personally had to contend with because I sat so high in the car – I couldn’t hear the engine because of the wind noise.  Although I had a speedometer on the dash, I could literally tell you when I hit 200 mph because the engine note would suddenly disappear and it’s like I stuck my head outside a Lear Jet at altitude – just deafening loud white noise.  It would continue like that until I slowed down to come into the pits and the wind noise would suddenly disappear only to be replaced by the engine noise as if someone unclicked a mute button.

To give you a glimpse of a lap at Indy, even on my own, I was very busy in the cockpit, mainly because you have to pay attention to the wind direction and the lights at Indy more so than anywhere else.  In the rookie orientation meeting, they tell you that there are wind socks located on top of the famous black scoring tower on the front straight and on top of the Turn 3 grandstand.  You better be paying attention to those socks because if the wind changes direction, you may pick up a push or you may pin the nose of the car down coming off a corner and get loose since the winds gust through the openings between the stands.  For instance, if the wind is blowing up the main straightaway, you can count on a little extra front grip on the exit of Turn 4 and turning into Turn 1 as the wind blows over your front wings.  Conversely, you will most likely feel a little more understeer exiting Turn 2 and into Turn 3 as the wind pushes the car from the inside rear.  If you start to rely on this and the wind changes direction, you can see why it could get you into trouble.

So what’s a lap of Indy like on your own?  Here goes: come off of 4, look at your exit speed, pull the car away from the wall (if you run too close to the wall down the straight, the air hits the car then hits the wall and bounces back onto the car, slowing the car down) look at the wind sock, look at the starter, look for a green light into one, pull the car back over as close to the wall as you dare with your peripheral vision to set up your turn-in point while looking as far through Turn 1 as you can, turn in!  Get down to the apex rumble strips, how’s the car feel, do I have enough road, do I need to breathe the throttle?  No! Hold it flat, release the car to the exit, let it settle, look through 2, turn in!  Get down to the rumble strips, hold, release-release-release, let the car run to the wall, check exit speed, pull car away from wall, look at the sock on top of the Turn 3 grandstand, look for green light at the entrance of 3 as you pull the car back over to the wall, turn in!  Get down to the apex, release early, settle the car briefly in the short chute, now nail 4 for good exit and lap time!

As fast as you read that paragraph is as fast as it feels to drive a lap at Indy (around 41 seconds).  Start throwing in other cars and you need to worry about dirty air and actually passing.  Did I also mention these are 230 mph BLIND turns.  That’s right. You don’t really get a clear view of where you are going until turn-in.  Don’t be fooled by the in-car camera shots, I would have killed to have a viewpoint that much higher and further into the turns.  As I like to tell people, it’s like driving down a big city street and taking a 230 mph blind turn around a skyscraper.  Another thing I haven’t mentioned but also helps explain the speed, if the car is not right, you are literally breathing the throttle for a split second at the apex of the turn in order to keep the car off the wall 1/8 of a mile and 1 second down the road, hence the need to look as far ahead as you can.  Finally, even though they both have the same banking, Turn 3′s banking looks bigger and Turn 3 is always more comfortable than Turn 1.  Turn 1 on this track is the turn you take all the deep breaths before, especially if you are still trying to get the car right or coming down the front straight on new, hopefully fully warmed tires and less rear wing than you’ve ever had for lap 1 of Qualifying.

OK you say, pretty cool, but how does this relate to what I am doing in my 70-80 mph kart.  Well, a lot.  To be more specific, we have a fast kink on my hometown track at the end of a 500 foot straightaway that is very difficult to get flat, especially when the track lacks grip during the summer and/or the kart is not set-up correctly.  It is a blind, slightly uphill left-hand turn that you approach at 80-82 mph in a shifter.  When you talk to numerous drivers in any class, “The Kink” is the corner where you take deep breaths down the straight and pucker up for your turn-in just like Indy.  In fact, after I drove at Indy, I told anyone who has taken The Kink that this is exactly what Indy is like.  The only difference is that you have 10 more turns and 40 seconds in the kart to take a breather and then get ready for The Kink again.  At Indy, you don’t.  Every turn of every lap is The Kink and yes, even though Turns 2 and 4 are easier than 1 and 2, you are still hauling the mail through 2 and 4 which brings me to my next point – turn-in.

Like Indy, you have to be precise yet not too quick on your turn-in as the kart is very sensitive at speed just like the IndyCar.  In addition, there is a 3″ drop off at the exit of The Kink so dropping a wheel has huge consequences.  Miss a turn-in at Indy and you are most likely out of the “groove” and sliding up into the wall.  Miss a turn-in at The Kink and you risk sliding off into the desert at 75 mph, sideways.  I know, I’ve done it and it is very scary when the kart threatens to dig in and roll over.  Luckily for me, it didn’t.  Turn-in too quickly at The Kink and at the very least you will have a huge oversteer and kill your time or you will catch the oversteer but run out of road on the exit and fly off into the desert.  Turn in too early at Indy and you risk getting too low on the track at the apex, upsetting the car on the rumble strips, and spinning.  Turn in too early for The Kink and you will hit a huge curb that will most likely bounce you off into the desert.

Other corners in karting that remind me of Indy:  Turn 4 going up the hill at the former Moran Raceway, the last turn at Santa Maria (there’s even a wall on the outside), and the fast left kink after the Bowl Turn turn at Streets of Willow going counter-clockwise.  It’s blind, its fast (90 mph entrance, 82 mph apex), and I had to mentally prepare for it every lap.

So maybe your track has a fast kink that you need to take breaths for.  Maybe you have to have the kart set up perfectly and nail your turn-in to take it flat.  Maybe as much as you would not like to admit it, you think about the corner for the rest of the lap.  If so, then you have a greater glimpse into what it is like to drive at Indy than 99% of the rest of the planet.  If you are lucky enough to have one of these corners at your track, relish the challenge, they are fast disappearing.  Every time I go to a new track, I hope to find another corner like Indy as Indy is hard to replicate and I miss it.  Thank God for karting!