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Best of Ask a Pro: Indy 500

This year’s Indy 500 marks the 100th running of America’s premier motor race, with over 230,000 fans set to witness 33 drivers battling it out for the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Of those 33, ten have so far formed part of our Ask a Pro sessions, and we’ve picked out the best from each ahead of the green flag waving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29.

“Indy500”

If the opportunity presented itself, would you recommend a few years of racing in Europe for a young driver to prepare for Indy cars? Neville Richards

James Hinchcliffe (2016 Indy 500 pole-sitter): Honestly, no. If your goal is IndyCar racing, stay in North America. Mazda has done something for young drivers that has NEVER been done before with the Road To Indy program. It is the most incredible motorsports initiative I have ever seen and makes the path so clear for young drivers. Would racing over in Europe teach a young driver a lot and be a good experience? Absolutely. No doubt. But if two kids come out of karts together, one goes to Europe for four years the other participates in the RTI with equal success and they meet up again in Indy Lights, I can tell you right now who I, and most of the IndyCar team owners, would be looking at more closely.

My goal is to race in the Indy 500 one day. What was it like when you made your debut at Indianapolis? What was going through your mind on the grid and as you came up for the green flag? Anonymous

Hinchcliffe: Every driver you ask this question will tell you the same thing. The biggest thing you notice doing those parade laps is the crowds. You pound around the Speedway all month looking at empty grandstands, and then all of a sudden the largest collection of human beings for a sporting event is sitting there staring you in the face! It makes the track seem like it’s alive. There is so much colour and movement. It really is one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced. Good luck to you, I hope you get to see it one day!

How difficult do you find it to adapt to a new race engineer? What do you suggest to speed up the communication process? Jason

Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Racing driver): It’s always difficult, Jason. A race engineer and his driver must always be on the same page. An engineer should be able to look into his driver’s eyes and know what he’s thinking before he says a word. Any sort of relationship-building time like dinners together, team meetings, phone calls – all those things – so you both get on the same page is always a big help. Relationships make this world go around, and Bill [Pappas] and I work very hard on this all the time.

How much did you learn from your dad about dealing with the media? Andrew Derby

Rahal: Lots. Spending time around him as a kid was a huge perk. Media is a massive part of our job and you have to learn how to handle it all correctly, although I am still learning as you can imagine!

Is there a mindset or specific technique used to get the most out of an ill-handling car or one that has had its tires go away severely? Mike Hedlund

Josef Newgarden (Ed Carpenter Racing): Yes, there are techniques you can use if you’re experiencing severe understeer into a corner late in the race or if understeer is becoming a trait of the car. You can use techniques to speed up some corner entrances. If you’re experiencing that understeer on-throttle, on the exit of the corner, you can try to attack the entrances more and then apply throttle later, to minimize the understeer. If you’re experiencing oversteer on entrance of a corner, then maybe you can try and slow down the speed at the entrance of the corner and then power-out of the corner quicker – if throttle-down seems to alleviate the problem. Sometimes transferring the weight back to the rear of the car, with a little bit of throttle midway through the corner, allows you to attack the exits more than the entrances. So there are various techniques you can run through in the car to try to alleviate any issues that you have.

As a racing driver, what is the largest challenge that you have to face as you work your way through your career? Sponsorship? Developing confidence? Davin Sturdivant

Newgarden: Great question. I think sponsorship and finding support is definitely the most crucial part in motor racing in this day and age. You really have to be educated about the business side of the sport. If you do not have the backing or the support, then you won’t even be able to make it to the racetrack to start developing your skills. Nowadays it really is a lot more business than actual racing, so it’s really important.

Hi, my 10-year-old son wants to some day race in F1. I am looking into karting for him to start on now. What resources are available to help guide me as to how to groom him for a life in motorsports? If this is what he wants, I would like to at least know how one could go about doing this. Thanks for your time. Scott Brunengraber

Townsend Bell (making 10th Indy 500 start): Karting is clearly the place to start. This will give you some sense of his natural ability for racing. He should show some pretty early ‘wow’ factor to be on the F1 path. I would recommend the Jim Hall Karting School in California to start, a terrific fundamental baseline to work from. SAFEisFAST and the RRDC community will be full of helpful advice from there. Best of luck.

How do you break the ice in getting sponsorship money? Do you need to visit each business/corporation in person? Some say that anything short of appearing in person is a sure way to be ignored or rejected. But it’s not possible to visit corporate headquarters for major companies all over the country and world when you have a very tiny kart racing budget. We aren’t looking for a million dollars - just something to improve our equipment. The talent is already there and documented. Do we need to hire a company to do this? Anonymous

Bell: Face to face is always the best way. That way they can’t ignore you so easily. You don’t need to go coast-to-coast, just focus on your region of the country. There’s more opportunity then you will ever have time to pursue.

You do not need to hire someone to do this for you. This process requires you to harness your passion and desire and channel it towards the sponsorship process.

There seems to be a lot of differences between racing in Europe and in North America. What is your perspective on “blocking” versus “driving defensively” – and how the rules are operated on either side of the Pond? David

Conor Daly (Dale Coyne Racing driver): I think in Europe it’s basically anything goes. I have been blocked many times over there and it has totally been against the rules but in the end unless you get wrecked, the officials don’t seem to care. INDYCAR has done a good job in enforcing the rule most of the time and in reality I do think you need a rule against blocking. I think driving defensively is acceptable and creates the best racing, but all-out blocking is dangerous.

Do you believe that a disabled driver (such as myself) would have a chance to be seen as more than a gimmick? If so where should I start without having funding? James Harvey

Daly: I believe anyone has a chance. I don’t necessarily have an answer exactly to how you would do it since I’m not familiar with your disability but if you’ve got the pure driving talent, someone will notice. Again the funding question is hard to answer. Go to anyone you know and anyone those people might know and ask them for help. See if you can find someone (who has money) who really believes in you and your program and will help you get off the ground.“

If there isn’t a way you can overtake the car in front of you in a race, do you follow and wait for the driver to make a mistake, suffer a mechanical problem or drive on the edge? Jeffrey Fitterman

Will Power (2014 Verizon IndyCar Champion): Well, in IndyCar if you can’t pass, we’ll just sit there and save fuel and tires, while keeping within a couple of seconds of them so that you can jump them during a pit stop. Otherwise, if you see them struggle in front of you with a bit of tire degradation, then you’ll put a little more pressure on them, which will cause he/she to use his/her tires up a bit more and generally makes them more prone to making a mistake. Then you have a better chance of passing him/her. Every situation in racing is different. That’s the one key thing to remember. You’ve got to be versatile with the fact the conditions and situations are constantly changing and never the same in racing.

With today’s drivers starting younger and younger, is it now impossible to become a good driver if you only begin racing consistently after the age of 21? Byron Daley

Power: It’s not impossible to become a good driver if you start after the age of 21. It’s all about learning and understanding what it takes to be fast. Obviously, when you start as a kid you gain a lot of experience through the years of karting and the junior categories, but I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible. I think within five years you could become a pretty good driver if you’re doing it consistently.

Hi Alex. As you moved up the ranks, what was the most difficult part in graduating to more powerful cars and, in hindsight, is there anything that you would have done different to prepare? Mark Keller

Alexander Rossi (Indy 500 rookie): I think that the most difficult thing when moving to bigger cars is the fact that you have to trust something that exceeds your expectations. For example, it isn’t so logical that you will be able to decelerate at above 5g longitudinal, but you have to be able to understand that the car has the capability to. And like anything, once you do it, the next time becomes easier and easier. That is the same with everything that is associated with the bigger cars – the acceleration, lateral grip and direction change.

I am about to move up from karts. I am excited but at the same time, I know this is an important step in my career and I need results. Do you have any advice on how to best prepare to make this move up? John A.

Rossi: Patience. The first time that I got into a racecar, it was a complete shock and I would be lying if I said it was successful. I would say that the biggest difference that you have to be prepared for is the fact that everything in a racecar feels as though it is happening in slow motion, even though that sounds counterintuitive, as a kart obviously does not have the pace, because it is lacking suspension and the movements are instant. Whereas in the racecar, when the driver inputs into the car, it has to go through springs and dampers before you will actually feel the result in the tyre. This requires you to be much smoother with your driving style as there is a much smaller margin for error as things take so much longer to happen.

How much do you have to manage your tires in an IndyCar? Is it the same as F1? What techniques do you use to keep the tires working well during a long race? James Manning

Takuma Sato (AJ Foyt Racing driver): I think it’s similar but it really depends on how much degradation you will have. Generally the tires provided in IndyCar from Firestone show a great performance in terms of durability but sometimes we see a big challenge for it too. We have both soft and hard tires in road/street courses but one spec in the ovals. Soft compounds tends to wear quicker, naturally, so you have to manage it more carefully than hard tires – that is the same as in F1. To get the best performance from the tires is always great challenge. This would be affected massively by the setup and balance of the car. Neither too much understeer nor oversteer works in favour for the durability so the driver has to carefully manage any sliding. Minimize the slide would be the best way to keep them working, and often slightly lower tire pressures work well for both grip and better drop-off – but you will get unsupported feeling and worse grip before tires come right on to the proper temperature and pressure. When I talk about temperature, I mean not on tread because that makes less grip and you will get this by sliding the tires; you need a good temperature in core – that generates good grip. So it’s interesting because you need to adapt your driving style and technique. It’s important to understand the physics and engineering side too.

Are there any aspects of driving in Formula 1 that you would say have helped your IndyCar career? Marc Cohn

Sato: Well, there are quite a few. F1 and IndyCar are different in many aspects but ultimately it’s both ultimate competitive racing. The things I experienced in F1 might not be able to convert directly into IndyCar but dealing with engineers and team members, the way we set up the car, the importance of usage of tires, pit stops, driving techniques, etc., has many similarities. I had to learn a lot in IndyCar but I have enjoyed exploring the new racing world for me, and everything is very exciting. Certainly, the standing start for the first time in IndyCar history at Toronto worked for me very well! :)

I’m 20 years old, I have no money and no real experience; all I have is a passion and a dream. I just don’t know where to start. How would someone like me make it into racing? Is it possible? Noel Rivera

J.R Hildebrand (2011 Indy 500 runner-up): It’s definitely possible, more difficult, but undoubtedly possible. I think a great way to start in this day and age is to get online driving a real simulated racing program like iRacing and work on all the fundamental techniques of both driving and racing. From there, with that basic knowledge of how things work, you’ll have to get out and feel it for yourself in a go-kart, really the most effective (and cost effective) way to continue to learn. You can do that in an arrive-and-drive setting pretty easily in a lot of places. Then you’ve got to be smart about where you go from there if all is going to plan. Scholarship contests definitely exist in racing, that’s something to keep an eye out for, for sure.

If there was one piece of advice concerning, or knowledge pertaining to, the lifestyle of being a professional racing driver that you wish you would have known at the beginning of your career, what would it be? Thanks for your time! Sean Johnson

Hildebrand: Great question. I think that it’s definitely possible to be blindsided by the time commitment that is required to appease sponsors, manufacturers and other entities, but I also think that is generally ingrained in drivers from a young age in this day and age. For me the element that I wish I had realized played a significant role earlier on is how much the driver becomes an integral part of everything that the team does. When they hand you the keys to the “big car” as we call it, you also assume a lot of responsibility, much more than at any other level before that. That was the most difficult thing to adjust to for me when I got to the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Tony, in looking back over your successful career, is there any thing you would have done differently in reflection? Thanks. Jack, Aspiring Racer

Tony Kanaan (2013 Indy 500 winner): Jack, I don’t think so. I left Brazil when I was basically a kid and went to Italy because I wanted to be in F1. I did my best there and although I didn’t get to F1, my effort during my years in Europe gave me the opportunity to come to the U.S. and be successful at what I do. Never give up.

Hi Mr. Kanaan, do you have any tips on oval racing for someone who will be doing his first oval race? Thank you. Anonymous

Kanaan: Yes, respect is the word. It’s a steep learning curve and you have to take it one step at a time. Good luck!

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