By Adam Brewton
Open-wheel racing has existed in many forms since the early 1900s. The most advanced evolution is the IZOD IndyCar Series. INDYCAR is the sanctioning body of the IndyCar Series, and was founded in 1994. Since then, IndyCar has proven itself to be one of if not the most exciting and competitive racing series in the world. Although modified for race conditions, the technology used on the race vehicles closely mirrors that of today’s modern consumer vehicles. Drivers win prizes and points for each race. At the end of the season, the driver with the most points is crowned the champion. There is also a Manufacturers Championship title awarded to the engine manufacturer with the most winning drivers of the season. Chevrolet won the Manufacturers Championship in both 2012 and 2013.
Like all other racing series, there are strict rules that govern the construction of an IndyCar. All the chassis are built by Dallara Automobili, as are the aero kits (front and rear wings and spoilers). Aerodynamics play a huge role in the outcome of a race. A properly set up car will produce so much downforce that the car weighs almost four times its normal weight when traveling at race speeds.
The engines, many made by Chevrolet, are 2.2 liter, direct injection, turbocharged V6 models that run on 85 ethanol fuel. Per the 2014 rules, all engines will utilize a twin turbocharger setup. Previously, twin turbos were only used on Chevrolet engines, while other engines used a single turbo configuration. After the 2013 season, in which teams running Chevrolet engines won 10 of the year’s 19 races, and many of the pole positions in qualifying, it was agreed that a twin turbo setup would allow for the most competitive configuration.
The engines produce between 550 and 700 horsepower, depending on the track on which they’ll be used, and spin up to 12,000 RPMs. To put that in perspective, most road-going vehicles reach their maximum RPM around 6,000. The cars also have a passing option, which increase the amount of power the engines produce for about 15-20 seconds. Each driver is allowed 10 of these “boosts” per race.
The transmission is controlled by paddles behind the steering wheel, much like those Chevrolet uses on the new Corvette Stingray, and does not require use of a clutch. Power is then sent to the rear wheels and is put to the ground through 15-inch-wide Firestone tires. All cars use the same Firestone tires—the only variable is a separate model for wet conditions.
Because of the highly competitive nature of the sport, IndyCar racing attracts drivers from all over the world. Both men and women work their way up through the ranks of various racing leagues, with the hope of one day earning a spot on one of the professional IndyCar teams.
Due to the high G-forces exerted by the cars, and the high physical and mental stress put on them during a race, IndyCar drivers must be in peak physical condition. Drivers not only exercise the standard muscle groups—arms, chest, legs—but they also work to strengthen their necks and core sections. These areas receive a lot of stress during a race, so strengthening them helps the driver avoid fatigue.
Reaction time is also important when traveling at speeds of 200 miles per hour. Drivers must anticipate the actions of other racers, as well as avoid accidents and debris that may appear in front of them. To keep their minds sharp, they do reflex exercises in conjunction with physical training.
The IZOD IndyCar series consists of 18 races on 15 different tracks in both the United States and Canada. Although most are conducted on racetracks, some—like the Gran Prix of St. Petersburg—take place on closed portions of actual city streets. While most tracks host only one race, the Chevy Indy Dual in Detroit on Belle Isle consists of a double header over two days.
Each driver’s starting position is determined before the race during qualifying. Each team is given time to set up for the track and practice. They then establish a qualifying time by running a lap. On race day, the driver with the fastest qualifying time is placed at the head of the starting grid, also known as the pole position.
During the race, drivers stay in communication with their team through a radio headset mounted in their helmet. Teams relay information to the driver about other competitors’ positions, talk strategy and receive information from the driver about how the car is performing. If small adjustments need to be made during a pit stop, the pit crew can be ready to make the adjustments as soon as the driver pulls in.
A typical IndyCar pit stop involves changing all four tires and refilling the car’s 18.5-gallon fuel tank. All this happens in 8 seconds or less. A botched pit stop, or even a delay of a few seconds, can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Hard to believe that a few seconds could make that much of a difference? Well then, consider this: The top 10 closest finishes in IndyCar history have all been between 0.0121 and 0.0024 seconds. The closest margin, which occurred at the Chicagoland track in 2002 between Sam Hornish Jr. and Al Unser Jr., was 200 times shorter than the time it takes your eye to blink!
Now that you know the basics of IndyCar racing, you’re ready to watch your first race, in person or on TV!
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Adam Brewton is the automotive contributor to Primer Magazine and currently serves as the supervisor of Student Services for Columbia Southern University in Orange Beach, Alabama. His hobbies include adventure racing, anything involving the outdoors, and zombies. He spends his free time enjoying all these things with his wife and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @adambrewton.