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IN THE COCKPIT: James Hinchcliffe: Indy-Milwaukee

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Someone much wiser than me – and granted, that doesn’t take much – once said that variety is the spice of life. Well then colour me spiced.

We have just finished a three-race stretch of oval events in the IZOD IndyCar series, and let me tell you, they were three very different animals. If you’ll indulge me, I want to point out a few of the differences in the tracks and the way they race:

First up was a track that needs no introduction, the Granddaddy of them all — the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Now, there have been countless articles written and interviews given explaining the emotional and historical impact of IMS and the Indy 500. Every possible analogy and metaphor has been used to describe what this race means and represents. Every single one of them is absolutely true. But let’s ignore the emotional and look at the physical.

The track is very unique for a lot of reasons. It’s the longest at 2.5 miles. It has four distinct corners and fairly low banking for a super speedway. We run the cars more trimmed out here than any other track, so right off the bat it gives the car a very light feeling for the speeds we are going. It’s very much a one groove racetrack, which again is pretty unique for an oval and makes the racing very tough.

The massive straightaways give you a huge tow, but you can’t fight another driver into the corner like you can at a 1.5-mile oval. You need to duke it out before the turn in point or else someone won’t be coming out the other side. You then have to fall in line and get back to power while losing as little time as possible, and that is harder than you’d think. It sounds weird, but it’s as important being good at getting passed as it is at passing, something I learned the hard way after my intimate encounter with the Turn 3 wall. It’s some of the most challenging wheel-to-wheel racing we do all year.

From there we went to the Texas Motor Speedway for the Firestone Twin 275s. Texas pretty much couldn’t be any more different from Indy unless it had a right turn. It is a 1.5-mile, high-banked oval with a double dog leg on the front straight. The 24 degrees of banking in the corners mean a whole lot of side-by-side racing! Pack racing at 215 mph is one of the scariest things you’ll ever do. You run more downforce here than at Indy, but in the packs you might as well take the wings off because there is so much dirty air you feel like you’re driving through a tornado. The car is moving like crazy underneath you and you are inches from the cars on either side.

It takes everything you have to enter Turn 1 in the pack, with a car on the outside, and to then come out of Turn 2 alive. And that’s just one half of one lap! TV does not do justice to what it feels like in the car, so just take every little movement you see on TV and multiply it by 50. That’s what it feels like in the car. The checkered flag falls on that race and you feel like going up to everyone that finished and giving them a hug. Like countrymen returning from war.

One unique aspect about racing at Texas is learning what your heart tastes like, since it’s sitting in your throat for most of the 228 laps.

One week later we headed north to the oldest race track in the country — the Milwaukee Mile. This little beast has a TON of character. It’s a mile long (duh) and all but flat, with only three degrees of banking in the corners. Without the banking to help you, downforce is king at The Mile and so we run the road course wings. To add some perspective, at Indy you run the rear wing at a negative angle and at Milwaukee you are running with 60 something degrees positive.

The bravest of the brave are flat in qualifying, but only just. The racing there is a lot of fun because there is a lot going on. Since it’s not flat out on your own, never mind in traffic, you really have to drive the car every inch of the track. There are two distinct lines, which is great for the racing, but different cars work better on different lines so you have to have a car that works well on both to get passes done.

Unlike Indy, the straights here are so short that you don’t really get a big tow and so passing is tough. You really have to time your passes because an ill-timed attempt will mean a big lift and probably losing a few spots. On top of that in the race you are shifting so much you almost feel like it’s a road course!

Next up is Iowa, which, for lack of a better analogy, is the illegitimate love child of Texas and Milwaukee. The Lone Star state’s “everything’s bigger” mentality manifests itself in the high banking (which is variable to boot!), but it gets its length from Milwaukee, coming in at just 7/8’s of a mile.

As you can see, there is quite a contrast between the tracks and the way they race. The schedule certainly is spicy – that is to say it has lots of variety – and I haven’t even touched on a single road or street course yet!

There is a reason they call IndyCar drivers the fastest, most versatile drivers on the planet.

Hinch out.