2021 Indianapolis 500 Recap, How the Race was Won

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If you were fortunate enough to watch the Indy 500, you witnessed one of the best races ever. Every “500” has 33 unique stories but only one winner – and in this case it turned out to be a (now) four-time winner in Helio Castroneves.

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Kicked to the curb after more than 20 years at Team Penske with 50 poles and 30 wins on his Indy car resumé, Helio was adamant that his driving days in the open wheelers were not over. After winning his first professional racing championship last year for Team Penske in the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, he found a new home for a partial season of six races in the NTT IndyCar Series with Meyer Shank Racing for 2021 starting with The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Team owners Mike Shank and his wife Mary Beth came from humble beginnings to reach the pinnacle of all Victory Lanes in the world and celebrate their first-ever NTT IndyCar Series victory with co-owner Jim Meyer (former CEO of SiriusXM).

With that expansion this year to include a second car at select races, the hunt for a driver was on. Do you go with youth and exuberance or with a veteran and the experience that they bring? After watching the consummate professionalism of the way Castroneves sized up his competition and earned his victory, that decision proved they made the right choice. Castroneves poked and prodded for different ways to pass or even pull ahead just a wee bit at the yard of bricks and it was obvious that he had a clear cut method to extract all the information he needed to make his move at the right time and in the right place. He credited his years of experience with having finished second as not only motivation, but also because he learned what he needed to do to win. His outside pass on lap 198 into Turn 1 over Alex Palou proved to be the key move. Experience, race craft, and understanding how to use the tools in the car to make it better all played a part in his victory. The other part had to do with his MSR crew giving him a good car to begin with and executing their plan throughout the race to save fuel, get track position and have fabulous pit stops.

It’s true that luck also plays a part in that the caution flag didn’t come out when Castroneves was running second with just three laps to go. Typically, there’s a caution with just 10 laps to go at Indy. The race this year was uncommonly clean with only Graham Rahal’s tire leaving his car exiting the pits and putting him into the SAFER Barrier and numerous spins on pit road as multiple drivers locked their brakes entering pit lane. That all added up to a speed record for the 500 in excess of 190 mph average.

Of course at the end of it, ‘Spiderman’ parked his car on the main straight, jumped out and climbed the fence and was joined by his jubilant crew. The largest sporting event crowd since the pandemic started last March of 135,000 strong started chanting, “El ee Oh, El ee Oh” which reduced him to tears of joy with the realization of him becoming only the fourth driver ever to win four times. Even Mario Andretti kissed Helio on top of his head in a congratulatory way. Credit goes to NBC for not breaking to commercials and showing the sheer joy and raw emotion that filled the screen as he soaked in the adoration of the crowd and from fellow drivers and team members. One of the best races ever? You bet. The best post-race celebration? Without question.

Copyright © 2021 Larry Mason

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The Armchair Racer’s Guide to the Indianapolis 500

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With the fastest field of drivers in the 2021 Indianapolis 500 ever, and the third-closest spread of speeds of all time, how do you know who’s the driver most likely to move forward in the field and who will be fading fast? Fortunately, for the more-than-casual fan, we have access to the NTT IndyCar Series App which provides the end user with valuable data on how to predict who got their setup right and who got it wrong.

The app provides live streaming telemetry with data such as speed, gear position, throttle position, brake pressure and perhaps one of the most telling pieces of data – steering wheel angle.

If you watched qualifying, you’ll know that every single driver was “flat out” for the entire four laps. That means that their foot was buried on the floor with the throttle pedal never lifting off even while hurtling into those 90 degree corners in excess of 230mph! If you watched the speeds heading into and out of the corners there was about a 10 mph difference between entering and exiting. The best way to go fast is to keep the steering wheel pointed straight. However, this of course would be the wrong thing to do at Indy. Since you have to turn the wheel to navigate the course, you want to turn as little as possible to avoid “scrubbing” off speed. Yet, you don’t want the car to be so loose (oversteer) that it’s too hard to control for 500 miles.

Most teams will set the cars up with just a bit of understeer to make it more predictable for navigating through traffic during the race. Keep in mind that when the drivers are in heavy traffic and close to the rear wing of the car in front of them, the aerodynamic pressure is reduced on the front wings causing an “aero wash” or lack of front grip. This is the aerodynamic equivalent to hydroplaning on wet roads. The problem is that if you pack up to close to the car in front you’ll lose grip which then puts you onto the dirty part of the track (the marbles) which is then like driving on ice. In most occasions you’ll soon be having an intimate visit with the SAFER Barrier and a trip to the infield medical center – not to mention tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars of crash damage.

So, while you’re watching the 500, open up the app and look at the steering angle of your favorite driver. Also, look for a driver in the lead and back in the pack. If you see their steering angle over 20 degrees, you’ll know that the car has too much understeer. If it’s less than 10 degrees, they’re likely battling a loose car. The drivers that consistently have less steering angle than most are typically the ones up front or making their way there. Watch to see how much and for how long they’re lifting off the throttle in the corners as another indicator of handling. When it comes to the last ten laps, you’ll be seeing drivers battling for the win going flat out in their quest to drink the best milk they’ve ever had in their life. Come to think of it, I think I’ll raise a glass in their honor, although I’ll have some cookies with it on the side!

Copyright © 2021 By Larry Mason - Instuctor, FastLane Racing School

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