Robby Gordon was on his way to winning the 1999 Indianapolis 500. His pit crew kept telling him to keep driving, but as Gordon was less than two laps from getting the checkered flag, he encountered a problem to which many can relate whether they're in a $1 million race car or a rusted clunker.
Gordon's car ran out of gas.
"I want to sit and cry," Gordon said that day.
While one of the universal goals of racing is what race team strategists like Target Chip Ganassi's Mike Hull, whose driver, Scott Dixon, won the pole for today's race, call "full to finish" — having just enough gas left in the tank to get to the end — decisions about when to pit and when to pass often makes the difference between winning and losing.
In a sport where it only takes a fraction of a second to go from cruising to crashing, the strategy employed by those in the cockpits as well as those punching computer keys in the pits usually factors into a race's outcome.
"It's true rocket science going on," former IndyCar driver Jimmy Vasser, who now co-owns the KV Technology Racing team, said Saturday. "Strategy can make or break a race. Mathematics, fuel mileage, the degradation of the tires — a lot goes into it."
When the green flag drops along Pratt Street for Sunday's Izod IndyCar Series race in the Grand Prix of Baltimore, Dixon knows that his own performance will not have everything to do with his ability to navigate the 2.02-mile, 12-turn course in his No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Honda better than the rest of the field.
A lot will have to do with what Dixon's team is doing back on in the pit road area near the Warehouse.
"It's a team sport," Dixon said Saturday, after turning in the fastest qualifying lap at an average speed of 94.053 miles per hour. "There are 40 team members who come every week with two cars and everyone has a special part. It's an integral part of the sport and we're [the drivers] the lucky ones who get to take it across the finish line."
Said Australian Will Power, who won the inaugural Baltimore race two years ago and will start today's race next to Dixon in his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, "Strategy in this game is sometimes very difficult to predict. There's a lot of different things that can go right or wrong strategy-wise and sometimes luck plays into it. We take strategy very seriously. It's basically where races are won or lost."
Strategy certainly played a significant role in Ryan Hunter-Reay's victory in Baltimore last year. Trying to chase down Power for the overall season championship, Andretti Autosport team owner and strategist Michael Andretti kept "slicks" — tires normally used on a dry track — on Hunter-Reay's DHL Chevrolet even after it had started to rain rather than change to "wets" as most of the teams had done.
Starting the race toward the middle of the pack, Hunter-Reay used Andretti's strategy to stay on the course a little longer rather than go through a tire change. Hunter-Reay forged into contention, then took advantage of a late yellow caution flag to push past race leader Ryan Briscoe of Australia for the victory.
The win in Baltimore helped Hunter-Reay edge Power to win his first overall IndySeries championship.
"We went for broke, and without that strategy, we would not have won the race or the championship," Hunter-Reay said earlier this year.
Dixon is in a similar position in regard to current points leader Helio Castroneves of Brazil going into this year's Baltimore race. Though the 33-year-old New Zealander has four more events to catch Castroneves compared to Hunter-Reay having two last year, the strategy used by Hull might be a little different than what Andretti employed last year.
"When you're starting in the front, it gives you the opportunity to change your strategy if you have to," Hull said.
Still, starting in the front has its limitations as well when it comes to strategy, Hull said.
"It's really easy if you run fifth, it's easy to follow the leader in and out of the pit," Hull said. "It puts a lot of pressure on you as a strategist to get it right."
Hull acknowledges that on a course such as Baltimore where there is less passing than on most tracks, winning from the pole, as Power did in 2011, could be easier and fewer decisions might be necessary coming in and out of the pits. Often, Hull said he is reacting to what other teams are doing, particularly those whose strategists he respects.
That was the case two years ago at a night race in Iowa when Hull brought Dixon in for a pit stop during a late yellow. Initially, Dixon's car was the only one that stopped, until Hull noticed Briscoe being pulled in as well by legendary team owner Roger Penske.
"If Mr. Penske is thinking the way you're thinking, it says you're trying to win," Hull recalled. "When Ryan Briscoe pulled into the pits, I looked over at Roger and he smiled and wink. I knew we had made the right move."
As much as the strategy is made as the cars are hurtling down the track at better than 150 miles an hour — or more depending on the race — a lot of strategizing takes place before any drivers start their engines.
Vasser said that he and KV Technology Racing co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven began preparation for this year's Indianapolis 500 back in October. Tony Kanaan, the team's lone driver, wound up winning his first Indy 500 in May.
There were moments during the race that Vasser recalled shouting "PIT..PIT..PIT…" into Kanaan's headset because he was running low on fuel. "We pushed it when it came to fuel consumption, when to come in," Kanaan said Saturday.
Kanaan knows that his elusive first Indy 500 victory had a great deal to do with Vasser and those in the pits.
"It's as important as the preparation or the driving, maybe more important," Kanaan said. "You can look like a hero or a zero. I won races when I didn't have the best car when the strategy helped me and I've lost races with the best car when the strategy didn't work."
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