The redesigned track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway features 30-inch strips of rippled asphalt in all four corners, as well as new warm-up lanes for cars entering and leaving the pits.
During practice and qualifying, injuries have been cut drastically as the change in driving area has cut down the angles off the turns. Now if a driver loses control coming out of a turn, he is more likely to scrape along the wall than to ram it feet first at 220 mph.
Defending Indy 500 champion Al Unser Jr. gave the following account of a lap around the track:
In Turn 1, the new warm-up lane is superb. It is so nice not to have somebody making an apex off you while you're warming up. When a car goes by you at 220 miles an hour and it's 6 inches away from you, it scares you to death.
As far as exiting Turn 2 out onto the back straightaway, all that's the same as in past years.
Now we're on the race track getting up to speed. You go through 3 and go through 4. Now we're up to about 220 mph down the front straightaway. You enter Turn 1 and there's no longer any real breathing room because you used to be able to run below the white line and not have any problems.
Now, you do not run below the white line because there is no
track down there.
So, in effect, the corner has become much narrower than it used to be and your car handling is going to be very, very critical.
Then you exit Turn 1 and go into 2 and it's the same thing, the apron is not there and you have to be more precise than you have had to be in the last couple of years.
I think that's why you are seeing the decrease in speeds. Last year on opening day they ran 226 mph and then the second day they were up to 229. This year, 222 is tops.
Going down into Turn 3, it's the same thing. You've got to be precise on your entry and your car has to work. It's the same in Turn 4.
For me, it hasn't been all that different from the past few years. My car the last couple of years couldn't run below the white line in Turn 4, because down below the white line was off cambered (uneven).
So, [if] you went [down] on it in Turn 4 and your car went to an angle to the right, it would tend to spin you out or loosen you up. For myself, Turn 4 really hasn't changed at all.
It's the same corner I've been dealing with for the whole time. And, then the start-finish line is really all there is to it.
I think it's a much nicer race track. You've got to be precise and know exactly where you are going within two or three inches of your groove, because if you miss by that much there's no breathing room.
Handicapping of the 77th annual Indianapolis 500 hasn't centered on a particular driver or make of car. Rather, the changes to the track have captured the attention. Some things to watch:
Key position: The first turn on the first lap. With rumble strips replacing the aprons, there is said to be only one lane through the corners. When the green flag drops, the questions will be: how congested is the field, and how quick will the drivers' reactions be?
Passing fancy: How cars manage to maneuver around one another will be critical. "There is now only one groove, where there used to be 2 1/2 ," said former world champion Nelson Piquet. "It will be very difficult to pass. But, I tell you now, in the race, people will find a way to pass -- in the grass, somehow. I know it."
The favorites: Pole sitter Arie Luyendyk, Mario Andretti and Al Unser Jr.
Dark horses: Raul Boesel, Scott Brayton, Paul Tracy and, if you're really feeling lucky, Al Unser Sr. Can he pick up No. 5?