SAFER walls play key role at Indy | NevadaAppeal.com

SAFER walls play key role at Indy

Motorsports Column for May 12, 2002

Well, the new SAFER soft walls at Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been thoroughly tested this past week.

Unfortunately, a couple of drivers are going to miss the race due to injuries suffered in practice crashes, but without the soft walls they might be missing a lot more. Robby McGehee was

the first to experience the new barriers, and is probably alive today because of them. His crash was so violent that even the local news channels showed it. He limped away with minor fractures of the spine and leg, and can consider himself lucky. Paul Tracy had a much milder meeting with the wall on Tuesday, suffering no injuries to himself and only minor damage to

the car. Then P.J. Jones, who had just gotten a ride with Team Menard, replacing the injured Jacques Lazier, took himself out of the race with a cervical vertebrae fracture. He will be replaced by former CART and Formula 1 pilot Raul Boesel.

Next, Mark Dismore, who a few years ago suffered one of the

most horrendous non-fatal crashes ever at Indy, suffered a concussion when he hit the wall on Thursday. Richie Hearn has replaced Dismore in the Sam Schmidt car. I hope there are 33 drivers still fit to race on Memorial Day weekend!

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I spent most of yesterday morning watching Indy qualifying, first on ESPN, then on ABC. Due to deadline constraints, I’m writing this before Pole Day is over, but I don’t think anybody is going to beat Bruno Junqueira’s 231 mile per hour qualifying run. Speeds are up considerably from Scott Sharp’s 226 mile per hour pole time from last year, due in part to the new diamond grooved track.

In fact, several teams waved off attempts that were two miles

per hour faster than last year’s pole speed. There was also some interesting gamesmanship going on during the first hours of qualifying. With rain threatening (and indeed shutting the track down for brief periods), teams were gambling on being able to get out late in the day to improve their times.

Of course, the additional speed provided by the new track surface is one side of a double-edged sword. The additional grip provided by the surface also increases tire wear, particularly at the right rear. Arie Luyendyk, out of retirement for one more try at Indy, called the wear “excessive,” saying that he could feel the track surface grinding away at the rubber in the corners.

There is concern on the part of some teams that tires will wear out before fuel does, necessitating extra pit stops in the race. By race day, though, most teams will have figured out setups and tire pressures to compensate, and those that don’t will have problems.

Over in NASCAR land, the Winston Cup series has the weekend off, although the Busch guys are running at Loudon, New Hampshire with Shane Hmiel on the pole and Bobby Hamilton taking the win.

However, there has been some news out of the Cup ranks, with Jerry Nadeau being released from the No. 25 Rick Hendrick car. It’s ironic, because Nadeau has been the only driver in recent years to score a victory with Hendrick’s red-headed stepchild car, and might have had two wins if he hadn’t run out of gas at Atlanta last season.

Hot shoes Ken Schrader, Ricky Craven, Wally Dallenbach and Randy LaJoie all drove the 25 car, without a victory among them. What seems even odder is that a replacement driver for Nadeau has not been named. Usually, a team has some indication of who’s going to be in the seat before they give the current occupant the heave-ho.

It seems as though Silly Season starts earlier every year. Of course, Nadeau has a lot of experience in open-wheel cars (I recall being impressed watching him win in the Barber-Saab pro series 10 years ago), so maybe he should grab his helmet bag and head for Indy. There are usually backup cars available for Bump Day.

Next weekend I’ll be at Sears Point Raceway for the International Motorsports Association race, featuring the Audi R8 prototypes that will be going for a third straight Lemans victory next month. The track is in the final stages of a $5 million renovation, and I’ll tell you all about it when I get back.

Roger Diez is the Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist.