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Indy 500: double file restarts stay

28 May 2011

"This is the centennial of the Indianapolis 500 and I'm really fed up with talking about double-file restarts," the 2010 race winner Dario Franchitti said on Friday.

Other than the "will she stay or will she go" eternal saga surrounding Danica Patrick, the story of the last two weeks has been whether or not the Indy 500 will feature the controversial double file restarts brought in to IndyCar at the start of the season, with drivers lobbying IndyCar officials hard to see them dropped.

But on the day before the race, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard was insistent and confirmed that double-file restarts will be featured in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing from noon on Sunday - although some extra precautions have also been put in place to address concerns.

"Obviously during the first couple of races we've seen some incidents on the street course," said Alex Tagliani after the drivers' Friday pre-race meeting, which IndyCar series director of competition Brian Barnhardt had also been asked to attend. "Here we don't want to see anything like that, so basically share our concerns and hope that everything's going to go well during the race."

A major concern is the build up of marbles off the racing line, which might make it unstable for cars required to run out of that groove at the restart. On a high speed oval, wandering onto the marbles can be a very fast way of proceeding directly into the wall.

Numerous drivers were said to have spoken out against the restarts being double file at Indianapolis, with Taglini - the man with most to lose, starting on pole - calling it "really stupid" and "a terrible idea,", Franchitti fearing it will turn the race into a "lottery", and Dan Wheldon saying it could result in the race "being remembered for all the wrong reasons."

But Bernard and Barnhardt were insistent - although several measure have been put in place to alleviate concerns, with new procedures being introduced.

These require that cars start lining up off turn 2 down the back straight and leave three car lengths between rows, with cars to be in second gear as they pass the restart line off turn 4 which should cap speeds in the 115-120mph range, resulting in speeds of around 150mph as they cross the actual start/finish line for the green flag which is the first point where they are allowed to change positions. Experts calculate that this puts the cars at around 183mph into turn 1 itself.

IndyCar spokeswoman Amy Konrath also announced this week that the Speedway is doubling up the number of track sweepers to deal with the off-line marble build-up, with two trucks being used to clear turns 1 and 2 in tandem, and two more in 3 and 4; Previously only two trucks were used on Race Day.

The moves seem to have somewhat allayed drivers' fears. They might not be happy - and would still prefer single file restarts - but it seems that they think they can live with the compromise.

"The drivers are smiling," IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard insisted on Saturday. "They're either good fakers or they're moving on," he said, adding that "everyone is on the same page.

"I'm talking to team owners and drivers who have won out there on that track many times, and they always say 'We race to the rules and what they told us to race to,'" continued Bernard. "The team owners wanted this, and some of the biggest racers ever, four-time Indy 500 winners, have told me that it's a good change."

"The good thing about NASCAR is they're not afraid to tweak and refine and really get to the core answer, it's something the fans want to see," said team owner Chip Ganassi, who said that he felt that move to fall into line with NASCAR's lead on double file restarts was a good thing. "To a certain degree I think we need to appeal to all auto-racing fans. When you're trying to appeal to all auto-racing fans it has got to look the same so they know what they're looking at."

"I think there is a 100 percent decision by the drivers that don't want to do two wide but, you know, we'll see what plays out here," said Franchitti's Ganassi team mate Scott Dixon, who will be starting from second on the grid on Sunday.

"I'm just looking forward to the race and hopefully it's a clean one."

The idea behind double file restarts is to make the restarts more gripping viewing for fans, presenting more of a chance for drivers to overtake and make up positions. Drivers, on the other hand, just regard them as potentially very dangerous and point to the injuries sustained by Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz in double file restarts at the season opened at St Petersburg as examples.

"That's what happens when you try to imitate NASCAR," Marco Andretti was quoted as saying after that race. "Our cars have too much power to start right nose-to-tail, you know. It creates disasters."

Double-file restarts were introduced after their success in improving the racing spectacle in NASCAR - although IndyCar drivers point out that now even NASCAR drivers are unhappy with the system in their own series and are campaigning to have it taken out out.

St Pete saw multiple cars out of the race in the first corner, and drivers are anxious not to have the series embarrassed in the same way by having the first outing for IndyCar double-file restarts on an oval be at their biggest, highest-profile event of the year in front of a huge audience both at the track and on television.

Many observers felt that the problem lay with the nature of the road courses that IndyCar runs on, which tend to feature sharp first turns funnelling everyone into the same apex; it had been hoped that the restarts would be less of an issue on an oval, but drivers are anxious that turn 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is sufficiently challenging enough in its own right without adding the unpredictability of two-wide restarts.


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