From the Vault (2011): How to Drive Indy, by Dario Franchitti

In 2011, RACER magazine asked me to get Dario Franchitti to explain how to drive the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This is what he said:

Interviewing Dario Franchitti, 4/12/11 (Kelby Krauss photo)

Now that I’ve won the Indianapolis 500 twice, people seem to believe that I’ve mastered the art of driving at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That’s flattering, but the truth is after seven years of running there, I feel like I’m still learning something every lap I drive around ‘The Brickyard.’

It’s a four-corner track, so how tough can it be? Well, it’s probably the most difficult track I’ve ever driven. But how can it be so different? Each end is supposed to be identical – Turns 1 and 2 are supposed to mirror Turns 3 and 4. Therefore 1 and 3 are supposed to mirror each other, but they are completely different. Turns 2 and 4 are the same radius and the same banking as 1 and 3, but again, they’re completely different.

God, it’s a frustrating place. The ‘Month of May’ schedule is down to two weeks but it’s the hardest two weeks of your life. That place can drive you mad if you let it. You spend day after day dialing in the car and working on your driving technique to the point where you can actually be close to the pace. And then the wind changes direction. Or the temperature goes up or down, or the sun comes out or disappears behind the clouds. And it all completely changes and you’ve got to start all over again.

It’s definitely a place where experience counts. I remember the first time Paul Tracy and I went there in 2002 with Team Green. We tested in April and were running around with 225 averages. We looked at each other and said, “This isn’t so difficult.” Then we showed up in May when it was 20 or 30 degrees warmer and it was like, “Who tightened up the corners? Where’s all the grip gone? Help!” But that’s the Speedway.

How you set your car up depends on what you want from it and also on the weather conditions. They say ‘loose is fast,’ but we’ve had the car so loose at times that it slowed it down. You don’t want to be in that zone. We’ve also had the car with so much understeer that it slowed it down. There’s a real fine line there and everybody will tell you that a neutral balance is what you want. Trying to find that is the hard thing.

As well as we know this car, increments of less than 10 pounds of downforce make a difference. That’s one of the crazy things – you make such small adjustments, yet it can wake the car up or completely screw it up. We’ve done both. Because it’s such a narrow speed differential between fast and slow, the microscope the setup is under and the adjustments and the differences they make are magnified. You get everything so close to the ultimate that when the wind blows, you are slightly out of sync. There’s no compromise on setup at Indy whereas on a road or street course there’s more leeway.

The funny thing is that you’re always going incredibly quickly, but from the driver’s seat, everything you do has to be done slowly, like the way you turn in. You’re planning ahead quite a bit and you have to be very smooth. The one thing you’ve got to be quick at is catching slides when the thing gets loose on you. Otherwise it will stick you in the fence.

Dario Franchitti, 4/12/11

You have to be flat all the way around in qualifying to be up front. The biggest misconception is when people say, “It’s flat. It must be easy.” Trust me, your brain wants your right foot to lift. You’ve got to force it down sometimes. If you get it right you’re flat, but by no means is that easy. It’s right on the limit. And you’ll hear people say they’re flat, but you look at the lap time and they’re 3 mph off. The quicker these things go, the harder they are to drive. But Indy is one of those places where you can’t carry the car too much. The car has to do some of the work for you. You’ve got to get it in the window.

In qualifying, you can come in and tweak it a little bit and do another run. But in the race, sometimes you’ve just got to hang onto it and deal with what you’ve got. That’s when it gets really interesting. A fast car isn’t always a comfortable car. In 2010, my car was fast, but into 1, the rear would start dancing and I’d be catching it all the way through the apex. Every lap I was thinking, “Wow!”

Watching the in-car cameras is a good way to see the movement of the car. You see very little movement on the steering wheel when the car is working and the driver knows what they are doing. They are very small movements but those movements are full of feeling. On a street course you’re using probably 90 to 120 degrees of lock. The steering is bouncing 20 or 30 degrees at a time when you’re hitting bumps and bouncing off curbs. Then you go to Indy and a degree or two makes a big difference. When the car does slide, the movement you make to correct it is tiny. You completely have to change the way you work the steering wheel. I use a rather quick steering rack; to me, a slower rack kind of numbs the feeling a little bit and you can see on my in-car that I really don’t move the wheel much at all.

Something weird happens on the entry to Turn 1. Maybe it’s the way the camber of the track works, but there’s always this bit in 1 where the car has a little bit more oversteer. You actually get a different impression because of the grandstands too; it seems tighter because of the way the stands kind of crowd the track. It also gets affected as the sun goes down and the shade comes in. People talk about it, and the first time I was like, “Whatever. How is that possible?” But sure enough it’s true.

The wind is usually north or south but I’ve experienced it in all four directions. Normally it’s a tailwind into 1 or 2. A tailwind into 1 is interesting because it accentuates the way that corner already makes your car loose. A wind from the west, pushing you into 2, is another tough one, because it loosens you up going in and then the car pushes coming off.

It’s a narrow track; that’s one of the challenges. It looks quite wide but the line is very, very narrow. If you change your line slightly to the entry of a corner, or how you hold the apex or how tightly you go to the white line, all these things completely change the balance of the car. The car completely changes in traffic too. It’s a totally different feeling if you’ve got turbulence. And again, because of that narrow line, there’s nowhere to go to get clean air. If you have a good car on your own, getting stuck back in traffic can get pretty interesting.

The draft at Indy is unbelievable. If you come out of 4 and you can see a car going into 1, you’re getting some help, and if you’re within half a straight you’re pulling another gear. If you can run flat in traffic you’re in good shape. In 2007 I could sit on people’s gearboxes through the middle of the corner and that’s how I got back up through the field. That thing was wicked in traffic – just brilliant.

That draft is one reason you can totally get in trouble if your gearing is off. The Honda engines have a very narrow power band, but there’s also such a small speed differential between the corners and the end of the straight. In qualifying the RPM varies a tiny amount, but in the race with tows and such it will vary more. We’ll run two or three top gears with very close ratios. Some guys, like Marco Andretti, love to shift. Others let the engine lug a bit and they’re up and down. The paddle shift definitely helped because sometimes you’re pulling a gear in the middle of a corner.

Ganassi crew pushes Franchitti’s car out prior to the 2011 Indianapolis 500

The balance of the car doesn’t change that much anymore over a full tank of fuel. We’ve gone from 35 gallons down to 22, so it’s not such a big deal. The car is a little slower to respond or a little slower to accelerate, but nothing significant. Plus we have tools in the cockpit. The weight jacker can really save you. It can be your best friend and I’m always playing with it. In the race, I’m on it every five laps or so, making tiny tweaks, but for qualifying in ’07, I was moving the weight jacker and adjusting the roll bars literally between corners. Come out of 3, move the weight jacker, move the bar. Come out of 4, move it back for Turn 1…that was a busy qualifying run!

I love Carb Day. You can have the best car all month, then on Carb Day the thing is just terrible. You want to panic and completely reinvent the wheel, and you have to force yourself not to. I’ve had one smooth Carb Day in all the years I’ve done this race, and that was 2010. Parked the thing and went to my bus happy. Every other time it’s been “Aaaaagghh!”

Last year we had a decent car, but on Carb Day, the temperature went up 20 degrees and our Target cars just took off. The race was hot too, and it put our cars in the sweet spot. Had it stayed cooler, we might not have had the same advantage or any advantage at all. We may have had to change the setup completely. That’s one of the tough things – you practice, practice, practice at the same temperature, and if it changes for the race you have to start over again. That’s where the experience comes in, from the team or from the driver.

But then again, you need much more than experience to be a successful driver at Indianapolis. It also takes skill, bravery, and a little bit of luck, in addition to a great team with top-notch equipment. I’ve been very fortunate to have those things throughout my career and I think it shows in the results.

Dario was kind enough to invite Patrick and me to celebrate his third ‘500’ win in 2012