Note: This is a new series for INDYCAR.com, with different guests, leading into each race weekend for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, focusing on various technical challenges of each respective circuit.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is heading to the Lone Star State for the second round of the 2023 season with this weekend’s PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway.
The 1.5-mile superspeedway is the first oval of the year, featuring 20 degrees of banking in Turns 1-2 and 24 degrees in Turns 3-4. There are also 5 degrees of banking on both the front stretch and back straightaway. The two-day show will have two practice sessions, with all 28 entries also participating in an additional high-line session ahead of Sunday’s 250-lap (375 miles) contest set for noon ET on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network. The two-lap qualifying record is held by Charlie Kimball, who put down an average of 222.556 mph (46.5861 seconds) on June 9, 2017.
This week’s featured guest is Will Anderson, race engineer of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet driven by Pato O’Ward. He helped guide O’Ward to victory in 2021 at Texas.
Q: How do you prepare for a place like Texas?
Will Anderson: Texas, from our side, the team side, is actually pretty hard. It's the first superspeedway of the year. It's the first superspeedway in basically 10 months or so. So, it's reminding ourselves what the superspeedway cars want. In that aspect, it's a very different mindset to setting up a street course or road course car, so getting back to that frame of thought. And then Texas itself is very much its own beast. It's a superspeedway, but it's only a mile-and-a-half long. It's the most banked superspeedway we go to. There's a lot of little nuances in and of itself with Texas that make it quite difficult, honestly.
Q: What’s the general rule in setting up a car for Texas?
Anderson: I think the most difficult thing about Texas is the layout, and by that, I mean the straightaways have 5 degrees of banking, and then it goes into 20 degrees in Turn 1, and they're around 24 degrees in Turns 3 and 4. So, I think the most difficult thing about Texas is normally the entry to mid-corner balance. Like Turn 1, for example, you start turning with almost no banking, you're still technically on the straight at the 5-degree banking part, so you have almost no support and then you kind of fall into the banking of 20 degrees. From the driver's side, it's very uncomfortable to start turning in at 225 mph with no banking. The banking kind of gives you grip, right? You generate vertical force there. So, it's really hard at Texas to give them confidence on the entry without the banking.
But then once you get to mid-corner with all the banking, not have too much understeer. So, that's really the hard part of Texas in a nutshell, separating the entry from mid-corner to exit balance. And a little bit like Turns 1 and 2 versus Turns 3 and 4, Turns 1-2 does have a little bit less banking, but it's also a tighter corner radius, so it's a little bit harder in general to be flat in Turns 1-2 with the current layout. Turns 3-4 opens up so you come off the corner, and you have a bit wider exit because of the nature of the track. So, it's a little bit easier with the more banking and the wider corner radius to be flat in Turns 3-4 versus Turns 1-2.
Q: The notorious trouble spot always seems like it is the transition off Turn 2 to the back straightway. Is that still the case?
Anderson: Yeah, I think for sure Turns 1-2 is the most difficult. The entry, with how it's been reconfigured, I think the exit got a little bit better. It still is a thing. The entry also got a little bit better from how it used to be, but that's also very much a trouble spot. And from what the car is doing, you just think about your loads. Again, it's this very similar thing to, we're talking about an entry, without the banking on entry, you just don't have to load in the car, and so that makes that very difficult. The same is happening on exit; you're carrying all this wheel through Turns 1-2 and then all of a sudden the banking falls away before you're actually done with the corner.
It sort of turns into the straightaway banking, which is much less. Now suddenly, the cross weight's changing, all these things are changing because the banking is going away from you, and the support of the car is going away from you. So, it does get very difficult to connect that. You can also wind yourself in a bit of a loop because the entries and exits are quite difficult. So, you can add in a lot of understeer if you want to call it, but then you actually have so much understeer in the corner, you end up on a different line that actually makes it worse on exit. So, you can definitely find yourself in the loop in Texas.
Q: How tricky is getting the car balance right for a full stint?
Anderson: A full stint there is quite a difficult thing. The race distance plays out to a three- or four-stopper, so it's right in the middle there. If you do stretch the stints, you can do it in one less stop, which can be advantageous. But if you're doing that, you're doing 60-ish laps on a stint, which is hard. The Firestones tires that we have there are really good. But with the loading that's at Texas, to not have issues, the tires have to wear. Otherwise they just have too much heat. It is a tire that wears, there is degradation involved in the Texas tire, which I think makes for good racing, but it also makes it hard on the engineers for setups. It's hard from a start of stint balance to end of stint balance to connect that there. I don't know how to get into it without doing trade secrets.
Q: How do you develop a car that can contend for victory there?
Anderson: The difficult part is like, if you have a setup in a car with more grip it will take care of the tires better. And a good balance, it'll take care of the tires better. What's interesting and tough about Texas is it's a superspeedway and it's a downforce car, so I think in general the problem we try to solve is there's sort of aero grip – where you want to put the aero platform – and then there's mechanical grip. Those two things rarely go together. And so, there's some sliding ruler of how much do you err toward aero and how much do you err toward mechanical? Which at Texas is a big problem because Turns 3-4, while it may not look like it, it is actually quite bumpy, probably the bumpiest superspeedway we go to as far as corner goes. So, you can't just be like, "OK, I'm going live in my aero grip window solely." There has to be some amount of ride capability there. So, finding the sliding point on the scale of where do you live is a very difficult tradeoff for Texas. And yeah, it's something we try to get right with all our simulations and tools, but that's a tough part of the track.
Q: I like the fact you used the word “aero grip” because many people may not understand that versus mechanical grip. What is it like trying to manage that balance at Texas?
Anderson: It's a little bit of a problem on all the circuits we go to because it's a downforce car, but, for sure, Texas highlights that. It is a track superspeedway kit, and where do you want to live? You want to live making total aero? Do you want to live making total mechanical? Either one is probably right for there, so there's some middle ground that's honestly very tricky to find everywhere, but there's some middle ground for Texas that does take good care of the tires over stint. It does provide you with good speed and that type of thing. Also, both of those will react a little bit differently to the driver. They'll give the driver a bit different feedback, sort of which way you want to lean there.
Q: The racing seemed to open up last year compared to recent visits previously. With that said and a special high-line session set for Saturday with the full field, what variable does that add in trying to attack the race on Sunday?
Anderson: Yeah, I think the track and the PJ1 (traction compound) made it difficult for a few years, right? The series has done a good job with the high-line running. We saw it a little bit at Gateway and at Texas where that does help. It does help rubber in, take that PJ1 off enough to start working a second lane. This year at Texas, they'll be doing more cars, the whole field, not just a select. Hopefully, that helps more. And then this year we're also coming back with more downforce with the new regulations at Texas. I think a combo of both of those will hopefully open up that second lane another step this year to be used more often, not just kind of a once-in-a-while thing.
If the second lane opens up and you're actually able to use that as a passing lane or in the olden days you would run sometimes on the high lane just to save tires, so if that opens up, it does open up strategy a bit. If you have a poor qualifying, you're not just stuck in a train. You can actually make your way forward if you have a good race car. It opens up those types of things a little bit more. From the team side, I think with the more downforce, it really depends on if it's hot or not. You have the ambient corrected downforce, which we all take into account, but theoretically the cars will have more downforce there this year, and that should help us run closer together.
And then I think you're going to see cars flatter (full throttle) for longer on the stint. Last year, I think the first little bit of a stint all the frontrunners could be flat, pretty much. And then it would start to go away as tires degraded, lost a little bit of grip. I think that window will be longer where you're flatter for a little bit longer in the stint, which creates different types of drafting versus when you're lifting a bit, per se, in Turns 1-2. So, I think it will change the race complex a little bit. Hopefully, we're able to run, not a pack race, but if we get a run on someone you can run on the high lane to make the pass and those type of things.
Q: There are some new aero additions this year. Can you talk about those and the concept of how it will potentially impact the racing product?
Anderson: One of the new options for Texas, it used to run a trimmed sidewall, now it's a full sidewall, which is on the underwing at the very back of the underwing. Basically, what that will do versus last year is it's more underwing downforce. Why that's potentially good is the underwing is a lot less affected in traffic; it's just more downforce. So, that was a goal for INDYCAR to hopefully make the racing closer, but it's also underwing downforce, so hopefully it's less affected by dirty air from the car in front of you and those types of things. Again, to hopefully make the racing a bit better, make following easier, all those types of things. The next bit was, again on the underwing, but on the front of the underwing there's an underwing infill wicker, a very similar thing. Without that, I believe it's a win-win really, which might be a trade secret. I don't know. Basically, the goal is to add downforce again from the underwing. Very similar to the sidewall, it's less affected in dirty air, and so hopefully it just creates more downforce just from the car being close to the ground and less about the top side that can be affected. Your front and rear wing can be fairly affected by whether you're following, not following, but the underwing is sort of generating some speed just by going over the ground.
Q: Traditionally speaking, this race was always in June and ambient conditions were near or above 100 degrees. With it being April and temperatures expected to be mid-70s, how does that change things?
Anderson: Yeah, and I think that's something that maybe it isn't realized all that much by the common fan is the ambient conditions and the temperatures change so much. When it's cooler, the air is denser, so you have more downforce, you also have more drag. They typically go hand in hand. But when it is cooler, you'll have more downforce on the car, which again makes everything easier. It's just sort of free grip. The other thing that the cooler temperature does, and honestly the sun angle, the track temp is a lot cooler than say in the summer, when it's 95 degrees and totally sunny. And so the track temperature, you have a layer right above the track that is very warm, that is sort of going to your underwing downforce.
So, it does affect some of that. Then it also really affects the tires and just the energy that you're putting into the tires is greatly reduced, and the temperature that's going to the tires from the track is greatly reduced. So, it opens your window in a way. Where before, if you were on a very thin edge with a right-side tire, like right front or right rear because of the temperature it's operating in, that's all gotten a lot better because of the more downforce and because the tires are just running at a cooler temperature, in general. I'm not going to say it makes it easier, but it does help. Anything that adds grip makes it all a lot better from our side, and the drivers will be a lot happier, too.