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The conservation of energy in IndyCar

It’s good to see IndyCar teams working so hard on being green.  After all, it’s important that all racing series commit to conservation, recycling, renewal, and whatever else puts a smiley face on the critics of auto racing who decry motorsports as models of conspicuous consumption¹.  At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the employees picking up litter and emptying trash cans wear green (!) bibs that proudly proclaim “Ecology” as their department.  I’m sure that title makes picking up the detritus of race fans so much more appealing.  IndyCar has even added laps to races in an effort to conserve energy.

In 2013, IndyCar added laps at St. Pete, Milwaukee, and Mid-Ohio to discourage the use of fuel conservation from the beginning of the race.  It seems fans actually prefer to watch cars pass each other for position on-track.  Since a race like the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio normally calls for three pit stops to get to the finish, basic high school math proved to teams that if you slowed down and used less fuel, then you could finish the race on two stops.  That seems like a sure-fire way to win a race, so why don’t all the teams do it?  If going slower not only saves energy, thus making a series greener, but also enables a car to make fewer stops, it would seem to be the only choice for a politically correct and ecologically sustainable series.

Apparently, a high school math story problem, pit stop deltas, and yellow flags are the monkey wrenches that get tossed into the works here.  A team conserving energy (saving fuel) to limit the number of pit stops by going slower allows teams who are not conserving energy (saving fuel) to go like hell, thus increasing the lead for these energy wasting, planet hating drivers and teams.  Here is where the term “pit stop delta” gets thrown around by really smart guys like Jon Beekhuis.  The pit stop delta is simply the time it takes to enter the pits, stop, and re-enter the track.

It is the fervent hope of our green, planet loving drivers and teams saving fuel that they do not fall so far behind the energy wasting, planet hating teams and drivers that the time behind the leaders plus the delta for them to make two pit stops is more than the delta for the energy wasters to make three stops.  The problem is how far behind the energy savers fall while they are trying to save fuel.  That time behind the go-like-hell leaders is the all-important variable in our high school story problem.  If an energy saving car goes too slow, it falls so far behind the leaders that two pit stops cannot make up the difference.  That is what happened at Mid Ohio.

Both Penkse Racing’s Will Power and Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti played the environmental card and went slow to save energy.  They hoped for one wild card to be played during the race: a yellow flag.  That is the other variable in the strategy to save the earth and win races.  When yellow flags happen, it not only bunches up the field, it allows the noble energy conservers to save even more energy.  The result is to let them drive like hell later because they saved even more fuel.  Unless, of course, a race is run with no yellow flags, which is what happened at Mid Ohio for the second year in a row.  The perfect scenario is for a yellow to fall after the savers have taken their second pit stop and before the users have taken their third pit stop.  The result of that is a fuel saver becoming the leader.  Power and Franchitti could not save enough fuel to race hard at the end.  And part of that is because the IZOD IndyCar Series added five extra laps to the race.  The result of those added laps was the fuel savers had to go even slower during the race to save fuel to use a two stop strategy while the three stoppers could continue to go like hell.  The earth hating Charlie Kimball decided to go like hell and waste our precious resources to win the Honda Indy 200 at Mid Ohio.  Shame on you, Charlie!

So hats off to the earth loving fuel savers!  Like tree hugging conservationists everywhere, you fought the good fight only to become the victims of the rampant and thoughtless exploitation of our precious fossil fuels.  We can only hope that in the future, IndyCar will lengthen the distances of all races while limiting the number of pit stops.  Then we will have a series that can proudly claim to be the best at using the least.

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1.  The term “conspicuous consumption” was coined by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class.  I footnoted it for two reasons.  One is to use the name Thorstein Veblen.  I considered it as a Twitter handle, but it was already taken.  The second is because his theories of leisure class, consumption, and technocrats are still viable today.  Don’t read the book.  Just check out this Wikipedia page.

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Fast Times in Noblesville

(Editor’s note:  This article was written for The Polk Street Review, Noblesville’s only literary review, after interviewing Noblesville, Indiana racer Bryan Clauson at Kokomo Speedway this summer.  The editor is stoked since someone actually printed a piece of his writing in a real publication.  This piece was part of a series on influential/interesting citizens, both past and present and was written assuming the readers were not necessarily racing fans.  If you are interested in supporting The Polk Street Review, click here to check out the website and to order your copy.  Whether it’s grassroots racing or grassroots writing, your support is invaluable.)

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Bryan Clauson could be the guy that Hoosier musician John Mellencamp was singing about in his hit song “Small Town.”  Clauson, the 23 year-old championship auto racer from Noblesville, is fully grounded with his sense of place. “Noblesville has grown into a big town, but it still has that small town feel.  That sense of community is part of what keeps me planted in Noblesville.  It would be hard to ever uproot me.”

Bryan has been a USAC (United States Auto Club) champion in both the midget and sprint car series, driven in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and piloted an Indy car in the 2012 Indianapolis 500.  The nomadic life of a racer parallels life in a tight-knit community. “(Racing is) something I grew up with, something I love.  It’s definitely one of the places I’m at home.  Everybody’s here to beat each other, but it’s one big family.”  Competing over 100 times a year in the high stress environment of auto racing creates a bond.  Bryan understands that the racing community is like any other family.  “We’re like siblings.  We can pick on each other, but if someone else does it, it’s not OK.”  That’s just the kind of relationship you might see in any home in Noblesville.

It’s that sense of community, in both Noblesville and racing, that helps Bryan handle the traveling that is inherent in big time auto racing. “There’s times you go a month, two months, without seeing your bed.”  While Bryan and his racing team often stay in motels, they also stay with friends and family throughout the country, using both their homes and garages.  He knows how lucky he is.  “I travel the country doing what I love.  It’s hard to beat that.”  In many ways, Bryan is doing what so many people long to do: he is following his dream.

Bryan began racing quarter midgets in California before moving to Noblesville.  His new central Indiana home landed him in the middle of one of the hotbeds of auto racing.  As he progressed through the ranks of USAC sprint and midget racing, he caught the eye of Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR.  His short career in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series, which most would consider successful, was cut short by the money woes that plague auto racing at all levels.  He returned to his roots on the short dirt ovals of the Midwest and California and returned to his championship ways.  In 2010, Bryan won the USAC National Driver Championship, earning a scholarship from IndyCar’s CEO Randy Bernard to compete in the 2011 Indy Lights Series with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.  He parlayed that opportunity into a ride with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for the 2012 Indianapolis 500.  Even though Bryan was fast in practice for the 500, a hard crash in qualifying ended his chance of a good starting position.  A spin early in the race left him with handling problems that led to his early exit and a 30th place finish.  Bryan takes away good memories, though.  “It’s the Mecca of motorsports.  The experience is something I’ll hang onto forever.”

What is it like to do what Bryan does?  He struggled to describe it.  “You take a 1000 pound, 900 horsepower car, and you’re slinging it sideways on a turn at a little over 120 miles-per-hour around a quarter-mile dirt track in a little over 13 seconds.  I don’t think there’s a feeling like it.  You drive it by the seat of your pants.  It’s basically a rocket ship you’re trying to sling around a quarter-mile dirt track.”  It doesn’t quite sound like a trip to town in the family sedan.

When asked about his favorite track while waiting to race at Kokomo Speedway, Bryan smiled and looked around him.  “My favorite Indiana track?  We’re standing in it. Kokomo Speedway.  It’s as good as it gets right here.  It’s the baddest bullring in the country.”  Whether it is the summer racing throughout the United States or his winter racing tour of New Zealand, Bryan’s roots always seem to bring him back to his home tracks in central Indiana and his hometown of Noblesville.  And that is quite all right with him.

Even with all his time away, Bryan always knows where home is.  “Noblesville is home, the place that I love, the place that I’ll probably always call home.”  No matter how fast or how far Bryan Clauson drives, he will always know the road back home to Noblesville.

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