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Slow cars causing big concerns on Speedway's fast Friday

May 18, 2012

It’s fast Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

So why are so many people talking about the slowest cars on the track?

That’s because the two cars powered by Lotus are so slow that many are saying they’re dangerous.

While Scott Dixon on Thursday was turning top speeds of 223 mph and Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal were in hot pursuit at better than 222 mph, the Lotus cars were running at speeds not seen since before the split.

The car piloted by France’s Jean Alesi turned a fast lap of 207, while Switzerland’s Simona de Silvestro’s best lap was a blazing 205.

This has been a recurring situation for Lotus, which has trailed the field all season—its first in the IndyCar Series.

Earlier this week, Jay Penske’s team jumped ship, snatching Chevrolet engines for its drivers, English rookie Katherine Legge and France’s Sebastien Bourdais.

So how bad is the situation? When IBJ talked to IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard on Wednesday, he played it down.

“They told us they were six weeks behind, so we understand what’s going on,” Bernard said.

Six weeks behind?! Parnelli Jones could jump in a car with a stock block engine parked inside the IMS Hall of Fame Museum and beat these Lotus-powered chuck wagons to the checkered flag.

“I have had many conversations with Lotus in the last four days and they remain committed to competing in this series,” Bernard told IBJ. “I believe they’ll persevere this month. They’re taking aggressive steps to evaluate their program and I’m confident that Lotus will be in the series next year and in the future.”

Other team owners and drivers are more worried about the dangers and aren’t waiting until after the Indianapolis 500 to “evaluate” Lotus.

Dixon and the other fast drivers are expected to hit 225 mph today, and the talk at the track Thursday was that having Lotus cars circling the track on race day, May 27, at close to 20 mph slower than most of the rest of the field is simply too dangerous.

Despite safety improvements to the new chassis that debuted in races this season, the deadly crash at last year’s season finale in Las Vegas is still fresh in drivers’ and owners’ minds. The series can’t afford that type of spectacle on its biggest stage.

And don’t think drivers and owners have forgotten that Marco Andretti went airborne and almost flipped just last month at Long Beach when his car contacted the back of Graham Rahal’s ride. Cars will be going a lot faster at Indianapolis than at Long Beach. A lot faster. The concerns about the Lotus cars this month are real.

So on Thursday, there was a lot of chatter in the garage areas and along pit lane about some of the Honda and Chevy teams fielding an extra car or two to bump the Lotus cars out of the field. One owner, who requested not to be named, told IBJ Thursday that the performance of the Lotus cars was “disgusting.”

It’s unclear whether the biggest teams owned by Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske and Michael Andretti would have the resources or desire to enter another car, but Dale Coyne and A.J. Foyt are certainly interested in entering another car if they get their two primary cars safely in the race. Officials for Ed Carpenter’s team told IBJ Thursday that they, too, might field another car if all goes well.

The new chassis and engine formula—the first for the series since 2003—is drawing a lot of attention. But series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials have to hope that the hype continues for all the right reasons.

Bernard said he expects one of the most exciting Indianapolis 500s in a number of years. He isn't alone. Firestone's Al Speyer and other notable racing experts have said they are anticipating an eye-catching race this month. Part of the intrigue is the suspense over how the new car will perform in a large group on the series’ biggest stage.

“We haven’t seen this car on a super speedway so you kind of hold your breath,” Bernard said.

Let’s hope the breath holding is reserved for an exciting qualifications bump day and a race that features 33 competitive cars. And let’s hope the aerial displays are limited to the pre-race flyover.

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