Despite the snow on the ground and the nip in the air, race fans and Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials are already thinking about the Indianapolis 500 this spring.
And why not? More than a few racing experts are saying that, with new modifications to the car, the Speedway's 19-year-old qualifying record could be eclipsed.
On Tuesday, IMS officials rolled out plans for May, which include starting—for the first time in several years—the month-long activities on the first weekend of May, rolling out the new-look aero kits for the race cars, and moving practice back one hour May 11 to give working fans a chance to soak in more of the action.
Two different aero kit set-ups—one for the road course and one for the oval—will debut this year, and Speedway President Doug Boles is promising higher speeds and the possibility of new track records.
“Where the aero kits will really be on display will be qualifications weekend when speeds are really on display,” Boles told IBJ.
Last year, Ed Carpenter won the pole with a four-lap average of just over 231 mph. A handful of other drivers managed to exceed 230 last year.
“We’re definitely going to see the 230-mile-an-hour barrier be broken. It’s just a question by how much,” Boles said. “Next year, as these aero kits are refined, I think you’ll see even higher speeds. Some new track records are definitely possible.”
Indy's outright track record was set in 1996 by Arie Luyendyk at 237.498 during the final year of turbocharged engines at IMS. New pavement on the track that year also helped boost speeds.
This year, the month kicks off May 3 with practice on the famed 2.5-mile oval. In recent years, the IMS hasn’t gotten revved up until the second week in May.
“That will be the first look at the oval [aero] kits for a lot of us,” Boles said. “Chevrolet and Honda have been so secretive in their development of the new aero kits—trying to gain a competitive edge—not many people have gotten a glimpse of them yet.”
Honda and Chevy have developed two distinct aero kits–one for road and street courses and one for the higher-speed oval races.
IMS officials will convert the facility for the road race on May 4 and 5, and open it for a full road race practice May 7 with qualifications for the second annual Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 8. The race will take place the next day.
Boles is confident attendance will be higher for this year’s Grand Prix compared to last year. While IMS officials don’t disclose attendance, they’ve indicated attendance for last year’s inaugural road race was just north of 40,000.
“Ticket renewals have been great. We’re very optimistic attendance for this year’s road race will be as good as or better than last year,” Boles said.
Boles is also bullish on ticket sales for the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, which will be May 24. He said ticket renewals for both IndyCar Series races at the IMS this May are 80-percent-plus.
“Since 2011, ticket sales for the Indianapolis 500 have been very strong, and it’s trending up,” Boles said. “We don’t see any reason why that won’t continue this year and we think it will really be up in 2016 with the 100th running of the race.”
Qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 will be May 16 and 17, with Pole Day set for May 17.
During the run-up to qualifications, the IMS will be testing a new late-afternoon/early-evening practice time. On May 11, late-day practice will be moved back one hour, running from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
“I’ve gotten a lot of comments from people that they have difficulty getting out here for practice during the week,” Boles said. “This new time will give them more time to get here after work. A lot of people are telling us they really like this. And if it works out, it’s something we may do more of in the future.”
One thing that won’t happen anytime soon is moving the start of the Indianapolis 500 back. It will start at noon again this year, and though there’s been some discussion of moving it back to draw more viewers—especially on the West Coast—there are no imminent plans to do so, Boles said.
Part of holding onto the noon start time, Boles said, is to give NASCAR drivers—who have a stock car race later that evening—a chance to compete.