Racing an oval seems simple enough: accelerate down the straightaway, turn left, do it again.

If only it were that easy.

Racing an oval seems simple enough: accelerate down the straightaway, turn left, do it again.
If only it were that easy.
Oval racing is more complicated, more intense than appears as those IndyCars go round and round on the TV. There’s constant adjustments to the car, handling changing weather and track conditions, dodging other cars, staying sharp to avoid hitting the wall — all at over 200 mph.
Clearly, this isn’t puttering around go-carts at the local family fun center, as Robert Doornbos quickly found out. The former Formula One driver from the Netherlands came away from his first oval testing session stunned at how difficult it was, wondering what he had gotten himself into.
Now, with just one more testing session under his belt, Doornbos gets a chance at his first oval race this weekend in Kansas. Excited? Sure he is. A little nervous? Well, that, too.
“It sort of looks fun if you’re in traffic and you’re passing people,” Doornbos said Friday. “I’m sure it has a bit of a scary touch to it, too, because it’s new. But if the car’s good, it looks fun.”
Doornbos should get plenty of practice.
After opening the season at road-course races in Florida and California, the IRL shifts Sunday to the 1.5-mile oval at Kansas Speedway, followed by the Indianapolis 500 on May 24 and four more oval races after that. In all, 10 of the 17 IRL races are at oval tracks, so drivers who don’t do well going in circles don’t stand a chance at winning the series championship.
Maintaining speed is the key to tackling the ovals.
Drivers on road courses are constantly shifting, braking, accelerating around the corners, turning hundreds of times — in both directions — during a race. They might shift 20 times just in one lap.
On the ovals, it’s all left all the time, one, maybe two gears per lap. The goal is to go flat out as much as possible, even in the corners. Lift off the pedal to avoid traffic or regain control of the car and the engine will bog down. Cars will pass like you’re standing at a bus stop.
The only way to keep up speed is to match the car to the track. It takes a crew between eight and 10 hours to change the car setup from a road-course track to an oval, adjusting everything from the aerodynamics to tire pressure to produce as much speed as possible.
Get it right and the driver will have a smooth ride, maybe a top-10 finish. Miss the setup even slightly (which is usually the case) and the driver will spend the race hitting buttons on the steering wheel like a video game, trying everything he can to keep the car on the track.
“Oval racing is very different,” said Venezuelan driver E.J. Viso, who got his first taste of ovals last year. “When you’re on an oval, you’re thinking about saving fuel, having conversations with the team and engineer to make car faster, adjusting bars for the stiffness of the car, the tire pressure, downforce levels. Do all that and you’ll have a pretty good car.”
Problem is, speed magnifies everything on ovals.
Weather has a greater impact on handling and downforce. So do track conditions. Drafting becomes vital, to gain speed and save on fuel. Same thing with air quality, driving out in front instead of in the dirty air from traffic. Small glitches on the car become major problems on ovals.
A driver on a road course might be able to compensate for a problem by the way they drive the car. On an oval, the only options are to tweak the roll bars and weight jackers while on the move, or pull into the pits for a major adjustment.
“You have to pay attention to the small details on ovals,” Brazilian driver Helio Castroneves said. “Things happen so much faster. You’re going 215 mph and you have to make decisions so much quicker or you’ll end up in the wall. It’s those little things that are important and it’s a fine line.”
There’s a different mind-set on ovals, too.
Attacking the corners is the way to go on road courses: brake late, carry the speed into the corner, then hit the power. Speed is important, but not all the time. Pick your spots.
Ovals take a more all-out approach. Aggressive but cautious is the only way to get a through race. Pedal pressed to the floor at all times, but only if you can do it without sliding into the wall.
For a driver like Doornbos, who started his career on European road courses, it’s not an easy adjustment.
“The concentration level needs to be 100 percent on every lap because if you lose your concentration, you’re going to go back to the hotel,” said Doornbos, who drove two seasons in Formula One and one in the Champ Car Series in 2007. “One mistake on the road course, normally you can make: go through the grass, drive back on the track. Here, one mistake it’s finished, so it’s mentally a different approach.”