New Hampshire Track A Hit With IndyCar Drivers

Pippa Mann (#30) practices on the oval in Loudon, New Hampshire on August 12, 2011 in preparation for the MoveThatBlock.com 225 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. (Photo: Chris Jones/IndyCar.com)

A rare  on-site, off-track day in the IndyCar schedule Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon found a relaxed atmosphere for drivers and crew in the garage area. But with a full day of open testing just completed, rave reviews were already coming in from IndyCar drivers for the progressively-banked 1.025 mile oval. As the third and final short oval on the 17-race calendar, the Movethatblock.com 225 in Loudon seems familiar, yet brings a unique set of challenges.

“I like it, it’s a cool little track. It’s similar to MIlwaukee in that it’s flat and a little bit bumpy, but I think it’s going to be good fun in the race,” said Andretti Autosports Mike Conway, who was 13th in the combined practice results Thursday.

Tony Stewart completed the previous chapter in the NHMS’ open wheel legend with a win in the  IndyCar race in 1998. The track history book itself is a Who’s Who of 1990s open wheel talent,  with the roster of IndyCar and CART race winners boasting names like Stewart, Robbie Buhl, Scott Sharp, Al Unser Jr., Nigel Mansell and Bobby Rahal, while IndyLights victors included the late Greg Moore (twice, in 1994 and 1995) and Adrian Fernandez. Jacques Villeneuve won the pole for the Toyota Atlantics race at the track in 1993, while Dario Franchitti’s race engineer Chris Simmons won twice in the USAC Formula Ford 2000 series.

The track underwent a major re-engineering and repaving project which was completed in  2002 in which the progressive banking was introduced after a pair of tragic NASCAR Winston (now Sprint) practice accidents took the lives of Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin  SAFER barriers were added to the facility in 2003, and the combination dramatically improved driver safety.

Franchitti posted the best open test speed of 171.099 mph in practice and that seems to put the overall track qualifying record of Andre Ribiero (177.436 mph) set in 1995 at least in question if not immediate danger of being broken.

“It’s kind of like Milwaukee, but with longer straights and tighter corners, so it’s like a stretched Milwaukee,” Franchitti said Friday on the track’s paper clip configuration. “But for a short oval it’s unbelievably fast. It’s hard work, but it’s a challenge and it’s cool to get it right. I’m enjoying it so far.”

With one day of on-track activity completed, the racing and qualifying groove seems to be a single line with the cars not getting too high up into the banking. That is subject to change as the weekend progresses, as additional rubber and grip builds while the various series scour the dirt and grit from the edges. As with any track in the northeast subject to the sheer abuse of winter, there are some areas of concern to drivers including a bump heading into turn three and fairly tall seams between the paving lanes.

“There are a few bumps going into three, so you’ve got to get your ride heights good for them. The seams are too abrupt for our cars, really. At the speeds we’re running and so low to the ground, the seams are so violent that it makes it difficult to cross lanes once you’re in the middle of the corner,” said Penske Racing’s Ryan Briscoe. “I love the place, but I’m a little curious as to what the race (conditions) will be like.  Right now it’s a really narrow, narrow groove around there so how the race (traffic) is going to be I’m not so sure  With the double file restarts we’ll be forced to run high but we’re not sure if the cars are going to work up there. I think it’s going to be one of the toughest on the calendar.”

One driver who already got caught by the track was Rahal Letterman Lanigan rookie (and birthday girl) Pippa Mann, who spun into the backstretch inside wall in the second session on Thursday and damaged the rear wing. She also spun without contact in the morning session.

“This is a rough, tough and tumble little race track,” said Mann. “I said coming in here that I thought it would spin a few people around; I just didn’t expect to happen twice to me in one day!”

IndyCar tech inspection, which opened at 9:00 AM was a busy place, but it seemed most teams  were planning for a half-day of work and early exit from the track, as Saturday has a long and hectic schedule with early morning practices and late afternoon qualifying

One welcome change for all of the IndyCar teams is the weather, after spending the last part of the schedule in the sweltering 90+ degree Midwest, the blue skies, gentle breeze and low 70’s temperature in Loudon were a much appreciated relief.

“Boston is a beautiful city, and to get up north here (on the coast), it’s a beautiful place. It’s so hot right now in the Midwest and in Nashville, so to come up here and have some decent temperatures, everybody is loving it. I’d like to have headed out onto the ocean today but I don’t know that we’ll get the chance,” Franchitti said.

The strategic importance of the Northeast in the IndyCar television ratings cannot be understated. The Boston-Manchester, NH market is rated as seventh largest in the country and with the ABC-ESPN crew in town for the broadcast, it could provide a boost to the marketing efforts of the series as well as maintain a foothold in the region.

“I think it’s very important to get out here. We had Nazareth for a long time and that went away...Richmond was further south of here but this an area of the country that’s got a great tradition in racing,” Franchitti said “They love their (NASCAR) Modifieds up here, I know that. And for IndyCar it’s important that we’re here and hopefully the fans come out to support the race and we’ll be here for a while to come”

Briscoe echoed the hopeful sentiment.

“We’d love to see this be a success for sure. I know we’re going to put on a good show Sunday, so I hope we get a lot of fans out here watching us.”

Notes:
* The #26 car of Marco Andretti will be in Snapple livery this weekend, while Franchitti is in an unfamiliar black and yellow Nikon wrap which is virtually identical to the #22 DRR Roll Coater machine being piloted by Tomas Scheckter for the sidelined Justin Wilson

* Tony Kanaan, Simona de Silvestro and Al Unser Jr. had an autograph session Friday at Macy’s Downtown Crossing in Boston.

* Mann and Indy Lights driver David Ostella were the only two to have contact in Thursday’s practice session.

* Scott Goodyear, who will be in the broadcast booth for ABC-ESPN, finished second at the final IndyCar race at NHMS in 1998.

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