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DATE News (chronologically)
07/04/08
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New driver tools could increase speeds at The Glen  Bobby Rahal pulled Danica Patrick up to the IndyCar Series from the Toyota Atlantic Series, a farm system for open-wheel racing teams that runs a schedule comprised almost exclusively of road courses. It was quite a shock when Patrick immediately adapted to high-speed ovals, and a little surprising that she’s had one podium finish on a road course in 12 starts. This weekend, she’ll try to improve on her career-best eighth-place finish at Watkins Glen International in the Camping World Grand Prix.

Her struggles are something even she can’t explain.

“Road courses have been something that has taken some time for me to get used to. I didn’t expect that, I suppose coming from mostly road racing experience and very limited oval (experience),” Patrick told reporters during a conference call. “I felt like for the race last year we really had a car underneath us that was pretty good. I remember coming out ahead of Marco, coming out of the pits – which has always been a bit of a struggle for me, getting comfortable and pushing hard – and I stayed in front of him. We had two front-row qualifying at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma after that, so I feel like I’ve come into what I like in a car and what I need to be able to drive it fast.”

After last year’s race at The Glen, which left many drivers physically drained, the Indy Racing League introduced a more efficient steering rack for the remaining road/street races. Her results improved immediately.

She qualified on the outside of the front row at Mid-Ohio and Infineon Raceway and scored a second-place finish on Belle Isle in Detroit. This year, the Indy cars were outfitted with paddle shifters on the steering wheel to replace the sequential stick shifter on the drivers’ right side of the tub.

“I probably will use the new steering rack, I haven’t used it so far this year at all,” said Patrick, who qualified 19th and finished 10th at St. Petersburg, Fla. in April. “It makes a slight difference and then the paddle shifting has made it physically a little bit easier, and if I may say, a little bit more fool proof or dummy proof – you can’t really over-rev the engine, it doesn’t let you do things that would wreak havoc on the gearbox or engine.”

“It’s also a little safer having the shifter on the steering wheel – keeping two hands on the wheel, as they teach you in driving class, is always a good idea,” she added. The new driver aids won’t just benefit her.

A result of February’s open-wheel merger has been an influx of drivers and teams that did nothing but road and street circuits for two years. Now the series is awash with skilled road racers who anxiously await road course season, which begins this weekend at The Glen. With a new rack and paddle shifters, the quickest road racers will only become faster.

“It will be better, it will be faster,” said three-time pole winner at The Glen, Helio Castroneves. “You can change (gears) in the middle of a corner without taking your hand off the steering wheel and the steering rack is going to help, even though at The Glen it was never a big issue. With the long turns and when you’re adding a lot of downforce and if the track has a lot of grip, it definitely became tough. It will be fun (now), that’s the only thing I can definitely say – it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Faster? Castroneves already owns the all-time speed record (136.021 mph) on the 3.4-mile layout.

The impact on the drivers is one thing, but the paddle shifters also teams to broaden their car setups.

“Honestly, I’ve never felt a difference with the steering rack, but the paddle shifting can make it a lot easier on us at Watkins Glen,” said Ryan Briscoe, who is a teammate of Castroneves’ this season. “I remember having to shift halfway through the carousel from fourth to fifth and that was hard – taking your hand off the wheel around that bend was definitely hard work and downshifting into the horseshoe while you’re turning in was hard work. Now we can probably be a little bit more aggressive with the gear ratios, not gear the car around a comfort zone, but purely around performance.”

The only question about the driver aids’ impact is how much more does that help the series’ top performers – Scott Dixon, Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Will Power and Graham Rahal – versus how it allows racers like Patrick to catch up.

There are about eight more drivers here this time that Patrick has to contend with, too.

“I think that any weekend you can walk away with a top five, it’s been a good weekend,” Patrick said. “I’m obviously going to be shooting for the win, but if we finish in the top five I’ll be able to walk away happy.” Corning News

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