Open Wheel Drivers Face Steep Learning Curve

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When one looks for the most popular forms of oval track racing in America in the year 2000, one can't help but notice the popularity of NASCAR Winston Cup racing. Officially formed in 1948 by the late Bill France, Sr., it took over 50 years for media outlets to think of stock car racing as a legitimate national sport instead of just a fledgling southern regional venue.

These days, NASCAR racing has become the motorsport of choice. Men and women from almost every income level and occupation imaginable associate the multi-colored, high-dollar sponsorship packages with their respective drivers.

And where there's big money and big exposure, race car drivers from all backgrounds will flock to the hottest sets of wheels in the business, no matter if they are bolted to the low and light Indy cars or the full bodied heavier stock cars.

For decades, many drivers have crossed over from the open-wheel ranks to NASCAR's elite Winston Cup circuit. In the early 1960s, open wheel drivers Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney, to name a few, tried their hand at NASCAR competition and were victorious.

In recent years, John Andretti, Wally Dallenbach, Scott Pruett, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon have all driven full schedules in NASCAR, while Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr. wheeled a car in NASCAR competition in the early 1990s.

Former NASCAR drivers Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Cale Yarborough and the late Curtis Turner and Lee Roy Yarbrough were some of only a few to go from stock cars to the open-wheel ranks.

There are many points to consider when a driver attempts to make a transition from one form of auto racing to another. What one learns in one arena only applies to a degree in the other.

"I don't want for what I’m about to say to come out as crass or non-flattering, but to compare Indy cars to NASCAR stock cars would be like comparing a pickup truck to a Ferrari," said Scott Pruett, a seasoned veteran of open-wheel racing but a rookie in NASCAR Winston Cup racing. "But learning how to make that pickup truck go as fast as a Ferrari by polishing and working on every piece of that race car, that's what's been eye opening to me.

"It's getting easier rather than harder. I talked to (NASCAR regular) Mark Martin one day and he said, 'You know, I've been at this for 14 or 15 years. Four or five years ago, we'd hit it (the correct chassis set-up) more often than not. Now, we're happy if we can get it right one out every six races.' I think that just shows how the sport has grown. It also shows how the competition has grown with the sponsorships involved. More and more teams are doing the testing. They are doing the development and study that has to go into an operation to make these cars go as fast as they can on any given weekend.

"Competition is what it's all about in any form of auto racing, and NASCAR has some of the toughest racing in the world."

Robby Gordon, a driver in both NASCAR and the Indianapolis 500 last month, sees quite a bit of difference between the two but points out that some of the same principals of speed remain the same.

"There's quite a bit of difference in feel between Winston Cup cars and Indy cars," Gordon said. "But they're also similar if that makes any sense. For instance, the roll of a Winston Cup car changes quite a bit more than an Indy car. Plus, you also look at the way the rear (gear) differential locks and unlocks, and also the gearboxes are quite a bit different as far as feel.

"You're looking for balance in the front and rear in both the Winston Cup car and Indy car, but the one thing you look for most obviously is speed. You want to carry as much speed as you can through the corner without the car developing what is called either a push or is loose. A push is where the front end of the car wants to go toward the outside wall. A loose condition is where the back end wants to slide out to the wall. There are ways to correct each problem by making adjustments to the chassis."

Unknown to many, Gordon's initial introduction to auto racing was not in an open-wheel machine.

"Thinking back, I actually got in a stock car before I got into an Indy car. I also raced Trans-Am cars for Jack Roush for four years. So I've had some experience in the full body cars. And, of course, that brings a similar feel to what a NASCAR car feels like.

"I got in a stock car in 1990 and drove for Junie Donlavey," Gordon said. "The first time in the car I qualified on the pole for the ARCA race in Atlanta. The driving is the same. It's just a different feel."

Indy cars have always had a reputation as rolling scientific laboratories, as they carry the most advanced technological advances on wheels. Computers search for the slightest detail for making the car go fast.

Stock cars are quite simple in comparison. A standard engine block bored larger powers a chassis of rollbars and a body of sheet metal. They are rear-wheel drive even if the showroom model is powered by a front-wheel drive suspension, and there are no computers.

Stock cars are measured with templates: metal strips shaped like the car that fit on top of the car like a puzzle piece. The templates fit the cars' bodies like a glove. Indy cars are much more technical as far as measurements are concerned.

"We have restrictor plates in Indy car racing, and that's the amount of boost we have with our turbo," Gordon said. "With 900 horsepower you run 40 inches of boost. In NASCAR, they have restrictor plates with engines measured in cubic inches.

"We have templates in a different fashion that NASCAR," Gordon said. "In Indy car racing, lasers are used to measure the underwing and the depth of the underwing. That's how we are guided or able to get through the rules. The officials will allow you to change molds and stuff on top of the body. Indy cars make all of their downforce from the bottom because there are tunnels that create a vacuum. So we do have templates. We do have heights, we do have rules, but we just have a different way of doing it than what NASCAR has.

"To take it a step further, tires on Indy cars are softer and wider and have more grip. Tires on a Winston Cup car are harder and heavier so they use up the tire pretty quick. Tires on Indy cars will last longer."

Drivers simply thrive on speed and close competition. Ask the drivers if that's true, and they would say they wouldn't have it any other way.

Gordon believes the racer in them would prevail no matter the machine. Mechanical and geometrical changes would eventually be standard in their conversations and driving styles, with either Indy cars or stock cars. Experience and education are the keys.

"Look at Tony Stewart or John Andretti or any driver or any of the guys who race cars,"

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