The general consensus is that driving on an oval is easy. After all, it's just a big wide circle where the driver only turns left. How hard can it be? And why would you want to race on something so simplistic in the first place, when you have amazing road courses like Laguna Seca and the Watkins Glen at your disposal?
Because ovals are not easy.
As a limey Brit I must admit ovals were as foreign to me as the Iraqi culinary delicacy, Pacha (boiled sheep's head). When I first crossed the pond my knowledge of the traditional American oval was near nonexistent. I didn't knock them, but I also didn't understand them. In open-wheel racecars most ovals, I was told, are flat out. The drivers floor it and never lift. How boring is that?
It didn't take long, however, for my initial view to be squashed like a Namibian wildebeest's eyeball. My first few laps at Chicagoland Speedway in a 190-mph Indy Lights car showcased two key facts of oval racing: 190 mph is batshit crazy. And those walls seem awfully close.
Since then I have been fortunate to have driven 230-mph IndyCars on ovals, and one thing is for sure — the batshit-ness never fades. Even an oval that is "flat-out" the whole way around is never easy. The cars react to the slightest of wind gusts. Every bump attempts to hurl the back end into a spin. Your machine is always on the absolute limit of adhesion. The turbulence following another car is like when Maverick crosses Ice Man's wake in Top Gun — the car shakes violently and your helmet feels like it will rip your head off.
Ovals are not easy.
And downforce regulations in place today after the tragic loss of Dan Wheldon mean there are few flat-out tracks left on the schedule, making the whole scenario that much harder.
Oval racing is about smoothness, timing and momentum. It's about strategy, planning and bravery. Good road course drivers do not necessarily equate to excellent oval drivers. Racing on an oval is like playing a game of chess in a pit full of rattle snakes. To be fast, you need your car to be loose. But being loose means you need balls the size of an American Buffalo. However, gigantic nuts aren't all you need. In fact it is only the tip of the iceberg. You need brains more than you need brawn. You have to be silky smooth to handle a car that loves to oversteer — just a few percent of additional steering lock could have you pointing backwards and wall-bound in an instant. You must be smart and calculated to strategically work your way through traffic and adjust your line based on tire degradation, track conditions and other competitors.
Ovals are not easy.
The general philosophy on how to drive an oval fast is this: run the shortest distance possible without scrubbing excess speed. Lengthen the straights, and try not to turn the wheel.
Let me explain: If you can run on the white line at the bottom of the racetrack the whole way around you will travel far less distance than if you ran a traditional racing line. The less distance you travel, the faster you will be. But if you have to crank on the steering lock to keep the car down on the bottom, you will probably induce an abundance of tire scrub, thus eliminating any gain from using the shorter line. Finding the balance between the shortest distance and not forcing the car somewhere it doesn't want to go is the key. Of course, if the oval is not "flat-out," then running a shorter distance is impossible. You need to maximize the width of the track, just like on a road course.
What the hell am I talking about when I say "lengthen the straights?" By turning in a fraction later, doing the majority of your turning early, you can unwind the lock and be straighter sooner, consequently increasing the amount of time you spend with your wheels straight per lap. When you don't turn the wheel you are scrubbing no speed, therefore you go faster. But don't turn in too late. Balance this with keeping the track distance short.
Try not to turn the wheel. "Smart," you say. Don't turn the wheel and crash. Not what I mean. The more steering lock you input the more scrub occurs. And excess lock means we cannot run the car as loose because it will spin out. To free the car up to the max the driver needs to use as little steering as possible, and any steering he does use must be smoother than an African Hippo's buttock. You want the engineers to make the car turn, and you as the driver just balance it with the wheel.
Of course, everything here is based on my open-wheel experience, but much of this will carry over. For example, a sprint car on a dirt oval requires you to lengthen the straights, as does a NASCAR. Strategy and searching for grip is imperative with any car on an oval. Good oval drivers have an ability to feel subtle movements from their car, no matter what series they compete in. I don't care whether it's a quarter-mile dirt oval in Tennessee, or a 2.5-mile high-banked monster in Daytona.
Ovals are not easy.
India has curry and cricket, and Norway Lutefisk and bobsleds. In England we have fish and chips and croquet, whereas the Scottish wear skirts and throw logs. Every country has their traditions, and it's easy to belittle what we don't understand.
In America we eat corn dogs and fried Oreos, and have a thriving adult film industry. Soccer is for kids, and really tall people shoot hoops. And we race on ovals. The fastest ovals…. in the world.
About the author: @Alex_Lloyd began racing in the U.S. in 2006. He won the Indy Lights championship in 2007. He's competed in the Daytona 24-hour twice and the Indianapolis 500 four times — placing fourth in 2010. The native of MADchester, UK began racing karts at age 8, open-wheel race cars at 16 and finished second to Formula One World Champion - and close friend - Lewis Hamilton, in the 2003 British Formula Renault Championship, followed by a stint representing Great Britain in A1GP and winning races in Formula 3000. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife Samantha (also from England) and three young "Hoosier" children. He also enjoys racing in triathlons and is rather partial to good old English cup of tea. But not crumpets.
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