All revved up about return
Indy cars set for first race at NHMS since '98
J.R. Hildebrand smiled, Jerry Gappens predicted speed records, and even the governor cracked a few jokes.
And with that, for the first time in over a decade, Indy car driving was back in New Hampshire.
Race week kicked off in Concord yesterday, as series driver Hildebrand, New Hampshire Motor Speedway General Manager Gappens and Gov. John Lynch took part in a small ceremony outside the State House that marked the beginning of the IZOD IndyCar Series's first trip to the state since 1998.
"We wanted to add a third major event to our schedule this summer, to complement the two big NASCAR weekends we have. The IZOD IndyCar Series seemed to be the event that fit that bill," Gappens said. "There's a long history of tradition with this type of racing. It hasn't been in New England for almost 15 years, so that was kind of the driving force."
The event featured brief speeches from Lynch, Gappens and Hildebrand, and an actual-size replica Indy car that fans could sit in and have pictures taken with. Lynch, however, had other intentions.
"I wanted to drive this thing around the block," he quipped.
Lynch said it was an important move for the state to land on the IndyCar schedule.
"I think, over 20 years, racing has become an important part of our culture," he said. "Adding a third race really solidifies the perception that New Hampshire's a great place to race."
Lynch and Gappens weren't the only ones happy to see the series make a return to New Hampshire. According to Hildebrand, a series rookie currently 10th in the points standings, the drivers are looking forward to the new track on the schedule.
"We're all really excited to be here," he said. "It's cool to be up here. It has a little bit of the historic kind of feel to it, which I think we all kind of enjoy."
Though motorsports fans in New England have gotten used to high-profile races with NASCAR's biannual presence, the IndyCar series presents a brand new element. The series is the fastest to hit New Hampshire Motor Speedway, as the open-wheel Indy cars reach speeds over 40 miles per hour faster than their NASCAR counterparts. Ryan Newman has the fastest lap in a stock car at NHMS, at 135.232 mph during qualifying for July's Lenox Industrial Tools 301. That number doesn't even approach Andre Ribeiro's Indy car mark, a 177.436 mph circuit during qualifying in 1995.
The Indy cars are fast. Really fast. And as a result, Gappens said he believes NHMS might end up seeing the fastest speed on a one-mile oval in the United States.
"I tell these fans, 'Get in your seats quickly', because the race will be over soon with the speed these guys drive at," he said.
As foreign as IndyCar might feel to fans, NHMS might feel just as strange for the drivers. Most series events are held on road courses, rather than oval tracks, so New Hampshire's layout, as well as its notorious flat turns, could be a unique challenge for drivers tackling the track for the first time.
"Teams that have been here before, drivers that have been here before, know how daunting the place can be," Hildebrand said. "It's a fairly difficult circuit in a lot of ways. It's going to be tough, but it should make for a fun weekend."
The track is different, and as a result, Hildebrand said, drivers might opt to accentuate the similarities to the more familiar road courses.
"We look at tracks like this ... like road courses, just with two big, really fast corners," he said. "The corners are very flat, the car mechanically has to work really well through the corner in order to get good lap time out of it."
Dario Franchitti will start the race atop the point standings with 428, followed by Will Power (366), Scott Dixon (335), Tony Kanaan (283) and Oriol Servia (268). Hildebrand is at 222 points, and the rookie, who led the Indianapolis 500 until a crash on the last lap, said he's planning on being aggressive on Sunday.
"We look at this event as a place where we can be making up some points, not a place where we're trying not to lose points," he said. "We feel pretty good about where we're at with the points and where we are in the rookie standings, but we're here to push ahead."