As if there weren’t already a myriad of unknown factors facing IndyCar teams as racing reconvenes Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, drivers must familiarize themselves with a new 60-pound metal and glass cockpit shield designed to protect them from flying debris.
While a few teams have had limited experience testing the new Aeroscreen cockpit safety shield, drivers like Tony Kanaan, the open-wheel veteran who will be one of two A.J. Foyt Racing drivers during Saturday’s prime time race, has zero laps with the new safety package affixed.
“There is not a lot of time. Basically, not a lot of options,” Kanaan said in a conference call this week. “For me, I hope after 23 years in IndyCar will be enough for me to get used to the windscreen and everything else.
“After that you got to get the car right. The car needs to be spot on out of the box from the shop. You're not going to have a lot of time to change things, to make big changes. If you're off, it's going to be a long night. Everybody is in the same boat.”
Mike Colliver, the longtime Foyt Racing engineer who will work Saturday with the number 14 car driven by Kanaan, said the Aeroscreen will present challenges for the driver’s vision and for tire wear while serving as a welcome safety addition.
“Tony hasn’t even been in the car with this configuration,” Colliver said. “Most of the other drivers have at least tested with it.”
Early reports indicate that the Aeroscreen cuts down on noise but raises the cockpit temperature, which could be a factor on a warm June night in Fort Worth where the track temperature, Colliver said, could be 125 degrees.
While a 60-pound screen on a 1,700-pound car might seem insignificant, Colliver noted that as drivers go into a turn pulling G-forces of 3.5, 60 pounds becomes the equivalent of 200 pounds, which will be tough on tire wear, particularly on the right front. He said 35 laps will be the maximum tire wear allowed.
“Safety is 100 percent the driving force,” he said. “Over the last 20 years in open cockpit racing, you’ve had drivers get hit in the head by debris. The windscreen is built like a military helicopter would be to deflect anything that comes at them, and it gives added strength (to the cockpit) if the car gets turned upside down.”
Teams also face a compressed schedule because of time limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams will get on the track shortly after noon Saturday for 90 minutes of practice runs, followed by qualifying and, after cars are impounded for the afternoon, the evening race.
Charlie Kimball, who will be Foyt’s lone full-time driver this year as Kanaan bows out with an abbreviated schedule and rookie Dalton Kellett and Sebastien Bourdais split duties on road and street courses, said the midday practice runs will be essential for drivers and teams.
“I haven't driven an A.J. Foyt Racing car on an oval,” Kimball said. “For me, every lap we can turn in practice, the preparation is critical.
“We had a pre-race meeting on Monday where we talked about how the day was going to flow because when we step off that plane or walk through that health screening Saturday morning at the racetrack, it's going to feel like warp speed until the checkered flag flies and then some.”
The Fort Worth race begins Kanaan’s final season in racing. Nothing over two decades of experience, however, has prepared him for the unprecedented nature Saturday of racing without fans.
“It is going to be really weird,” he said. “I have no doubt that for me I don't think it's going to feel like a race weekend. It's going to feel like a private test with everybody in the series, and that's it.
“It's different times, right? … I think it's going to be weird, for sure.”
Given the unknowns, Kanaan said he expects a cautious race.
“I think everybody is going to try to get a rhythm, try to finish the race, try to get this one under our belt,” he said. “It's an oval, the first race. I'm hoping that's going to be the approach.
“Talking to some of the guys, I think everybody is on the same page. You never know when the green flag drops, people have a tendency to forget and go for it.”
Kanaan has raced 20 times at Texas Motor Speedway and won in 2004 with five runner-up finishes. The car’s sponsor for Saturday’s race will be the convenience store chain 7-Eleven, which sponsored Kanaan’s car for the Andretti racing team from 2003 through 2010.
Larry Foyt, Foyt’s son and president of A.J. Foyt Enterprises, will be in Fort Worth with the company’s racing teams while his father, 85, watches from his Houston area home. Kimball’s number 4 car will bear the sponsor name of Tresiba, an insulin product manufactured by Danish pharmaceutical firm Novo Nordisk.
The company signed on with Foyt for this season after ABC Supply, the Foyt team’s longtime sponsor, dropped its full-season sponsorship while retaining that role with the company for the Indianapolis 500.
“A lot of teams have to do this every year,” Foyt said. “Everyone in this business, everyone in the world is facing a lot of uncertainty right now, so we're just trying to be smart with our business, take care of our people, take care of our sponsors, and I'm glad we're finally getting racing because this is what we need to be doing.”
Saturday’s race will be in prime time on NBC, the network’s first prime time IndyCar race in 13 years.
“Hopefully these people that never really watch racing will be looking to watch something on Saturday night,” Kanaan said.