Indianapolis is the birthplace of motorsports in the US and crossing the yard of bricks is every driver’s dream. For the eighth round of the Continental Tire Sports Car Championship, the HART drivers got to live that dream, and fight for a chance to stand on a podium shared with many racing legends of the past. This year would bring new challenges, as the road-course configuration had changed, but the team was up for the task of competing at such a historic venue.
The weekend kicked off Thursday, with two practice sessions and qualifying. Most of the HART drivers had been to Indy before, but none had had the chance to drive the new layout that was finished earlier this year. In the past, the Civic had been strong here, as Chad Gilsinger grabbed pole position during the inaugural event in 2012 and the team had led many laps in two previous outings here. Lady Luck had been the biggest challenge for HART as both visits to Indy had ended with car damage after the #93 Civic tangled with competitors.
In Practice 1, the team focused on getting the drivers familiar with the new layout. The team went out on older tires to give the drivers a feel for what the car would be like near the end of the race, and also used the opportunity to set the balance of the car. As many other teams went out on fresh tires, HART struggled to stay at the top of the time sheets, but the drivers were gaining valuable track time. The new road-course layout would not be as friendly to the Civic as the old one. The circuit is tighter, and favors rear-wheel-drive cars like the MX-5 and the Cayman. It’s also much harder on brakes.
During Practice 2, the team investigated alternate brake pads, to guarantee it had a package that would last the entire race. Both cars continued to work on the setup, as the team simulated a pit stop and installed new front tires to help understand the balance of the car following the stop. With the front-wheel-drive Civic, it is crucial to get the tires to last as long as possible. Once the front tires “fall away”, the car will lose almost three seconds a lap, while the RWD cars lose less than a second. Understandably, this makes it VERY difficult to battle for position at the end of a race. By the end of Practice 2, the team had made progress and managed to post times among the top 10, knowing that the car was capable of more.
As HART prepared the cars for qualifying, its strategy would be a little different. Michael Valiante would qualify the #93 for this event, in order to get him out of the car sooner, so he could have more time to rest before his DP drive in the Tudor United Sports Car Championship race, which would start only 25 minutes after the conclusion of the CTSCC race. Steve Eich was back after missing the previous race, and would once again qualify the #92. Meanwhile, HART continued its strategy of having the cars work together to get the best qualifying advantage possible. Valiante led the two on track and quickly jumped into the top three on the grid after his first flying lap. The two cars ran nose-to-tail, pushing the limit every lap until the tires started to fall away. At the end of the session, Valiante had managed to grab the third position on the grid, while Eich had to settle for 18th. Both cars ran well, but neither was a match for the Porsche Cayman that grabbed pole with a time almost a full second faster than the Civic.
Friday was Race Day, and the temperature was once again in the low 80s, with sunny skies. There was a small chance of rain later in the race, but the teams planned for a dry event. The day kicked off the NASCAR Brickyard weekend, with opening NASCAR practice. During the fan walk in advance of the CTSCC event, many fans shared their love for Honda and were excited to see the cars on track. As the green flag flew, the cars were four and five wide heading into Turn One. Valiante had a great run into the first turn, and tried to make a pass for the lead, but ended up losing a spot in the process. Eich also had a great start and was moving his way forward. After the chaos of the first few laps, #93 made a couple passes and had settled into second position, while #92 was trying to work his way into the top 10. It took only 15 minutes for a full-course caution caused by a crash in Turn One. The caution would help the Civics conserve tires, but at the same time, it bunched the field again. With plenty of car contact during the first few laps, there was already debris on the track. This would make the restart tricky, as most cars would be forced to run “off line” in order to make passes and/or defend position. When the track went green, #93 was already struggling, trying to keep the lightweight Mazda MX-5 behind him as the Civic’s tires started to fall off. The #93 was in fourth place, trying to stay among the top five before the pit window opened. Unfortunately, only 30 minutes into the race, the #93 ran over a piece of debris on track and its left rear tire went flat. The team was forced to make an unscheduled stop for a tire change, and decided to also do the driver change and put Gilsinger in the car.
While #93 was in the pits, #92 was moving into the top 10. As a result, the HART team would shift the “preferred” strategy to the #92 car, and hope that it could get the lap back for #93, while salvaging as many positions as it could. Gilsinger would have an uphill battle, having to run almost two hours on a set of front tires. With many cars involved contact, there would be multiple yellow flags. The #92 was able to pit in its fuel window to get Kevin Boehm in the car for the finish. The car was in the top 10, and was on a great strategy to move up before the checkers. Unfortunately for #93, HART was never able to get its lap back, and was forced to just run until the checkered flag, while hoping that others would drop out. As the race moved into its final hour, radar showed rain moving into the area. This could be an advantage for the FWD cars, but the question would be, when to pit? Sprinkles of rain were falling on the front straight and in other spots on the track, but not enough to warrant rain tires. There was just enough moisture to make the conditions tricky for the drivers. Boehm and Gilsinger did a great job keeping their cars under control during this time, but the rain came and went without creating the need for a tire change. With less than thirty minutes remaining, Boehm was headed towards a top-10 finish when the car began to “stumble” in the switchback corners. One lap later, the #93 was doing the same thing. Both cars should have had enough fuel to make it to the end, but the symptoms seemed similar to low fuel conditions. The #92’s situation worsened, and the team was forced to pit Boehm for fuel. Gilsinger was able to alter his driving technique and nurse the #93 to the end. As the checkered flag flew, HART could only manage to finish 15th with the #92 and 18th with the #93, while still being the highest-finishing Civics in the field.
After the race, the team analyzed the fuel systems of both cars and found that the fuel pickup lines had come loose from the bottom of the tanks. This is why the cars had stumbled earlier than expected. The team has already ordered new adhesive materials to address this issue, and will have the cars ready for the next event.
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The next Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge event will be at Road America, August 8-9.
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