AUTO RACING PACKAGE: Power steering could Danica and other small drivers navigate road courses
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. -- Scott Dixon has been unbeatable in the three races the IndyCar Series has staged at Watkins Glen International.
Surely, his road-racing skills have been of paramount importance in his string of success, and so, too, has his size. At 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, Dixon is one of the biggest and strongest drivers in the open-wheel series.
And yet in spite of his success at The Glen, Dixon wouldn't mind if the IRL added power steering to its cars to help him and the other drivers get through the 11 high-speed curves of the 3.4-mile natural terrain road course.
"Once you go so fast, you create a ton more downforce, and that makes the steering wheel a lot heavier to turn," said Dixon, who also won on the road course at Mid-Ohio a month ago. "It definitely is a big car for anybody,"
Imagine what it's like for Danica Patrick, who at 5 foot and 100 pounds is the lightest driver in a major auto racing series, and most likely the lightest in history. The three lightest male IndyCar Series drivers are Marco Andretti (135), Darren Manning (135) and Vitor Meira (141). Brazilian stars Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan each weigh 147, and the rest of the drivers are at least 150 pounds.
In-car cameras clearly depicted the immense effort Patrick needed to navigate the Watkins Glen layout in her No. 7 Andretti Green Racing Honda. And the repaving of three turns this past fall, including the 90-degree right-hander at the end of the front straightaway -- where cars reach speeds of around 160 mph before braking -- only added to the difficulty.
"I think power steering would (make a huge difference), for sure. I think (not having) it is hurting her a little bit," said Patrick's car owner and former driver, Michael Andretti. "It's very hard for all the guys. If they're all complaining about it, you know it's tough on her. But you've got to give her credit. She's pretty strong, man."
Other road-course aces agreed.
"This year it (power steering) definitely would have made a big difference because of the big changes in the track," said Team Penske's Castroneves, who set a track record of over 136 mph in qualifying to win the Watkins Glen pole for the third straight year. "Hopefully, they look into that. If not, we're just going to have to become like big weightlifters."
"Power steering would help a lot with the new surface," added Dario Franchitti, who leads Dixon by just eight points in the IndyCar Series points standings heading to this week's race on the road course at Sonoma. "I definitely would like to see power steering in the cars. I'm not quite sure why we don't have it, actually."
IRL senior technical director Les Mactaggart said the series would take a closer look at power steering when the car is redesigned to see if it's practical to install. But even though the IndyCar Series began racing on road and street courses in 2005 and this year has five races with right and left turns on its 16-race schedule, Mactaggart downplayed the importance of adding it.
"If you provide power steering, the teams simply put more car steer into the car, so you tend to negate the advantage the smaller drivers get," said Mactaggart, whose background is in Formula One, which uses hydraulic steering that makes it easier on the drivers. "The stronger drivers can get more car steer into the car, which will improve their cornering. You end up with the status quo at a higher platform. There wouldn't be any advantage putting power steering into the car. That's the principal reason we haven't installed power steering. There is a good reason."
Not according to former NASCAR star Geoff Bodine, who in 1969 installed power steering in his modified racer and brought the technology to the Cup series in the early 1980s.
"Indy cars on road courses definitely need power steering," said Bodine, who grew up on New York's Southern Tier and considered Watkins Glen his home track in his heyday. "The drivers would be much happier. They'd like it, enjoy it, appreciate it. It's hard to get mechanics to understand that.
"When I came in and put power steering in a car, Dale Earnhardt called me a wimp and told me to do some pushups," Bodine said. "When he put it in the first time, I said, 'I see you're a wimp, too.' He didn't have a comeback for that one. And power steering extended the career of Richard Petty."
Patrick, who started 15th and finished 11th of the 18 cars in the July 8 race at The Glen, doesn't necessarily agree with Mactaggart's assessment, either.
"It's the same exertion for a man or a woman, it's just that women, unfortunately, naturally come with less muscle mass and a smaller frame," said Patrick, whose popularity has been a boon to a series that has struggled since its split with Champ Cars. "Power steering would make a huge difference. I think that we're all getting more conditioned to the feeling. I know in the past we have complained. We never raced on road courses until now.
"(IRL president) Tony (George) and them said back in the old days in CART the cars were heavy, but you did it every weekend so you were ready for it," said Patrick, who qualified second and finished fifth at Mid-Ohio. "Your body's ready and you're conditioned. We'll all get a little bit more steady with it, but if you want to make my job easier, I'm all for it."
So, too, is former Indy Car driver Lyn St. James, who knows all about the benefits of power steering. She and the men she raced against in the 1980s in high-downforce Ford prototypes struggled because the turbo-charged, four-cylinder engines in the cars required extra shifting with the old H-pattern shifters, and power steering was added.
"Power steering is going to equalize or minimize the disadvantage," said St. James, who was 1992 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year. "I don't think Danica is at a severe disadvantage, but it certainly is more challenging physically on a road course than it is on the ovals.
"It isn't just weight. It's your overall fitness level, and right now she's competing against the best," St. James said. "You look at Dixon, you look at Helio, Tony Kanaan, (Dan) Wheldon. Every one of those guys are in amazing physical shape."
It's a sensitive subject for both genders.
NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, not to mention chat rooms on the Internet, have claimed that Patrick has an unfair advantage because of her weight and the fact that the Indy Racing League doesn't equalize car weights based on driver weight.
"It (power steering) would make it easier for everybody," St. James said. "I don't think it would give them (the men) an advantage.
"But I don't know. Part of this is subject matter that I don't like emphasizing. Sometimes I feel it draws attention for the wrong reason. It's almost admitting that she doesn't have the skill."
While Mactaggart was noncommittal on power steering, he was "almost certain" that paddle shifters would be added to the cars for next year.
"If the series needs to move on, you've got to get with innovations," Wheldon said. "We're well behind the times. Even these feeder series now have paddle shifters. From a technological standpoint, the IndyCar Series needs to make some serious strides. Otherwise, they'll get left behind."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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