Editor’s note: Welcome to ‘The Setup’ where we will feature a different guest leading into each race weekend for the NTT IndyCar Series to discuss some of the challenges of the event’s respective circuit, along with the technical savvy that follows.
This week, our guest is Mike Colliver, race engineer for the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet driven by rookie Kyle Kirkwood.
The NTT IndyCar Series heads into the 1.5-mile D-shaped oval known as Texas Motor Speedway for this weekend’s XPEL 375 (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC). The track has a unique distinction with Turns 1 and 2 set at 20 degrees of banking, while Turns 3 and 4 at 24 degrees.
There will be two practice sessions – one in the morning (10:45 am ET) and one in the afternoon 5:45 p.m. ET) – to sandwich qualifying (2 p.m. ET). Additionally, there will be a 30-minute session ahead of final practice (4 p.m. ET) with select drivers set to running as part of improving the grip level for the second lane. The actual race event will run 248 laps.
Firestone are bringing the same right side compound as last year, but the left side tires are different with a harder compound for competitors to run.
Q: The bumps and the character of Texas, what kind of challenges does this track present just on its own?
Mike Colliver: In general, since they reconfigured the track, it’s actually got more character than it used to. So I’ve been around since the old IRL [Indy Racing League] days when it was more symmetric – Turns 1 and 2, 3 and 4 – same banking. When they did the NASCAR (Turns) 1 and 2 less banking, it’s actually made it a little more challenging character-wise. (Turns) 1 and 2 is obviously the main corner. You got to get the car to where you can run flat in (Turn) 2. (Turns) 3 and 4 are still pretty easy, wide open, even on old tires. But yeah, obviously (Turns) 1 and 2, especially with the sealant (PJ1 stained area) they’ve put up top, you’ve got to get the car to work so it can stay on the bottom and run wide open. Otherwise, lap time just goes downhill pretty quick.
Q: When it comes from a general setup point, what do you ideally look with the car at this track?
MC: I’d say one of the biggest things that Texas bprings is the rate at which the banking increases or decreases. A lot of the older 1.5-mile that we used to run the gradient from a flat straightaway to the maximum banking was relatively slow, where Texas is, I think you can see even on TV, obviously it happens pretty quick. So getting the car to where the driver can feel that transition and not upset the balance is one of the biggest things we work on. So that comes down to spring and shock package, basically to help smooth that transition, the load from flat to mid corner.
Q: What do you typically see whenever you’re talking about compression load? I mean, are you wanting it to give a lot, to give that driver better feel or do you want to like stiffen up because it almost sounds like you got to go off the right rear a little bit kind of like in the old days.
MC: So, you can kind of skin the cat two different ways. Some of the guys probably are still on soft spring, stiff shock. Some of the guys are on opposite. Last couple years we’ve kind of found a happy medium where we’ve played a lot with… I’m going more symmetric actually with spring package, which gets back to traditionally what I like to do. For instance, if you go with a really big spring split across the rear, like a really stiff right rear, a soft left rear car going to turn really good, obviously mid corner, but the transition getting into the corner is going be pretty abrupt. So, we’ve tried to get away from that and go more to where the rear springs, etc. are less split and it’s more of a symmetric; Just gives the driver a little more confidence.
Q: Something that I noticed at the rookie test was the camber seems pretty aggressive here obviously more than where we go anywhere else. Can you take me through that a little bit?
MC: So actually there’s a variety of rear cambers that I think you’re probably going to see. One thing that has been mandated by Firestone is right-front camber. They don’t wanna see anything over 3.9 degrees. Now, whether they’re going check that at tech or not, I do not know, but there was a bulletin that came out of Firestone. The right-front, they don’t want anything more than 3.9 just due to the excessive load. That’s on the inside shoulder of the right-front tire. And a lot of that has come with the last couple years with the addition of the windscreen. We’ve got so much more weight to the front of the car and the top of the car that it really has started to saturate that right-front tire and the amount of load that it can handle. So they’re just trying to mitigate any possible issues there with that.
Q: When you look at this track being unique in the way that the package has worked the last few years, we’ve kind of been in a situation where you’ve got a spool up to make a pass and it’s almost one at a time and there’s no real group passing, so to speak. You can’t just pick ’em off two or three cars in a lap, you’ve really got to methodically work your way through. So how much have you seen your setup approach to this race on race day itself kind of change knowing that’s of the hand your dealt?
MC: Well, I think one of the things that you’ve seen the last few years, the last half of the stint, or even more than that, some of the cars really start to fall off. I think you noticed that last year is one of the things that actually ended up getting Seb [Sebastien Bourdais] wrecked out by Josef [Newgarden] running over the back of him was the Andretti cars had burned off the right front, and I think Colton was trying to get out of the way and um, you know, Seb ran up the back of him and then got ran over by Newgarden when he got on the binders. Bottom line is we looked to make the car as good as it can be for the last half of the stint. We think that’s where we’re going make the biggest gains. I think everybody on fresh tires runs pretty much the same lap time, but if you can keep the tires under it, keep the balance good, other cars start falling off that’s when you’re going to start passing people and going forward.
Q: I’m a fan of tire degradation. I thought Race 2 last year, everybody’s got a mixed bag of how they feel because this Texas is not like old Texas, where I think fans were pretty spoiled with the passing, if I’m being honest. I really love the kind of racing product that we saw in terms of the tire fall off because it really puts it on drivers and teams have to learn how to manage that better. I mean, would you agree or do you see it differently?
MC: No, I would agree, for sure. And I think one of the good things going into the race this year is that the series has, given us some optional pieces to give us more overall downforce. Last year, I think everybody in the race pretty well ran maximum everything we could do. This year, I think you’re going see teams running close to max, but maybe not all the way max. So you might see, you know, a little bit of variation when it comes to some of the rear wing angles and that sort of stuff come race day and the same with qualifying. Since it’s not an impound race, guys are going to trim out for qualifying and then put a fair amount back on for race trim where if it’s an impound race, everybody’s just running max basically in the old rules.
Q: From what you got at the rookie test, what did you see with the aero options that really kind of maybe aided some of what you expect to deal with from a mechanical or an engineering part on the weekend?
MC: You know, to tell you the truth, the conditions were cool enough that we didn’t see as much to degradation as we anticipated because with the additional pieces the downforce level is enough that we really didn’t drop off. Once we got the balance right, we did a couple of long runs. The first long run, we kind of missed the balance, so we came in early; the second long run had the balance pretty darn good. And for Kyle’s first time being in dirty air, he was able to pretty much tuck up, and I think he ran with [Romain] Grosjean for a while and ran up on [David] Malukas.
Q: What did you see from the test from Kirkwood that gives you some optimism for maybe a really good promising run on Sunday?
MC: I’m going to say the biggest thing that came out of it was after he got out of the car at the end of the second long run is he had a big grin on his face. He just seemed to really enjoy himself out there where obviously it’s not too big for him and just the speed, the thrill, the whole deal was enjoyable to him and not intimidating by any means. I mean, he didn’t get out of the car with the hand shaking, didn’t get out sweating. I mean he was just grinning ear to ear. He just had a blast out there. So, just knowing that he enjoyed himself and that he is chomping at the bit to get back there, that’s a positive sign going into the weekend that he’s ready to go race, have some fun and see what we can do.