The Cup Series is heading to Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week for the 20th Anniversary of the Brickyard 400. The race at the legendary speedway has propelled many drivers to a series title and has also made a career for some others. Tony Gibson has been there for all 20 of them and he’s seen both the good and the bad. He’s also been around for the evolution of race cars from simple, raw machines to the sophisticated speed demons of today. His mental database is as vast as most anyone in the garage.
This week he sat down for Tech Talk to go over what it is going to take to make the cars go fast. He touches on a possible tire issue, the biggest challenges so far this year with the new rules package, the mid-season grades for Stewart Haas and how the cars of today compare to 1992 when he worked on Alan Kulwicki’s championship race team.
Mike Neff: Earlier this year we interviewed you for Tech Talk going into an off week. You said you were going camping and four-wheeling. Coming off of an off-week, did you do the same thing this week as well?
Tony Gibson: Same thing, we went to West Virginia. We took our side-by-sides and went up there and camped for four or five days and had a really good time. Now we need a vacation from our vacation. We only get two weeks off a year so we try and do a lot in a short amount of time. So we’re kind of burnt out and tired but it was a good time spent with family and friends.
Neff: We’re basically at the mid-season break, one race past the halfway point of the schedule. Did you all sit down and do a mid-year review during this break?
Gibson: We do, we sit down and look at ourselves and look at where we want to use our company tests at this point. Two of the cars are in the Chase for sure and we have two more trying to get in. At the end of the day it is getting really close to the Chase so we sat down and tried to figure out where we want to test as a company. Do we want to use up all of our company tests now or do we save some of them for later on in the season? Going through all of that process now, sitting down and talking about that, and looking at where we are with our cars and where our drivers feel like we need to improve and those types of things. A lot of that is going on right now and we’re working on some new stuff for the next few races for sure. Everybody has new cars heading to Indy; all four of our teams. It is a lot of work and a lot of thought process at this point in the year getting close to the Chase. It is a full plate right now.
Neff: Looking at the No. 10 team right now, what kind of a grade would you give them at the midway point?
Gibson: As a company I would say we deserve a B to a B+ I think we’ve done really good at taking this package this year and using it to our advantage. We tested in the off-season and the stuff we found has seemed to pay off. Definitely, as far as the 10 car goes, our qualifying has stepped up, and our performance has stepped up. We have shown some huge improvements and that was our goal. We wanted to be a more consistent Top 20 race team. As a company we’ve shown a lot of speed all year. Two races this year Stewart should have won but pit road penalties took them out of his hands or we’d have three cars in the Chase right now. As a company and as the 10 team I’d say we deserve a B+.
Neff: So far, in the first half of the year with this new rules package, what do you think has been the toughest thing to adapt to with this new rules package?
Gibson: I think the biggest thing is we don’t have that big shift of balance in traffic that we had with last year’s car. That seems to have been toned down a little bit. With that I think everyone’s setups have gotten even closer. All of the different race teams and companies have honed in on a setup that is relatively close to one another. I think the competition has gotten better and closer. I think that is one thing that I feel like last year to this year has been an improvement for everybody. It has also brought us closer together, all of the cars. It is tougher to pass guys and it isn’t because of the aero thing, it is because everybody is so close now. There isn’t a whole lot of room to get better. You aren’t going to put in this spring or this shock or this bump stop in and turn a car from a Top 5 car to a winner. That has changed this year and I think that is the most difficult part I see this year.
Neff: We ran at Pocono a couple of weeks ago and it is the most comparable to Indianapolis, especially in turn two. Did you learn anything with the new setups at Pocono that you are transferring over to Indy?
Gibson: Yeah, I think so. All of our cars ran well at Pocono. All four of our teams were competitive there. The 14 was probably the best car. He was leading there when he got the pit road speeding penalty. They took that information to Indy for the tire test with the 14 and he was really fast there too. They took all of that information and plugged it in to going to Indy this weekend. We’re looking for good things out of our company. We’re hoping all four of our cars will be good and strong and fast. We’re hoping one of them will bring the win home.
Neff: You participated in the Indy tire test with Tony. That turned out to be a bit of a challenge with him smacking the wall up there. Were you able to glean a lot of information from the tire test before he had his issue or after they brought out a backup car?
Gibson: Oh yeah, they didn’t bring out a backup car. It was toward the end of the day on the second day when the tire failed. They had already gotten the one day in and most of the second day before the tire blew. They learned a lot of things and got a lot of things tried up there. They brought home a lot of data for us. It was a good test. I hate they wrecked the car. That was a brand new car they had up there that was going to be their race car. They came home and built another brand new one and it is sitting there ready to go. I think he’ll be stout up there for sure.
Neff: Here is our standard “going to Indy question when Danica is involved”. She’s raced there before and probably has more experience there than any other track that the Cup series goes to. You got to go there with her last year. In hindsight and in foresight, did her experience at Indy help or hinder you when you were getting ready for last year and in getting ready for this year?
Gibson: I don’t know. The part that helps is knowing the groove around the race track. The Indy car vs a stock car is just so much different. The stock car has 1,200 pounds of downforce where an Indy car has 3,000 pounds pushing down on it. It is a different animal. It is comparing a minivan to a Ferrari. I don’t know that there is anything that can translate other than just knowing how to get around the race track. It may hurt. She has more time in an Indy car than a stock car at the Speedway. That transition to driving a big tank now that rolls and moves and doesn’t stop and doesn’t have a whole lot of grip rather than going the other way. Going to an Indy car, those things drive so well. They have so many different computer things and can change setups while they are running and all of that kind of stuff.
There isn’t a whole lot of stuff that we can translate over or that she can translate over other than knowing the groove. We struggled there last time, our first time there together. Being that we only go there once a year, We’re hoping that this year, we’ve been better everywhere that we’ve gone by 40 to 50 percent from where we were last year. We’re hoping that will translate to Indy. If we can go up there and qualify in the Top 20 to the Top 25 I think that is a good goal for us. I think it is a reachable goal but I think that would be a good goal for us to achieve. I think if we can come out of there with a Top 20 finish I think that will be awesome.
Neff: At Pocono there are people who shift and people who don’t. That’s primarily due to the shape of the track. Do you know of anyone who’s considered shifting at Indy considering how short the short chutes are versus the long straights?
Gibson: Yeah, it has been tried before. Even back in 1994 and 1995, we messed around with shifting up there, but there is so much going on. You have four corners instead of two sweeping corners. There is a lot of turning with the steering wheel, there is a lot of braking, there is a lot throttle there is just a lot of stuff going on. The guys who tried it were like”there is just too much going on to try and worry about shifting in the short chutes.” That got ix-nayed pretty quick. I don’t feel like you’ll see any of that going on this time. I could be wrong but I don’t see anyone shifting really.
Neff: Indianapolis has been there for 100 years and the line has always been around the bottom in the corners. You don’t go outside of that groove. Do you know if anyone has tried to attempt a second groove and set up a car to try and venture out there?
Gibson: I don’t think so. It is pretty treacherous out there. Even the Indy cars, you see what happens when they get just barely outside of the line. I think you are asking for trouble and I don’t think you’ll see that with these cars. Typically most of the passing is done exiting the corner, not entering the corner. If you can get through the short chutes and get a good run off of the corner and get under him on the straightaways that is mostly when you see your passing. I think that will continue to be the case.
Neff: Fuel mileage at Indy is similar to a road course. If you run out on the front straight you are basically done. Do you work Indy backwards like a road course and consider pitting off sequence when you are in your pit window or do you let it primarily be dictated by cautions?
Gibson: I think you have to play the fuel mileage deal there. Fuel mileage has played a role in as many wins there as anything else. I feel like that will still be the case this time too. I could be wrong, it could depend on this tire deal. I know Goodyear has been going through a little bit of a scramble deal, since the tire test, trying to find a tire that will hold up. It all depends on how this tire does. If they have tire problems and issues, there is no telling what kind of a race you’re going to see. If it goes to a normal Indianapolis race, then it will be a fuel mileage deal. If it comes down to a tire management deal where, when you are 10 laps away from your fuel stop and you have to pit, then the fuel mileage deal might not come into play.
Neff: Is there a possibility that they might go to a tire that wears out more or go to a harder tire?
Gibson: I think, what they have, is a harder left side tire than what they tested up there. They went to a more durable, harder left side tire to try and take some grip away to get the speeds down. They have mandated some minimum pressures for the right front and both left sides. There is a minimum now and I think they’re doing that to keep the tire alive and slow the cars down just by having less grip in the lefts.
Neff: You worked on Alan Kulwicki’s championship team in 1992. In your wildest dreams did you think it would be possible to compare the car we had back then versus the cars we have now? Is there anything similar on them now?
Gibson: No, nothing at all. The only thing is there are four tires and it is still a tank. There is nothing remotely the same compared to what we had back then. It is just totally different. Even down to the brake rotors and drive shafts and brakes. All of that stuff is so much more advanced. What we were running back then, it isn’t even close. The craftsmanship on the cars and the details have kind of evolved. We were making do with what we had back then. We had 12 guys working in the shop and everybody did everything and when the truck left everybody left with it. Now we have guys who specialize in certain jobs and that is what they do. Everything is changed. There is nothing like it was back then.
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