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Indy 500 Carb Day Stories: Pagenaud helping McLaughlin, Dixon digging deep and Penske’s pit prowess

Written by Archie O’Reilly

The final practice day of the 2024 Indianapolis 500 campaign has concluded with the annual Carb Day festivities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) as two hours of on-track activity were followed by the more lighthearted Pit Stop Competition.

It can be a pivotal final day for teams as well as being a fan-favourite festival.

The next time cars are on track will hopefully be on Sunday, weather permitting, for the 108th Running of ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ as the highest single-day sporting crowd in the world - expected to be around 330,000 - flocks to IMS.

For what it is worth, Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2008 winner Scott Dixon paced the final session, filled with final race preparations, ahead of four-time victor Helio Castroneves for Meyer Shank Racing (MSR). Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward has not been happy with his race car but was fourth, ahead of the much more content Colton Herta for Andretti Global.

Rookie Tom Blomqvist was fifth for MSR ahead of 32nd-place starter Marcus Ericsson for Andretti, with Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Agustin Canapino inside the top 10 for a second successive session in seventh. Felix Rosenqvist made it all three MSR drivers in the top eight, ahead of Ganassi’s Alex Palou and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Ryan Hunter-Reay. 

But the speed charts do not tell the whole story in practice sessions inundated with high intensity race running…

Six notch over half race distance

Carb Day saw even more laps run than on an extremely productive Monday, with 2,721 laps run on Friday compared to 2,655 at the start of the week.

Six drivers ran over a half-race distance, with Graham Rahal - regarded as possibly the best Rahal Letterman Lanigan (RLL) car despite starting 33rd - the busiest driver with 106 laps on the board. Canapino ran one less with 105 and rookie Kyffin Simpson a crucial 104 for Ganassi. 

Castroneves was second fastest and ran 103 laps, along with Arrow McLaren’s Callum Ilott. Marcus Armstrong was yet another Ganassi rookie high on the lap charts with exactly half of the 500-mile race distance clocked.

Eight more drivers exceeded 90 laps, including Dixon and Palou as they look to overcome Ganassi’s qualifying struggles. RLL teammates Pietro Fittipaldi and Takuma Sato - the latter in desperate need of race running after focus was on qualifying across the opening week - ran three and four laps shy of a century respectively.

Team Penske pole-sitter Scott McLaughlin ran a valuable 93 laps in the pack, with Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi, AJ Foyt Racing’s Sting Ray Robb and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay also passing the 90-lap mark.

At the lower end, neither Ganassi’s Linus Lundqvist nor Foyt’s Santino Ferrucci managed a half-century of laps with 49 apiece. Lundqvist had an early technical issue, while Ferrucci twice returned to Gasoline Alley to make more major tweaks after being unhappy with his race car.

Pagenaud: McLaughlin’s secret Yoda

Speaking on the NBC Sports broadcast after putting his No.3 Chevy on pole on Sunday, McLaughlin gave credit to an unnamed mentor. He had been on record about Rick Mears’ impact, so it was not the four-time Indy 500 winner. And so discussion ensued about who this figure may be. But all was revealed on Carb Day.

It was Simon Pagenaud.

“He’s a very keen observer of many things, a note taker,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve been exchanging notes all week. I asked him to do this like January or February and we’ve been analysing a lot of things since.”

Pagenaud has been sidelined from IndyCar since suffering a crash involving several barrel rolls after a brake failure at Mid-Ohio last year. The 2016 series champion and 2019 Indy 500 winner emerged from the car but has since been suffering from concussion, meaning he has been out of racing after leaving his position in MSR’s No.60 Honda.

“He’s always been a Team Penske member,” McLaughlin said. “He’s won the 500 for us and, at the end of the day, we all just want him to be okay. So this is for me an opportunity for me to work with him but also an opportunity for me to help maybe bring him back to the race and get his name back involved. 

“Whether that’s not driving a race car, at least he’s involved and he gets that feeling of being at the 500 again. I’m sure it’s so hard for him right now. It’s his first 500 he’s missed in a long time. He’s a 500 winner and he’s at a point in his career where he could easily keep going for many, many years.”

Pagenaud will be back behind the wheel of a car at IMS pre-race, when he drives the 2003 Indy 500-winning Penske car on a tribute lap to the late Gil de Ferran, who was mentor to Pagenaud and his ‘Yoda’ at times during his career. Pagenaud is now handing that similar favour as a mentor to McLaughlin.

“He’s just a nice guy,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve always got along with him from Penske and he’s been a lot of help. There’s definitely a lot of things I’ve used this week that have helped. But at the same time we’ve had great car speed, which has made it a lot easier. Just leaning on him has been nice.”

Pagenaud was on the No.3 stand - headed up by his former engineer Ben Bretzman, who he was with when he won the Indy 500 from pole in 2019 - during Carb Day practice and was captured speaking to McLaughlin afterwards. 

The fact that McLaughlin inadvertently caused Pagenaud to crash out of last year’s Indy 500 has clearly burned no bridges.

“You get a sore neck looking back”

It has not been the smoothest of months leading up to the Indy 500 for Penske. But in the eyes of the drivers, the push-to-pass debacle and its associated penalties and suspensions are a thing of the past. It is a case of focusing forward.

“I’m just very focused on the job at hand,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve proved that you can get a sore neck looking back. We’ll keep working forward. I’m really proud of the execution all month but, at the end of the day, the main time to execute is Sunday.”

McLaughlin said on Media Day on Thursday that only minor downforce tweaks were really among alterations made to his car. Following Friday’s action, he again said the car is “very similar” to the strong position it was in after practice on Monday. 

“We haven’t really played around too much mechanically with the car,” he said. “It felt good out of the box. Just building my confidence with it. We tried a few different downforce levels there just to get an idea. Looks like cooler temps for Sunday, as well as Monday if that gets pushed back - hopefully not… Didn’t put a big number up but I think we’re okay.”

McLaughlin is “super excited” to lead the field to green for the race - only the second Kiwi to achieve an Indy 500 pole after Dixon.

“When this guy won in ‘08 it made me love the Indy 500 a lot, as a Kiwi and a very proud one at that,” McLaughlin said. “It has been a pretty whirlwind week. Being fastest here for qualifying, obviously it’s the first box you want to tick. Ultimately you want to win on Sunday but it’s still been a really cool week. I’ve really tried to soak it in as much as I can.

“Really proud to represent Pennzoil. And obviously it’s 40 years since Rick won in this race car. It would mean a lot to the team and myself to do that. It would be a life-changing experience. But ultimately we need to go through all the process, all the execution to get to that point… Just keep my emotions in check, just enjoy the moment and see what happens.”

Can the Penske trio work together?

A lot has been made of whether the Penske trio, who provided the team’s first Indy 500 front row lockout since 1988, can work together to control the weekend’s race. And McLaughlin is certainly thinking about it. 

“We’ve seen over the years… I think Scott [Dixon] and Alex [Palou] have done this before, really controlled that first 100 odd laps and whatnot,” he said. “So it is able to be done. But we haven’t had an active discussion about it yet. I’m sure there will be a sit-down with all three of us before the race and [we can] analyse a few things. 

“I guess everyone knows that when you’re out in front, you’re chewing a lot of gas. So ultimately I think we’ll take turns maybe at doing that or making sure that we keep ourselves in good track position. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

Dixon: Ganassi “digging deep”

Being atop the time sheets does not necessarily mean drivers are in the best place in a session of race running. But despite qualifying a career-low of 21st at Indy, Dixon is feeling much more positive about his No.9 Ganassi Honda in race trim.

“It started off pretty good,” he said of Friday’s running. “Conditions were definitely tricky - it changed a lot throughout. As we were just chatting, I think early on was quite comfortable. We went through some changes. Some were good, some were bad.”

Ganassi had cars on pole position in each of the last three years - Dixon twice before Palou last year. Dixon said there was a “separation for us from where we were last year” above anything in qualifying last weekend.

“The biggest thing for us is that we weren’t the fastest Honda,” Dixon said. “We missed something. Where Honda lies on where they think their performance was is something a bit different. We’ll be digging pretty deep. We’ve gone and had some discussions already. We think there’s a couple of things that we missed. But all in all, it’s going to take some time.”

“About 20 others are really strong”

Dixon is not ruling out being to come through the field from only four places back from where Josef Newgarden won last year. But the competition is regarded by many as being stronger than ever in IndyCar. 

“Definitely a lot of competitive cars out there so it’s going to be one tough race,” Dixon said. “As the track got a little bit warmer out there, with track temp especially, it got pretty greasy and pretty slippery. I think the No.9 car has been fairly strong in race running. But unfortunately I think there’s about 20 others that are really strong as well.”

Dixon admitted, speaking after Carb Day practice, that it is hard to go into the race with a particular “preset notion” in mind given how much things can change.

“You’ve just got to roll with it,” he said. “Going in with an open mind, try to be quick on your feet. And that’s true for the whole strategy for our race - ready for change because I think there will be a lot of change going on. Especially with the weather conditions, there’s a lot of things outside of your control. Just do the best that you can and see where it plays out.”

And how the engine battle plays out, after Chevy had the edge on Honda in qualifying and locked out the top eight, is another thing that is unknown as yet. Dixon believes “it seems more level” but nothing can be certain until the race ensues.

“They still seem to pull off and come back from fairly far back,” he said of the Chevy cars. “Obviously I’m sure nobody was stressing the engine too much in that session. Many times the fastest car doesn’t win so you’ve just got to try and tick all the boxes, make sure you’re covering everything and see what the last 20 or 40 laps give you and go from there. 

“But I think we’re in with a shot and that’s all you need.”

Drivers working on ins and outs

A large part of the Friday session involved drivers working on ins and outs from the pit lane. For one, McLaughlin went over the limit in the customary testing of the limits given how much time can be gained come pit cycles at Indy.

“Ultimately you’re just sort of going through the motions, attacking the pit speed line,” he said. “I actually sped, which was a good thing to get that out of the way now. A few other things like just pit stop practice and whatnot. I was just ticking things off the list.”

A lot of focus was on Kyle Larson’s pit stop practice - yet another process for him to adapt to ahead of his IndyCar debut. There was repetition of pushing the limits on pit entrance, hitting his marks in the box and smoothly exiting the pits.

The NASCAR ace had one issue with a stall and another with a loose wheel nut, though he stopped in time for that not to be an issue. As much as anything, practice offers a good chance to work on communication, especially within a new team. Given the race can be won or lost on pit lane, it is an invaluable exercise.

Larson’s No.17 Arrow McLaren Chevy, partnered with Hendrick Motorsports, caused the only caution of the Carb Day running after running down a full tank of fuel.

No more practice for tuning

Teams will now have to deal with what they have beneath them in terms of a race car. Any further changes and tweaks made will not be able to be tested on-track heading into the race.

Some were settled heading into the session and expected it to be more of a parade, albeit more running can almost cause second-guessing. For others, namely the likes of Sato and Dale Coyne Racing’s Katherine Legge, their race cars were relative unknowns and the final two hours of track time was bound to be really important.

The run plan for teams was ultimately more full-stint simulations - particularly valuable for the likes of Larson and his fellow rookies, as well as one-off entrants trying to get into a race rhythm.

Some found issues, as was the case for Ferrucci as he twice went behind the wall due to what he described as “unusual weight distribution” when speaking on the broadcast. From now on, Foyt and the remainder of their competitors will only have their in-cockpit tools and minor wing adjustments in terms of means of altering car balance in the race.

No.2 team win the Pit Stop Comp

Carb Day is also home to the Pit Stop Competition, which was won by Newgarden’s No.2 Team Penske team for the second time in three years. It marks Roger Penske’s 19th success in the annual tournament, adding to his 19 Indy 500 poles and 19 Indy 500 wins as a team owner.

It is always a good event to shine a light on the teamwork behind the teams’ operations during the Indy 500 campaign. It allows attention for those that can be difference-makers and often are not given their time in the spotlight.

“We have a lot of people behind us that let us do what we’re doing,” inside rear tyre changer Kyle LaPier said. “Without them, we’re not up here. We have guys working on our guns, working on our upper rights to make sure the nuts go on easily. Those guys are the real champions here, it’s not just us.”

The opening round saw Newgarden’s team engage in a heavyweight battle with Alexander Rossi’s crew to start with. Highlights of the opening segment also included an all-Juncos battle won by Romain Grosjean’s No.77 team and Herta playing up to the crowd, prompting Rahal to pull an unserious wrestling move on him

The No.2 team continued their progression with some sweet internal pride by beating Will Power’s No.12 crew. Juncos were able to progress to the semi-finals by beating the No.45 RLL crew, coming up just short of Newgarden in the final four. 

Pato O’Ward’s No.5 team, following successes over good friend Felix Rosenqvist and then Herta and Dixon, were ultimately toppled in the final by the No.2 group. The final stop from Newgarden’s team in a two-nil final win was a record-setting 10.792-second stop.

The Penske mechanics regularly train at least three times per week in the off-season, as well as working out - this year with a new strength and conditioning coach on a lot of high intensity, explosive power exercises.- four times each week.

Caitlyn Brown, inside front tyre changer, described as a “superstar” by chief mechanic Chad Gordon, is believed to be the first woman to be a part of the winning team. She just wants to “show up and do what everyone else does” and is excelling at Penske.


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