INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Graham Rahal admits he is nervous about Saturday's race.
He is a little leery about opening the IndyCar season at one of the series' trickiest tracks — without testing, with limited practice time and revised tire rules. He is also curious how IndyCar's newest safety feature, the windscreen, will perform in its long-awaited and long-delayed debut.
“This is going to be a first for us — the glare, the pitting, does it get beat up on an oval, just the visibility standpoint, the heat, all of these things on an oval," Rahal said. “We just don’t have any answers for that."
Series officials started searching in earnest for another safety device for their open cockpits after Justin Wilson died in August 2015 after being hit in the head by a broken part from another car. Formula One incorporated a protective “halo” in 2018. Then, in May 2019, IndyCar officials announced they would add the Red Bull Advanced Technologies version to its cars this season.
The clear wraparound screen is anchored to the cockpit with a titanium frame and includes an anti-fogging heat. The company says this windscreen will be as safe as the F1 device and can withstand 17 tons of force.
“We feel really good about where we’re at with those,” IndyCar President Jay Frye said. “It’s a total driver safety solution and no expense has been spared.”
Twenty-seven drivers used the protective halo during a two-day test on the Circuit of the Americas, a road course in Austin, Texas, that was limited because of bad weather. Afterward, defending series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske told reporters the windscreen added more weight to the front and changed the balance of the car.
Drivers believe they will have to continue making adjustments throughout the season, adjustments that already could be in place if not for the COVID-19 shutdown. Series officials made one change following the February test by adding an anti-glare component to the device.
The screen was supposed to make its debut in the milder March temperatures of Florida and on the slower road course at St. Petersburg. Instead, the revised schedule moved the introduction to Texas, a high-speed oval and a race known for its searing heat. Saturday's forecast calls for temperatures in the mid-90s when drivers will be holding practice and qualifying before the race at night.
Add all that to the fact the screen still hasn't been tested on an oval in a season where nothing yet has gone according to plan and it's understandable why drivers who don't blink about racing at speeds over 200 miles per hour (321.87 kilometres per hour) suddenly feel uneasy about something new.
“Obviously, Texas is a really hot race, and it’s already pretty physically demanding just because of that fact," 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi said. “With the screen, it’s going to be quite a bit hotter, so is it going to make that big of a difference or not? We haven’t really tested it, so we don’t really know."
Throughout testing, some drivers complained the titanium rod from the center of the cockpit split the sight lines into two frames. But as time went on, drivers acknowledged, they got used to it. Drivers also had a chance to work with the new screen on simulators during the brief iRacing series.
They know, however, that the simulator is not the same thing and the only way to get real answers is time on the track.
“It’s an incredible innovation from IndyCar," said Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe, Rossi's teammate with Andretti Autosport. “There are a lot of question marks still. We haven’t run it on an oval, we haven’t run it at night, so we’re all going to kind of be learning on the fly."
Naturally, drivers will use different strategies Saturday.
Zach Veach, who also races for Andretti, plans to use tinted tear-offs on his visor to battle any sun glare, as he has the last two years at Texas. Charlie Kimball is hoping he can get acclimated quickly enough with his new team, A.J. Foyt Racing, to compete for the win.
Rahal will just try to make the best of it.
“We’ve never done a one-day thing without proper testing, and the windshield, as well, the aeroscreen, especially for the race starting slightly early is unusual, which means I think we have direct sun, too," Rahal said. “How it’s going to affect us, we just don’t know. But hopefully we are capable enough to make a great show for it."
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer and AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins contributed to this report.